New Haven Police Department Chief Frank Limon’s departure from the Elm City could signal a shift in the race for mayor.
Jeffrey Kerekes, who will challenge Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in the Nov. 8 election, said in a Tuesday press conference that DeStefano’s handling of the chief’s resignation and next-day appointment of former Providence, R.I. police chief and NHPD Assistant Chief Dean Esserman to replace him constituted lying to the public. DeStefano’s secrecy about the change in police leadership — even to the Board of Aldermen — until announcing Limon’s resignation Monday drew widespread criticism from both within and outside city government.
DeStefano’s announcement came after a weekend of speculation during which Limon was reported to have cleaned out his office and condominium. But even after the mayor admitted to the shakeup, Kerekes still maintained that DeStefano has not come clean to constituents about the exact nature of the past few days’ events.
“[Monday], under intense pressure from myself and the media, DeStefano announced that Limon would be leaving,” Kerekes said. “The reality is he’s already gone and the mayor should stop perpetuating a lie.”
City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph countered that a final decision regarding the details of Limon’s departure was not reached until early Monday, and therefore announcing it any sooner would have been inappropriate.
“You can’t announce somebody’s leaving until someone’s actually leaving,” Joseph said. “To prematurely announce something like that would not be fair to a city employee, would not have been fair to the chief or the department.”
Limon will officially step down from his position Nov. 15, but will be paid $90,000 to stay on the department in a consulting capacity, DeStefano said, an arrangement Kerekes charged was disingenuous. It is more accurately described as a buyout for the remainder of Limon’s four-year contract, Kerekes said, of which he has only served 18 months.
Kerekes questioned how, given the city’s “multimillion-dollar [budget] hole,” Limon’s position would be funded. Due to a budget crunch earlier this year, DeStefano was forced to lay off 16 officers, although the $90,000 Limon will receive is less than his $150,000 salary as NHPD chief.
Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 agreed with Kerekes’ skepticism, adding that it is “unfortunate” that the city has to lose money due to Limon’s departure.
Joseph said the money for Limon’s consulting position would come from the NHPD’s consulting budget. The deal struck with Limon is not a buyout, Joseph added, and a contract for Limon’s departure exists.
Most city officials, including the Board of Aldermen and NHPD union president Arpad Tolnay, were kept in the dark about the details of the deal until DeStefano’s press conferences.
“Clearly it’s such an important decision that it should be a very in-depth process with a national search,” said Elicker. “It doesn’t look like there was a lot of time taken to find a new police chief.”
Ward 9 Alderman Matt Smith ’98 said he had not heard of any aldermen who had been consulted, but added that New Haven’s charter grants the mayor this ability to singlehandedly choose the next police chief.
Although Ward 11 Alderwoman Maureen O’Sullivan-Best said the Board of Alderman does not have a role in the selection of new police chiefs, Elicker said the Board should have been briefed on the new selection.
Joseph said that DeStefano’s decision to choose Esserman “made itself” after the decision given his strength of his performance as Providence’s police chief.
But Kerekes said the mayor should not have chosen a new chief so soon before an election, which he said could “saddle the next administration” with the wrong top cop if DeStefano, a nine-term incumbent, were to lose.
Clifton Graves, who ran along with Kerekes against DeStefano in the mayoral primary in September, said although he is optimistic about Esserman’s success in the department, he agrees with Kerekes’ criticisms of the mayor’s selection process. Esserman does not return to the Elm City without some controversy himself. He resigned from the Providence Police Department in June following allegations of underage drinking at his daughter’s high-school graduation party, and his tenure as chief, like Limon’s, was marked by a no-confidence vote by his department’s union.
At Tuesday’s City Hall press conference announcing Esserman’s appointment, Esserman said he resigned as Providence police chief because his daughter’s party had “become a distraction” from his work. He added that no-confidence votes are extremely common in police departments across the nation.
The appointment will make Esserman the fourth NHPD chief in four years, a pace that worries some city officials. Smith said stable leadership is important for the NHPD’s success, and Tolnay echoed these sentiments.
“I’m hoping [the new chief is] someone who’s going to stay … here long enough to see their plans be implemented,” Tolnay said Monday. “It’d be nice to have a chief I can talk to six years from now and say, ‘We tried that, and it didn’t work.’”
In his press conference, DeStefano acknowledged that he has “not delivered” on community desires for stable police leadership. But this time will be different, he said, because the department and the community are more united than in the past.
DeStefano received 42 percent of votes in the Sept. 13 mayoral primary, compared to Kerekes’ 24 percent. The remainder of the votes went to candidates who have since dropped out.
The general election will take place Nov. 8.