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100 Days In, Harp Jarred By Teen Murders

by Paul Bass | Apr 9, 2014 3:02 pm

(19) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: City Hall

Paul Bass Photo A newly elected mayor sat in a pew at Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church on Orchard Street to join a community in mourning a gunned-down child. A realization hit: That’s what this job is about.

John DeStefano had that experience in February 1994. He would always remember it as the jolt that drove home the responsibility he had personally assumed by becoming New Haven government’s chief executive.

A newly elected mayor named Toni Harp found herself in that same position last week when she sat in Beulah Heights for the funeral of 17-year-old Taijhon Washington.

“I’ll tell you what really got me,” Harp said in an interview in her City Hall office about her first 100 days of mayor, a milestone she hits Thursday. “I was sitting in the pulpit area. I thought about the young people in the community. I looked at their faces. They were almost stoic.

“What hurt me was the impression that so many young people have seen their friends cut down by urban violence. There was this stoicism I didn’t like seeing on the faces of young people. I’m a mother. I have kids. We’re all fragile human beings. To think that these young people have to face this as a reality in their lives—it’s something I don’t want to see happen. I want to see us figure out a way so kids don’t have to spend their mornings at a friend’s funeral.

“That was the wake-up call for me. What we’re doing is not enough.”

On Thursday, her 100th day, Harp found herself at another funeral, for 16-year-old Torrence Gamble Jr., who was murdered a day after Washington’s funeral.

Thomas MacMillan Photo Harp’s first 100 days have been a trial by fire—or snow, incessant snow—as she has raced to put together the first new city administration in 20 years, meet a two-month deadline to prepare a city budget, struggle to keep on top of a particularly stormy winter, and react to almost daily political dramas. Meanwhile she has found herself responding to the unexpected, the daily mini-crises or surprise developments that throw off any mayor’s schedule—including controversies involving some of her appointees, from a prison reentry chief who was barred from doing work in a prison, to a development chief who startled the governor by going off-script in asking for state money. (More about that later in this story.)

Harp (pictured after cutting the ribbon on a new downtown police substation) got her final top appointments completed this week as her new chief administrative officer, Michael Carter, started work, and her choice for community services administrator (aka social services chief), behavioral health expert Martha Okafor, agreed to take the job.

Harp knew she’d be working more than full time in the job. She didn’t expect, she said, to be working seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 9:30 or 10 or 11 p.m. She has had three days off in the first 100 days of her tenure, she said. She has adjusted. Like her predecessor, she has been omnipresent at community events from parades to store openings while also conducting government business at City Hall, continually visiting the state Capitol to seek support, and, in one case, visiting prisoners at the Whalley Avenue jail to discuss her expectations for when they reenter the community.

“I’m getting used to the work load,” she said. “I think it’s going well. There are always problems and issues that need to be solved.”

And she spoke regularly as a candidate about the violence claiming lives of young people in New Haven, about her promises to open more youth centers and boost community policing and improve the schools and offer families and returning prisoners more government support.

Keepers

Allan Appel Photo But talking about all that—and then sitting in the pews of Beulah Heights as the city’s mayor at a time of communal grief and frustration—are two different matters.

The day after Washington’s funeral (pictured), Torrence Gamble Jr., was gunned down in the Hill. Like Toni Harp, Gamble had attended Washington’s funeral. He had also asked to take part in a new anti-violence effort Harp’s team was putting together.

In the days that followed, throughout the weekend, Harp and her top aides met and spoke continually about how to respond. They ramped up new efforts they had underway, talked about new ones.

They readied the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, the effort in which Gamble had enlisted. It identifies young people who’ve been shot or have shot people or otherwise cycled through jails, and teams them up with adult volunteers like cops or firefighters or teachers. The Harp administration plans to unveil the campaign Wednesday afternoon with a public discussion and then a neighborhood canvass.

Melissa Bailey Photo Harp (pictured addressing Amistad Academy students at a Black History Month event) said in the interview Tuesday that she has also asked schools chief Garth Harries to plan a new transition school for seventh-graders through 12th-graders who are coming out of lock-up. The school would be a temporary destination for the students. Through small classes and personal assessments, it would prepare the students to reenter regular schools.

Meanwhile, she has moved ahead with planning to open new youth centers, including a planned new home for the old Dixwell Commuity “Q” House. Gov. Dan Malloy visited town to announce a $1 million state grant for the planning; insiders expect he’ll return to town before November’s election to announce another $15 million or so to build it.

“If we put our hands together, we can begin to solve some of these things,” Harp said. “Every child needs a caring adult who believes that child has a future.”

Taxes & Rancor

Harp grew most passionate during the interview when the subject returned to young people—even when she was discussing the budget.

Her proposed $511 million budget for the coming year includes a 3.8 percent tax increase. (The Board of Alders is expected to whittle that increase, but not eliminate it totally.)  That prompted angry protests in East Rock and among some critics in town. She defended the increase by stating that other cities have lower or similar mill rates—and that cutting more city services would hurt New Haven.

“Most towns, New Haven included, have already cut to the bottom,” she said. “Do we close libraries? Do we reduce our already seriously reduced workforce in public works and the parks department? That really killed [former Mayor John Daniels] politically—you would drive by our beautiful parks, and the grass was knee high.”

Nor would she resort to one-time-revenue or long-term operational borrowing gimmicks that would threaten the city’s bond rating, she said. “The next downgrade would make our bonds worth junk,” she said. “I thought it would be irresponsible of me to do sleight of hand” that would lead to a downgrade.

Critics have focused on her requests to add positions, particularly a four-person grant-writing office. (A Board of Alders committee reduced that request to one position.)

Thomas MacMillan Photo Harp (pictured announcing her budget at a late February press conference) responded that she eliminated other positions in the budget to make way for new requested positions.

“I absolutely stand by these positions. We’re the only city in the state of Connecticut without a grant-writing office. Where else are we going to get the money?”

She called the grantwriting office the best hope (in addition to tax-generating economic development projects) for bringing in new foundation and government money, help out young people with new youth centers and family programming, and avoiding tax increases. When she got to the youth-center part of the argument, she ticked off centers that have closed, like the Q House, the old Barbell Club, Latino Youth Development. Her voice rose in intensity.

“All of these kids have very little to do, no adults supervising them” while their parents are at work, she said. “We have let these families down!”

As in recent years past, the budget debate has featured some harsh public remarks about the mayor. Harp said she has learned to take in stride the personal attacks that have come to mark modern political and government debate, in person and online. In addition to criticizing her proposals, critics have called her corrupt, a liar, uncaring, among other epithets.

Harp rarely reads online comments threads, for instance, she said.

“There are a lot of people who are haters. If they have a policy point, it gets lost in vitriol. ...

“I don’t internalize any of those attacks. I think it’s unfortunate on their part. I understand they have their policy point. Their policy point I’m willing to consider ...

“I learned as a state senator that there are so many ways to see an issue. What I don’t care for is when people attack me personally and attack my motivations. Especially if they don’t know me. They’re living in a fantasy world.

“I don’t think I’ve said two words in my lifetime to Michael Stratton,” Harp said of one alder who has vocally criticized her. “He doesn’t know me.”

In response, Stratton accused Harp of living in her own “fantasy world.” “The mayor is trying to pick a fight rather than explain her lack of plan for this city or her incredibly self serving policies which take from the residents rich and poor and give to her friends,” Stratton said. “The only fantasy is the one Mayor Harp wants the people to believe. She wants them to think she is protecting their services when in fact she allows 80-90 percent of service budgets to go to her political allies and overhead. It is reprehensible. Public policy for her is taking treasure and services away from residents and giving it to political allies in central bureaucracy.”

Lessons

Some of the more embarrassing moments in Harp’s first 100 days have involved surprises with her appointees.

Thomas MacMillan Photo She appointed Sundiata Keitazulu (pictured with Harp) to oversee the city’s prison reentry program, for instance; then she pushed him out of the job when it turned out he hadn’t told the administration about some outstanding warrants for pending criminal charges. Those warrants led the state corrections director to bar Keitazulu entry to the Whalley Avenue jail to work with prisoners about to be released into the community.

Harp said she learned from that episode to wait for the completion of background checks before having an official begin a job.

This past week she hired firefighter Michael Briscoe to run the city’s 911 emergency communications center. Firefighters union President Jimmy Kottage blasted the appointment because he said the city should have negotiated with him before making that decision; Harp said Tuesday that she thinks Kottage has a valid point. A bigger surprise came when she learned that Briscoe will be supervising his ex-wife, with whom he had a difficult divorce, in the communications center. She said she met with Briscoe Monday to underscore the need to act professionally in the position.

Harp said she believes he will do well in the position: “Mr. Briscoe impressed me. He’s a very bright man. He’s almost finished with a PhD.”

Another surprise came when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reportedly got upset with Harp’s economic development chief, Matthew Nemerson, in a meeting over state funding for city projects. Nemerson was discussing, among other projects, the $395 million new mini-city that a developer called LiveWorkLearnPlay plans to build on the grave of the old New Haven Coliseum. The city has committed $12 million in bonding for public improvements for that project; it needs the state to throw in some $20 million or change to make the project a reality. Nemerson asked the governor for not only that $20 million, but another $12 million for public improvements. By several accounts Malloy was incensed or at least startled and annoyed: He had already apparently reached an understanding with Harp’s bosses that he would push for the $20 million in money for LiveWorkLearnPlay plus the $15 million or so for the Q House. Now he felt he was being presented with different priorities.

Thomas MacMillan Photo Harp (pictured with Malloy at a Neighborhood Music School visit) Monday took the blame for the misunderstanding. She said she should have briefed Nemerson in more detail before he met with the governor.

“I had actually gone in there and not asked” for the additional $12 million, making the Q House a priority instead, she said. “It was perhaps my fault in not communicating with Matt that we’ve already make the ask; let’s just have him do what we told him we needed.”

Despite the daily drama and brickbats of local government life, Harp said she is enjoying the job. She said she feels a sense of mission—one she intends to seek to carry out into a second term.

“There’s a lot of work to do. I’m a problem-solver. Unless something different happens, I hope to run again,” she said.

She offered another prediction: “I’m not going to raise taxes next year. That’s for sure.”

 

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posted by: anonymous on April 9, 2014  3:20pm

So, Harp has given up on the Coliseum site?  The “not asking” seems to be a big story.

How does the projected tax revenue / jobs addfrom the Coliseum Site compare to the projected tax revenue / jobs add from another government building on Dixwell Avenue?

[Editor’s Note: The story reported that Harp did make the big ask—and apparently got it. The issue was whether to ask for more money on top of the $20+ million the governor would commit to that part of downtown (for new work on the Route 34 Connector), or to ask for the money for the Q House as well.]

posted by: LookOut on April 9, 2014  3:25pm

Two quotes jump off the page;

1) “I don’t think I’ve said two words in my lifetime to Michael Stratton”....really?  The leader of the other side and she won’t/can;t communicate with him?  What if Reagan and Ted Kennedy never spoke?  Boehner and Obama are golfing buddies.  You can’t lead from inside a moat.

2) “I’m not going to raise taxes next year. That’s for sure.”....really?  I’m more likely to buy a bridge from a used car salesman than count on that statement.  Let’s underline that quote and remind Toni in 2015 when she reaches into our pockets again.

posted by: concernedcitizenNewHaven on April 9, 2014  4:28pm

At a few BOE meetings ago Harp said something like: “Our high schools aren’t working.”  (She actually repeated this several times) But then a few days later she makes a plea for teachers to come out and work with the community.

She insults our teachers…those who are on the front lines every school day…in front of the whole city…

and NOW…now, she needs their help and support?

No thank you.

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on April 9, 2014  4:33pm

Why not try to initiate dialogue with the gangs?

posted by: Noteworthy on April 9, 2014  6:04pm

100 Days of Notes:

1. It is remarkable Mayor Harp is shocked by a dead kid. Is this her first funeral? After spending her professional life in “homeless services” and 21 years in the legislature doling out money and backing youth programs, and living in New Haven - 3 years ago with the dead stacking up in the streets like cord wood - one has to legitimately wonder where she has been, why she has been immune to it and why she ever needed a wake up call.

2. Like a true politician - she proclaims that most towns “New Haven included, have already cut to the bottom,” she said. That is patently false. Once again, it shows how utterly uninformed the mayor is of her own budget, its history and any independent data that belies her assertion. We do have a seriously depleted work force in parks and public works - two departments that should never have seen cuts while education, police,fire and debt have all gotten lavish hikes. Harp is either uninformed on her own budget or dishonest.

3. Harp doesn’t read the comments - no surprise. She doesn’t return phone calls either so how could she possibly hear any opposition? She classifies all negative comments as “haters” - because they are at times harsh. Perhaps if Harp listened more, was less consumed with her own creature comforts and building a wall of armed chauffeurs, gatekeepers, a personal entourage of staff and a new luxury vehicle in which she is squired around town like royalty, there would be fewer “haters.” It is the classic tin ear and no humility, where no expense is spared at a time when those she will take it from via a tax increase have seen their wages and income stagnate and decline.

4. Struggling to pay our taxes is not a fantasy. It’s a nightmare, one from which Harp seems immune as her family finances and history clearly shows. Sadly, a tin ear.

5. But no tax increases next year. Of course not, it’s an election year. She did hear that message in Hartford.

posted by: HewNaven on April 9, 2014  8:14pm

“I had actually gone in there and not asked” for the additional $12 million, making the Q House a priority instead, she said. “It was perhaps my fault in not communicating with Matt that we’ve already make the ask; let’s just have him do what we told him we needed.”

Why can’t Harp, Looney, et al. convince the governor and state legislators that the extra $12 million is an appropriate expenditure. The way it’s described in the previous story makes it seem like a continuation of the Route 34 “Re-Connection” that is already in progress.

The money would go toward reworking the exits so all the traffic lets out onto Orange Street, rather than onto Church Street. Then Orange Street would be reconnected to South Orange Street at grade level, eliminating that stretch of the Route 34 mini-highway-to-nowhere that the state has already starting filling in for the Alexion Pharmaceuticals tower down the road at 100 College St.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/coliseum_plan_gets_a_final_yes/

posted by: Threefifths on April 9, 2014  9:33pm

Gov. Dan Malloy visited town to announce a $1 million state grant for the planning; insiders expect he’ll return to town before November’s election to announce another $15 million or so to build it.

Dan Malloy is in trouble.This is nothing more then a bribe to buy the Black Vote.

posted by: NewHavenTaxTooHigh on April 9, 2014  11:26pm

The mayor’s driving detail takes 2 police officers off the street. Those are police that could be patrolling the city’s worst neighborhoods. In addition, her 3.8% tax increase provides for more positions within her Dept at City Hall, but offers nothing new for Youth Programs.

posted by: citoyen on April 9, 2014  11:43pm

It is somewhat reassuring to know, from reading these columns, that at least Matthew Nemerson, who has emerged as one of Mayor Harp’s top advisers, reads the comment threads in the NHI.  I can understand her not wanting to read, say, the readers’ comments at the Register website, or at WTNH, which can indeed be full of vitriol, but she might find she’d learn a lot from reading what people write at this one.  I certainly do.

What I absolutely cannot understand is why, right from the start of her administration, she announced a tax increase.  Can she not understand how terrible it looks—after having said during the campaign—it’s on tape—that she would not do so?  Can she not understand how terrible it looks to raise taxes, cut services that affect actual residents’ lives, and at the same time propose an *increase* in staff in her own office?

The new pledge not to raise taxes again next year might be an indication that she does, after all, now realize how terrible a move this has been—or it might be just another statement that will mean nothing.  We can’t tell, because she’s already gone back on her word once.  And the tragedy for New Haven is that if she follows through and *doesn’t* raise taxes next year, she will be seen as just playing the old DeStefano game of raising them in the off-year, but not in an election year, and cynically assuming that people will forget the former and remember only the latter.

The same old stuff.  The same old entrenched gang playing the same old game.

New Haven merits something better than this.  Or at least it would if New Haven would *vote* for something better than this.

posted by: alex on April 10, 2014  1:36am

Comparing Mike Stratton to Ronald Reagan or even John Boehner is a stretch. The Board of Aldermen has 30 members. Toni Harp doesn’t have to indulge the childish antics of its least mature Alder.

posted by: LookOut on April 10, 2014  8:17am

Alex - the comparison is not the Stratton is a conservative.  He is very clearly a liberal.  The comparison is that Executives need to work across the aisle with legislators from the other side (i.e. Reagan-Kennedy and to a lesser extent Obama-Boehner).  This is not specific to party and can happen no matter the number in the legislative body (Remember, the US House of Reps has 435).

Its all about leadership.  Communicate, tell the truth, help out the less fortunate (rather than those who got you elected), set a solid example.  These should be our baseline expectations for a mayor.

posted by: HewNaven on April 10, 2014  8:47am

And the tragedy for New
Haven is that if she follows through and *doesn’t* raise taxes next year,
she will be seen as just playing the old DeStefano game of raising them in
the off-year, but not in an election year, and cynically assuming that
people will forget the former and remember only the latter

We have a 2-year election cycle in New Haven. Did anyone else think Harp was not going to follow the on/off pattern established by Destefano in regards to taxes? Its pretty elementary stuff. “New Haven Politricks 101”

posted by: TheMadcap on April 10, 2014  8:53am

Maybe she doesn’t talk to Stratton because she specifically doesn’t like Stratton himself. Doug was previously the main person(de facto leader) of anti Unite faction of the board and he’s now part of her administration.

posted by: DingDong on April 10, 2014  8:56am

I hope the NHI will do one of these profile pieces of Mike Stratton.  He’s the major opposition figure in town, obviously an interesting character, so would make a good article.  Could also be useful from the point of view of even-handed journalism in that these profile pieces always make the subject profiled seem more likable.

posted by: HewNaven on April 10, 2014  9:36am

Maybe she doesn’t talk to Stratton because she specifically doesn’t like Stratton himself. Doug was previously the main person(de facto leader) of anti Unite faction of the board and he’s now part of her administration.

Good point. Hausladen is a good example of someone who is independent, speaks up when constituents need him, and yet he remains a humble. He doesn’t ever come off as condescending or misinformed. Stratton could learn from him.

posted by: elmhurst1 on April 10, 2014  12:24pm

Stratton could learn a lot from Hausladen, who showed repeatedly that even if he disagreed he would sit down and have a real dialogue.

It’s funny that people are taking Harp’s statement that she’s never talked with Stratton as reflecting on Harp, not Stratton. In every letter the city has released (from harp, from clerkin, from the lawyer, from the controller) they’ve invited Stratton to come in and talk, and it doesn’t seem like he ever has (as the letters keep mentioning).

Stratton has only ever threatened the city with his law firm or shown off his trial antics in front of the press - it doesn’t really seem like he wants to actually help anything, just get in front of the cameras. If the city has invited him in this many times and he still hasn’t come, it makes him either a coward or a charlatan only interested in press attention.

posted by: robn on April 10, 2014  12:39pm

1) Jarred: Why would someone who supposedly is connected to the New Haven community find this as a surprise?

2) Snow: Mayor Harp came out of the gates trying to impress her constituants but instead blew the snow removal budget by February 5th. Irresponsible and dumb. There was less snow and less, difficult to manage wet snow than the previous year.

3) Hours: Didn’t know that being mayor requires a lot of hours? Seriously?

4) Tax Increase : Broken campaign promise.

5) Grant writing office : Forgetting for a moment that this and other positions are simply rewards for campaign “volunteers”, if Mayor Harp wants this, make it budget neutral by taking it out of the hide of the people who should have been doing the job before.

6) Haters : Truth hurts. When it get personal, Mayor Harp should remember that she opened the door to personality politics when she campaigned soley upon “vote your color, vote your gender”.

7) Stratton : Grow up and talk to the legislative body, even if you don’t like the members.

8)  Briscoe : Put him in charge of his ex-wife with whom he had a bad divorce. Again…seriously?

9) Q House : Was a private organization and a financially stressed city has no business taking it over; this is a Scooby snack for political support and money should not be diverted from 10th Square to this expensive white elephant.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on April 10, 2014  3:56pm

“I learned as a state senator that there are so many ways to see an issue. What I don’t care for is when people attack me personally and attack my motivations. Especially if they don’t know me. They’re living in a fantasy world.”

Well Mrs. Mayor I do know you.  I have never attacked you personally nor have I ever attacked your predecessor personally. However, I have attacked some of your policies or lack there of.  For example, you just raised the taxes on these very kids in whom you claim you care so much about.  Their already poor families are financially hemorrhaging to provide for them as we speak.  So when you use words like “We have let these families down!”  No Mrs. Mayor, you have let these families down. 

This isn’t about hating on you, this is about disagreeing with some of the positions that you have taken.  Your position came with criticism both constructive and destructive before you took the oath. 

“The days that followed, throughout the weekend, Harp and her top aides met and spoke continually about how to respond.”  How to respond?  Are you kidding me?  These kids have been killing one another in record numbers for years, and you need to meet with your staff to determine how to respond?  That’s an embarrassment!

YOUR YOUTH CENTERS ARE YOUR SCHOOLS!!!  Why use taxpayers money to open more? 

Also, invest in your existing programs that do work similar to Believe In Me on Dixwell Ave.  These programs are doing the necessary work in these economically bankrupt and disadvantaged areas, they’re just in need of consistent funding.

It isn’t that you haven’t been getting policy ideas from critics. It’s just that you haven’t been getting policy ideas (that you like), unless they’re from critics with law degrees from Yale.

You have demonstrated as I look at in whom you’ve hired thus far, that you don’t have a problem with the poor people in Newhallville voting for you, you just have a problem with the poor people in Newhallville working for you.

posted by: Hmmmmm on April 13, 2014  11:27am

“Harp said she believes he will do well in the position: “Mr. Briscoe impressed me. He’s a very bright man. He’s almost finished with a PhD.”

But what qualifies him to lead the PSAP?  The kid at Subway impressed me with his ability to figure out my change in his head but that doesn’t make me want to give him a job as the Director of Finance.  Maybe if you met with other firefighters or police officers you might have been impressed by them as well. Did he tell you that he was going to be supervising his ex-wife and her current partner when he was “impressing” you?  What’s the big deal with this guy - no offense to him but, c’mon?  You couldn’t have just given him his $300k and sent him on his way?  What are we missing here?

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