Mackenzie Hawkins

Following his landslide two-to-one victory earlier this month, Mayor-elect Justin Elicker and his transition team welcomed over 200 community members to a standing-room-only conversation about the Elm City’s future.

At the event, which was held Saturday morning at High School in the Community, New Haven residents from all corners of the city voiced their opinions on the best direction for the incoming administration. The discussion, set up as an open forum on Elm City policy, covered myriad hot-button issues, including education, housing, immigration and others. Attendees debated ideas and offered suggestions in small group workshops. In welcoming the crowd, Elicker emphasized that he envisions the transition as an ongoing process characterized by continued conversation and transparency in City Hall.

“This transition process should be happening all of the time,” Elicker said on Saturday. “The spirit is inclusion. The spirit is giving people a voice in the way that the city is run. And I feel like today is an indication that we’re taking a really strong step in that direction.”

After sharing general areas of concern with the whole room, attendees broke into smaller groups based on the issue discussed. Education — a contentious topic throughout the campaign and more broadly — drew the largest crowd, with community members discussing issues including school board accountability, classroom equity and per-pupil funding.

Several attendees lamented a perceived lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity among teachers, suggesting that a more diverse staff and implicit bias training would help educators be more attuned to their students’ needs. Others voiced concerns about limited resources at public schools and the variation in resources from one school to another.

“You have a school like Hooker, which is like paradise,” Valerie Hardy — a social worker who has spent 15 years in the public school system — told her group. “And then you have Troup, which is like somewhere in Beirut.”

Groups were tasked with producing a list of five actionable items for the Elicker administration. Communication came up across the board. The education group stressed the importance of collaboration between City Hall, the Board of Education and parents. The neighborhoods group pointed to an excessive aldermanic meeting schedule that inhibits community engagement. The housing group underscored the need for transparency with new development projects. The environment group proposed a communications hub. Even the arts group emphasized the potential for conversations across departments.

Beyond identifying existing issues, attendees offered tangible solutions. For housing, specific policy recommendations included consolidating code enforcement, bolstering tenants’ rights and creating community information platforms to address the issue of so-called slumlords. On the immigration front, residents suggested an immigration department in City Hall, increased language accessibility in public documents and a municipal ordinance classifying New Haven a sanctuary city. On Aug. 14 — after a yearlong fight — Mayor Toni Harp issued an executive order that prohibits city employees from inquiring about a person’s immigration status unless legally required.

Other policies and initiatives included creating a lobbying group in Hartford to advocate for education funding, exploring additional revenue sources such as charging Uber to operate in the city, joining with other large cities to tap into regional economic development opportunities and pushing the state to fund homelessness programs.

At the conclusion of the event, facilitator Elizabeth Nearing emphasized that the transition team aims to include all Elm City residents — even and especially those unable to attend.

“I’ve been to a lot of public meetings and often times I find that the people who are not in the room are the ones who need [to be] … Go out into your networks, and ask other people what they think the direction of the city should be, and bring that back,” she said. “There are many avenues for your ideas to be heard. This was a beginning.”

Elicker will assume office on Jan. 1. The transition team will host another public forum at High School in the Community on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 2 p.m.

Mackenzie Hawkins |

Mackenzie is the editor in chief and president of the Managing Board of 2022. She previously covered City Hall for the News, including the 2019 mayoral race and New Haven's early pandemic response. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a junior in Trumbull College studying ethics, politics and economics.