Angela Xiao

Tempers flared at the Elm City’s Financial Review and Audit Commission meeting, as attendees sparred over the secondary issue of Tuesday’s agenda — oversight of City Hall’s credit card use.

Amid the city’s fiscal woes and allegations of lack of transparency in Mayor Toni Harp’s administration, the question of who ought to implement policies related to fiscal spending frustrated members of the commission and attendees alike. The meeting was billed primarily as an introduction to the impact of Connecticut’s Municipal Accountability Review Board, but it began with a heated discussion about the value of scrutinizing the Harp administration’s credit card woes. The discussion involved commissioners, members of the public and representatives from the mayor’s office and continued with a wider analysis of the city’s financial future.

“FRAC’s main purview is as an informational setting,” committee chair Mohit Agrawal GRD ’20 said. “We’ve been trying to get more people in front of us to explain their perspectives on the budget and broad financial future.”

Though the Financial Review and Audit Commission is a City Hall committee, it serves independently and largely works in an advisory capacity. Tuesday’s meeting was the first time New Haven’s credit card usage was placed on the commission’s agenda.

The Harp administration has recently fallen under fire for two incidents — in August, a City Hall employee was dismissed after fraudulently spending more than $10,000 on a city credit card, and in September, the New Haven Independent’s request for credit card records yielded statements that showed discrepancies between actual spending and what the mayor projected in monthly reports to the Board of Alders.

Thus far, scrutiny into City Hall has come mostly from alders. At the end of last month, the city’s legislators held a hearing and grilled a trio of Harp’s top budget officials. While no action was taken, several alders have requested another hearing to specifically discuss structures to delineate and enforce specific procedures and limitations on staffers’ spending.

State Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who has emerged as a critic of the Harp administration, sent Harp a letter on Oct. 16 asking for an audit into New Haven’s spending. Fasano, the Senate minority leader, and Harp are longtime political opponents in a city that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for more than a half-century.

Fasano was also present for the credit card debate at Tuesday’s meeting. He and committee member Joseph Dolan openly quarrelled over the purview of the committee and significance of the issue. Dolan objected to the inclusion of the topic on the docket just after Agrawal introduced the item, stating that the issue both fell outside of the committee’s given directives and was insignificant “nitpicking” given the city’s larger, structural issues.

But Fasano, who presented himself as a concerned taxpayer of the Elm City, claimed that City Hall should be held accountable for its spending and reporting. In response, Dolan questioned Fasano’s underlying motives, indicating a possible partisan agenda.

“You wrote [the Oct. 16 letter] as a state senator,” Dolan told Fasano.

Fasano’s presence also irked the mayor’s staffers. When Controller Daryl Jones entered during the Dolan-Fasano exchange, he objected to Fasano’s presence, asserting that the mayor’s office should have been notified.

Fasano has also criticized New Haven for its fiscal solutions in the past, particularly in this summer’s debt restructuring. But during the meeting, Jones refuted the idea that the refinancing was “kicking the can down the road.”

After the credit card issue was tabled to move onto the meeting’s primary focus, a staffer from the Office of Policy and Management explained the tiers, designations and potential impacts of the Municipal Accountability Review Board — a program designed by the state to help fiscally troubled municipalities.

Jones denied that the city needed to be in the program and highlighted that New Haven’s financial woes stem from systemic issues present before Harp took office.

Specifically, he cited a five-year plan that has been drafted and will be briefed to the mayor Wednesday. Jones said that he hoped the plan would be released to the public before the end of 2018.

“This administration is recognizing those deficits that have existed for years, and we’re doing something about it,” Jones said. “There’s a reason why we [made the choices we did].”

Harp was first elected mayor in 2013.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu