The Board of Alders voted against Sean Matteson’s nomination for the position of New Haven’s chief administrative officer last week, rejecting a mayoral nominee for an administrative post for the first time in the Elm City’s history.
In a 2013 New Haven charter revision, the alders gained the right to reject mayoral appointees to top City Hall posts. For the past five years, that right has never been exercised — Mayor Toni Harp’s nominees have all ultimately been approved, regardless of the positive and negative discussions swirling around potential candidates. But, in a full Board of Alders meeting last Monday, the Alders indicated a lack of confidence in Matteson’s ability to address the slew of administrative and budgetary challenges New Haven currently faces. Matteson, who was appointed in the wake of his predecessor Mike Carter’s sudden resignation from the post in late August, can continue to serve in the role for up to six months before Harp must either renominate him to be considered by the Board of Alders once again or nominate another candidate.
“The CAO’s position is managing various departments in City Hall,” Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 said. “It’s really important that we find a competent CAO because the fiscal problems facing the city are dire. We need someone who can reign in costs and still provide the services that New Haven provides.”
The CAO oversees a variety of city departments, including the police, fire, public works and public library departments. One of the most important facets of the position is negotiating with the police and fire unions on behalf of the city, the latter of which is scheduled to start negotiations for a new contract soon. Given the city’s financial concerns, a particularly painful issue for New Haven is the question of fire and police overtime — both exceeded their budgeted allotment last year and look to be on track for a repeat performance this year.
Before coming to City Hall, Matteson was already involved in New Haven politics — he worked as a lobbyist for labor union UNITE HERE, with which many of the city’s alders are affiliated. He also served as former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano’s chief of staff and campaign manager.
Matteson was initially questioned in the Aldermanic Affairs Committee, which oversees all appointments, earlier this month. At the hearing, he did not provide specific answers to how he would address the overtime issue, and the Committee did not produce a vote — the usual conclusion to appointment hearings — choosing instead to send the issue up to the full Board.
In the full Board meeting, much of the debate centered around Matteson’s time as DeStefano’s chief of staff.
“I was here when he was chief of staff, and political or not, the city did not thrive,” said Ward 6 Alder Dolores Colon at the meeting. “As a result, the current mayor inherited a huge, huge amount of financial problems.”
The alders also reiterated their concern about Matteson’s ability to rein in overtime expenses in the fire and police departments, which went over budget during Matteson’s time as chief of staff.
Other alders, however, dismissed attacks as political grievances and instead saw Matteson’s experience in City Hall and familiarity with New Haven’s operations as qualifications that made him a good fit for the job.
“The question here is whether or not Mr. Matteson is capable of doing the job,” said Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa during the hearing. “Based on his past practices as well his resume, I think he is capable of doing this job.”
Festa and Ward 21 Alder Steven Winter ’11 both advocated for Matteson’s confirmation, with Winter highlighting Matteson as poised to take on, above all, the budgetary concerns New Haven currently faces.
The looming implications of the budgetary crisis, Winter said, requires someone like Matteson who can “tackle the work immediately and hit the ground running.”
To close the contentious discussion, the Alders rejected the nomination on a voice vote despite a failed attempt to further the question through an individual roll-call vote.
DeStefano served as Elm City’s mayor from 1994 to 2014.
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