As Mayor John DeStefano Jr. strode into the Board of Aldermen’s chambers Monday night to deliver his annual State of the City speech, there was a slight but telling change from past addresses: In lieu of the traditional contingent of aldermen, five New Haven children surrounded the mayor as he walked toward the podium.
The decorative shift was fitting. In DeStefano’s 14th consecutive address — his first since losing the gubernatorial campaign — the mayor spent most of his speech discussing the need for change in New Haven and outlining new policies for helping troubled youth and schoolchildren citywide. His message, which many attendees said was encouraging to hear but perhaps overdue, was accompanied by the announcement of a property tax freeze for seniors and the expansion of a widely admired Street Outreach Worker Program for troubled youth.
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“Change — you either let it happen to you or you go out on the street and make change yourself,” said DeStefano, who characterized the state of the city as “good.” “In 2007, we will change things not just for 90 percent, not just for 10 percent, but for 100 percent of our young people.”
As part of his emphasis on youth issues, DeStefano announced that the city will step up efforts to bring repeatedly truant students back to school, as studies have shown that those who do not attend class are more likely to engage in potentially dangerous activities.
DeStefano also introduced a new ethics pledge Monday night. Created, he said, because “you don’t have to be sick to get better,” the pledge calls for city officials to “take responsibility for [their] actions both public and private,” subject to potential corrective action by the city government if violated.
His proposal came in the wake of — and, some aldermen speculated, partly as a response to — Ward 22 Alderman Rev. Drew King’s multiple brushes with the law since late December, including charges of assault, disorderly conduct and violation of a restraining order. For the first time since his initial arrest, King was in his official capacity at City Hall at the speech. Without elaborating, he stood up toward the end of the meeting and issued a public apology for the alleged incident. But he did not admit any guilt.
“I ask for your forgiveness for any harm that may have occurred as a result of those incidents,” King said, adding that he could not comment on the charges, for which he plead not guilty in court today. “I thank God that he brought me through, and I want to thank all of you for being here in my corner. I love you.”
While most of the aldermen applauded in response to King’s apology, others sat still. After his State of the City address, DeStefano came closer than ever before to calling for King’s resignation. He said in an interview that he might call for King to resign his post and that it could be a “challenge” to reconcile King remaining an elected official with his own desire to implement the new ethics reforms.
After the speech, Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek said he was happy with DeStefano’s calls to make departments more efficient, but he was slightly surprised that DeStefano did not mention downtown development as a cornerstone of improving the city.
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said he was most excited about plans to expand the Street Outreach program, as he said that program has been proven to work in the past.
The audience rose to give standing ovations at several points during the address when DeStefano acknowledged various people who he said represented the positive state of New Haven — even though some residents honored were victims of, or closely related to, city violence. He paid tribute to fallen police officers Dan Picagli and Rob Fumiatti, asked the mothers of two children killed in gun violence last year to stand, and honored a New Haven man in his 50s who just returned from a tour of military duty in Iraq.
The only time DeStefano strayed significantly from the official text of his speech was when, as the speech neared its conclusion, he suddenly began to tackle concerns recently voiced by many residents about whether his heart was still in City Hall after seven terms as mayor and a failed gubernatorial run.
“I want to assure you that this is no consolation prize,” DeStefano said, after acknowledging that some critics thought he was distracted from city government during his gubernatorial bid. “My passion and honor is as fresh today as when I started here 13 years ago.”
Although the Mayor has in the past emphasized the need for city police to be sensitive to the issue of illegal immigration, he did not bring up the topic in his address.
After the speech and a brief recess, the Board of Aldermen reconvened to debate and vote on a proposal by New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz to authorize $200,000 in funding. The resolution, which is unrelated to DeStefano’s proposed addition of 100 new policemen next year, passed unanimously — but only after several aldermen made their displeasure with the recent conduct and attitude of the police department clear to Ortiz, who was sitting in the back of the room.
Ward 11 Alderman Alexander Rhodeen said the board had done its part to “solve the problems of crime and youth violence.”
“Now we need to see on a management level and an executive level that this is carried [through],” he said, sparking applause.
Anything less than the full implementation of community policing will mean ramifications for the Police Department, he said, turning to Ortiz.
One alderman, Ward 17 Rep. Alphonse Paolillo Jr., complained that the police tend not to pick up the nonemergency line when called, much to the chagrin of his constituents, and that he hopes the new funds will lead to an increased “level of service” at the department and in the “attitude of how we deal with the public.”
The event was attended by about half a dozen Yalies, including Ward 1 aldermanic candidate Rachel Plattus ’09. No one else, including Shalek, has announced intentions to run in the upcoming election.