As Mayor Toni Harp begins campaigning for a fourth term, one of her administration’s top positions is still in limbo.
In the last few years, Harp has seen a handful of her longtime staffers leave their posts. But regardless of the Board of Alders’ opinion, she wants to keep Sean Matteson — a top aide with years of experience in city politics — as chief administrative officer. After gaining the power to confirm mayoral appointments in 2013, the Board of Alders rejected Matteson’s nomination in October, the first time the Board has ever blocked an administrative pick. Though Matteson stayed on in an acting capacity, he submitted his resignation from the position on March 24 before the end of his six-month term in an acting administrative position. But instead of announcing another pick, Harp is now considering renominating Matteson.
“Mayor Harp was keenly aware that time remaining on the six-month extension provided Mr. Matteson was running short [when he submitted his resignation],” mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer told the News. “[She] would like Mr. Matteson to stay on as the city’s chief administrative officer and, with that in mind, is considering renominating him for Board of Alders reconsideration.”
Matteson turned in a resignation to Harp on March 24, recognizing the spirit of giving the Board of Alders a confirmation vote.
Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 told the News that he respected Matteson’s choice to resign in advance of his acting term’s expiration, given that Matteson was not confirmed by the Board. Finding a loophole to keep him — by renewing his acting term, for example — “would have subverted our city charter.”
In one last attempt to keep Matteson, Harp told WNHH Radio on Monday that she is considering renominating Matteson for the full position, hoping some of the Alders switch from their original no votes and allow Matteson to assume the position fully. The chief administrative officer oversees a slew of critical city agencies including the fire and police Departments.
Harp emphasized that she would do so if an affirmative vote seemed likely for a second go-around. She said she did not want to renominate Matteson if he were to be “voted down and embarrass [Matteson].”
Harp initially tapped Matteson for chief administrative officer — one of City Hall’s highest-ranking appointments — in September 2018. The decision came after the abrupt departure of Michael Carter, who resigned from the administration in late August after four years on the job.
Carter’s resignation came as a shock to the city. Prior to his departure, Carter was a longtime member of the Harp administration. He took on the position shortly after Harp first assumed office in 2014.
Matteson boasts a long history inside City Hall. Though he had not held any position in the Harp administration prior to his September nomination, he spent seven years as the Chief of Staff for Harp’s predecessor John DeStefano. His time as a top-DeStefano the aide came after a career in lobbying for a local union UNITE HERE, an umbrella organization that includes the city’s three Yale-affiliated unions and various others. Due to a historic and powerful Democratic hold on the Elm City, UNITE HERE has long been one of the city’s strongest political forces.
But as Harp has fallen under fire for the city’s financial woes, Matteson’s nomination was scrutinized and criticized by the Alders. In the debate on his nomination, some Alders argued that Matteson was too politically entrenched in the city to be an effective administrator and address the city’s pain points in tough economic times.
Specifically, concerns about his ability to effectively reign in spending by the police and fire Departments — who annully overspend their allotted amount in overtime due to issues such as understaffing — sunk his nomination as the full Board ultimately voted no in a close vote.
Matteson continued on in the acting capacity after the downvotes, helping Harp navigate through issues such as creating the annual proposed budget, which the mayor introduced last month and is now up for discussion and debate by the board. Each acting term is 180 days.
Nevertheless, in the past, acting officials have stayed on for years at a time. Harp indicated to the News in December 2018 that she had no intention of nominating anyone in the near future for either chief administrative officer or economic development administrator, which was recently vacated by another longtime member of the administration. Michael Piscitelli is serving as acting economic development administrator. Grotheer told the News that both Piscitelli and Harp anticipated that he would serve in the position, acting, for up to a year.
Grotheer told the News that the mayor has confidence that Matteson’s performance over his acting tenure will shift the necessary votes in his favor.
Harp is New Haven’s 50th mayor.
Angela Xiao | firstname.lastname@example.org