Gun control and budget allocations topped the agenda at a Tuesday meeting in Hartford, at which Gov. M. Jodi Rell discussed ways of combating urban violence with mayors from 15 of Connecticut’s biggest cities.
Although two of the attendees, Mayors John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven and Dan Malloy of Stamford, are running to replace Rell as governor, many of those at the meeting said the discussion, which was closed to the public, was productive and relatively free from political grandstanding.
“The state cannot solve this crisis in a vacuum and without the contributions of those who are wrestling with this crisis daily,” Rell said in her invitation to the 15 mayors.
Malloy and DeStefano have both released proposals in the past two days for initiatives that they said would productively engage youth and reduce violence, which has recently increased in many Connecticut cities.
In his plan, DeStefano proposed providing more youth employment and mentoring, requiring citizens to report lost or stolen firearms and increasing support services for first-time nonviolent juvenile offenders. DeStefano’s plan for the state is based largely on New Haven’s own youth initiative, which DeStefano and the Board of Aldermen recently launched in response to heightened levels of youth-related violence over last summer and fall. New Haven’s Ward 28 Alderwoman Babz Rawls-Ivy said the city has identified three city leaders in youth programming and is working with them to design an effective way of engaging children in after-school and summertime programs.
Malloy’s plan also focuses on expanding youth employment and mentoring programs as well as preventing the incarceration of first-time nonviolent offenders. Malloy’s campaign director, Chris Cooney, said Malloy also supports requiring the reporting of lost and stolen firearms.
Meriden Mayor Mark Benigni said the meeting showed the variety of methods by which the mayors hoped to combat violence in their communities, but that none of these initiatives will prove effective unless the state’s budget allocates adequate money.
“People have differing opinions. … While some people may think dollars are better spent on mentoring programs and youth employment opportunities, others may feel that there’s a need for more law enforcement officers and probation officers,” Benigni said. “But the determining factor, like always, is [whether] there’s funding available to make a difference.”
Rawls-Ivy said recent decisions by the state to cut funding for some of the city’s youth programs, including Leadership Education and Athletics in Partnership, shows that more money for urban programs is still needed.
“Just look at LEAP — they were a line item in the state’s budget, and it is one of the most successful programs in Connecticut in terms of working with young people, but it’s about to lose its funding,” she said. “You hear this rhetoric that we care so much about children, but then they cut funding.”
But Waterbury Mayor Michael Jarjura said money was not necessarily the answer in effectively combating the increase in violence. Many of the mayors at the meeting discussed ways to improve communication between local, state and federal officials, he said, in order to improve the effectiveness of some of the state’s anti-violence task forces.
“Since the national trouble with terrorism, the federal involvement has been a little less, maybe a lot less, and there was some talk about maybe meeting with Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales and seeing if we can’t maybe refocus,” Jarjura said.
He also said the discussion at the meeting, although not conclusive, was not as politically charged as he had expected it to be in an election year.
“My first reaction was that this was going to be a political back-and-forth, but at least my impression is that it didn’t materialize,” Jarjura said. “There was actually a very free-flowing and open and honest dialogue.”
Malloy said in an interview on Sunday that Rell should have included the mayors in earlier discussions on urban violence. Although the governor began meeting in December with commissioners of state agencies to discuss this problem, she did not call for a meeting with mayors until the middle of January.
Benigni said he agreed that mayors should have been involved from the beginning, and Jarjura declined to comment on whether he agreed with Malloy. Jarjura said, however, that cities are generally much improved compared to the 1990s and 1980s.
“I’m aware that there are problems and they are more severe in some of our larger urban centers, but in many respects, many of the urban centers are doing much better than they were doing a couple of years ago,” he said.