Sylvan Lebrun, Contributing Photographer

At a Friday afternoon press conference at City Hall, Mayor Justin Elicker introduced four new appointees for central roles in New Haven city government. 

One of the new appointees will serve as the liaison to the Board of Alders, while the other three will take the highest leadership roles in the City Plan Commission, the Office of Labor Relations and the Fair Rent Commission. These newly announced appointments are part of a larger series of changes in City Hall, after the contracts of former Mayor Toni Harp’s picks expired at the beginning of the month. Although a number of these officials were reappointed by Elicker, multiple vacancies were created through retirements and a few non-reappointments. 

“It’s always exciting to add new members to our team, and I have to say I’m particularly excited about this group,” Elicker said. “We spent a lot of time talking to them in interviews and making sure we had the right kind of group that brings a level of expertise, significant professional background, and a level of enthusiasm to the work. I’m very confident that the four new members of our team we’re announcing today are going to hit the ground running.” 

The City Plan Commission in particular has been under scrutiny recently, as the commission was one of the architects of the city’s new inclusionary zoning legislation. Elicker did not renew the contract of City Plan Director Aicha Woods ARC ’97, appointing regional planner and Westville resident Laura Brown to head the department starting on Feb. 28. 

Brown has been a Certified Economic Developer since 2014, working with the University of Connecticut as an educator and program evaluator. She has also been involved with a number of projects “from bike pedestrian trails and food systems to comprehensive planning,” Elicker said. She is currently the co-chair of the Working Group on Structural Racism in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources, and she holds a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

“One of the many things that I notice about people is when you say close to the end of the interview, ‘do you have any questions?’, it tells a lot about the person,” Elicker said while introducing Brown. “I remember that Laura had a whole list of questions, many that I didn’t know how to answer, which made me understand that she’s a very thoughtful, inquisitive person…And I think that brings a level of character.”

In her speech at the press conference, Brown emphasized her role as an advocate for Connecticut’s small cities, noting her commitment to “putting all of [her] work through the lens of equity and undoing any structures that are limiting and oppressive.”

On the question of the recent inclusionary zoning legislation, which the City Plan Commission will be tasked with carrying out amid controversy and logistical problems, Brown told the News that she was “still wrapping [her] head around what the questions were.”

Attorney Wendella Battey will take over the role of labor relations director after the retirement of Cathleen Simpson, beginning on Feb. 14. She has served on the state Board of Labor Relations for 27 years, with five years as the acting chair, and has worked with the state Department of Education and the American Arbitration Association.  

Elicker said that Battey has a “long history of success in resolving conflicts…something that we all know is important in the city of New Haven.”

When asked by a reporter what ensures success in a role like labor relations director, Battey first answered, “my sense of humor,” smiling. 

“I think that not taking myself too seriously, but understanding the seriousness of what I’m involved in, I think that’s critical,” Battey said. “And listening. I spent a lot of years listening to parties on both sides, both labor and management. So I feel like I understand what the issues are…labor is just such a critical part of everything.” 

On the biggest issues impacting labor in New Haven, Battey listed pensions, healthcare, wages and the struggles associated with returning to a sense of normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic. She emphasized the importance of understanding the protections that essential laborers need, given that they do not have the chance to work from home. 

The new director of the Fair Rent Commission will be Wildaliz Bermúdez, who will take over after Otis Johnson retires on March 7. 

Bermúdez has served on the Hartford Court of Common Council and in the Hartford Department of Public Works, working in the nonprofit sector as well. She received the Champion Award in 2017 from the Center for Latino Progress and was listed in 2018 in Connecticut Magazine’s “40 under 40.”

“She spent the last decade working on policy issues that directly assist some of the most vulnerable populations,” Elicker said, noting that Bermúdez will bring “enthusiasm…a level of creative problem solving and a background in government” to the position. 

The Fair Rent Commission is an organization within the city government that investigates rental housing properties to determine whether the rent is excessively high. Residents can report rent hikes, housing code violations and unsafe living conditions to the commission. 

Bermúdez said that she plans to use social media to help spread awareness among residents about the ways in which the Fair Rent Commission can work as a tool to protect their rights, while also focusing on protecting tenant unions who “have not been able to see themselves as part of the provisions that are within the charter.” 

“Everyone has mentioned in the last couple of years, especially during the pandemic, that the veil has been lifted,” Bermúdez said. “We have seen the needs of our most vulnerable populations. The issues that have come to the forefront have been health and housing…it is with great passion that I’ve come to this position to be able to carve out further protections.” 

The last city hall appointee announced at the press conference was the new liaison to the Board of Alders, Barbara Montalvo, who will start on Feb. 14. 

Montalvo has worked with the city since 2013, in both the Office of Legislative Affairs and the Finance Department. She has an MBA in management from Western International University, and has served two terms on the executive board of the Local 3144 union. 

“I hope that in this new position, I can…really help facilitate communication and understanding,” Montalvo said. “So that way the city and the administration and the authors can all work together to make sure that life is as good as it can be with the limited resources of the city and the state, for everyone in New Haven.” 

Contracts for department heads in City Hall last four years. 

Sylvan Lebrun is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor, and covered City Hall and nonprofits and social services in the New Haven area. She is a junior in Pauli Murray College majoring in Comparative Literature.