It only took two minutes — and a six-month period in which three city aldermen were arrested — for New Haven commissioners and department heads to sign one of the most strongly worded city government ethics pledges in the country on Thursday afternoon.
The nine-point pledge covers a wide range of potentially questionable conduct, from the personal — “I will take responsibility for my actions both public and private” — to the purely professional. The most controversial requirement prevents city employees from turning into lobbyists by requiring a one-year grace period before they can advocate for funds in front of bodies in which they previously served.
New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said the pledge, which his top staff said had been a long time coming, is meant in part to bolster public confidence in New Haven’s elected and non-elected leaders.
“It inspires people’s confidence in the job we do here,” DeStefano said in the Mayor’s Office conference room, just before announcing that the first round of commissioners would sign their pledges. Then he turned and asked for one himself.
“Do you have one for me, Derek?” DeStefano said to his spokesman Derek Slap.
Within seconds, the mayor had signed his own pledge — which, if violated, could “result in corrective action being taken by Mayor John DeStefano.”
The “City of New Haven Department Head Ethics Pledge,” as it is officially called, differs significantly from ethics oaths in other cities. For instance, Los Angeles’ ethics pledge calls for employees to act in the public interest, avoid conflicts of interests, comply with all laws and disclose information about conduct upon request.
New Haven’s new pledge includes all of those provisions — almost verbatim and in the same order — but DeStefano added five more, perhaps as a result of recent scandals involving city employees. In August, Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 was arrested for an altercation outside the Salty Dog Saloon, though charges were later dropped. A month later, a federal judge convicted former Ward 28 Alderwoman Barbara Rawls-Ivy of stealing nearly $50,000 in grant funds meant to help city public housing tenants, and Ward 22 Alderman Rev. Drew King was arrested in December in a continuing scandal for allegedly pushing and choking a woman at a Dixwell “sober house.”
“I will not use city resources for personal or political gain,” the pledge reads. “I will take responsibility to explain clearly, when I express my personal opinion, that is my personal opinion and not an official position … [I will] not exceed or appear to exceed my authority.”
Rob Smuts ’01, DeStefano’s deputy chief of staff, said recent allegations surrounding King’s multiple arrests did not fuel DeStefano’s decision to hold the signing this month. DeStefano said he has no plans to require members of the Board of Aldermen to sign an ethics pledge, as City Hall lacks legal jurisdiction over the body.
But in recent weeks, DeStefano has begun to indicate that he thinks King should step down. He suggested Thursday that he was particularly disappointed with King’s handling of the incident, comparing it to State Rep. Pat Dillon’s D.U.I. arrest. Dillon admitted guilt within a day and made plans to enter a rehabilitation program.
“He’s gotta look hard” at his options, DeStefano said Thursday. “Right now, I’m saying what I’m saying.”
King said he hasn’t yet spoken with DeStefano but plans to do so soon.
“Me and John haven’t sat down as of yet,” King said Thursday night. “We will sit down. He’s a blessing to me.”
New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz — who faced stern ultimatums from city aldermen on Monday to improve the attitude and efficiency of his department or lose city funding — said he sees the pledge as a “reaffirmation” of already ingrained high standards, rather than something that will have a tangible effect on his department’s conduct.
“It’s more than just a symbol,” Ortiz said. “It holds us honest and it holds us accountable.”