“We Need To Make Some Difficult Decisions”

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThis story originally appeared in Spanish in La Voz Hispana.

Though Justin Elicker is relatively new to the political scene as he is currently in his second term as alderman for the East Rock neighborhood, he prides himself in the devotion he has to his constituents and the fresh perspective he can bring for planning of the city’s future.

Elicker, who is 37, is a graduate of the Yale School of Management and the Yale School of Forestry, and previously worked as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for the State Department and was stationed in Washington D.C., Taiwan, and Hong Kong. His platform as a mayoral candidate emphasizes the importance of school reform, economic development, and increasing public safety.

Q: To start off, could you outline your platform and what your main priorities are as a mayoral candidate?

A: The bulleted list would be: education, economic development, and public safety. Within education, I’d like to focus on accountability by creating a hybrid board of education that is partially appointed and partially elected to ensure that the board remains responsive to the needs and concerns of parents, and then the second bullet under education would be character education in schools.

Evidence shows that reading, math tests are important but they aren’t an indicator of whether or not a person will succeed in life and a better indicator is things like conflict resolution skills, anger management skills, how to pick yourself up after you fail and persevere and you can teach those skills in schools and we should be doing that, and we’re doing it to a certain extent but we need to be doing it citywide. And the third bullet point under education is early childhood education, and again, the evidence shows that if you engage kids really early on, that child is more likely to succeed in life. Right now, kids are entering kindergarten and are already behind their peers, and it’s more difficult for them to catch up, that’s a crime in itself and needs to be addressed.

So, that’s education. Public safety. I think we need to continue our community policing program and strengthen it, and part of that means keeping Dean Esserman, the chief of police in the city. He’s doing a good job and we have more officers on the street now, walking beats, getting to know the community, having the community know them, and that’s contributing to reducing crime. It’s also about addressing the root of the problem and some of that has to do with education, but a lot of it has to do with jobs, making sure New Haven residents catch the expanding jobs that will be growing in number around the city: things like healthcare jobs, construction jobs.

And the final thing around public safety is youth programs. Most of the crime that occurs in the city occurs between when school gets out, and that’s an indication that our kids need more productive things to do, a safe place to go so they can have fun and learn, reach those mentors, so the city needs to offer those types of environment for every neighborhood, and do it in a cost-effective way.

The final area is economic development. Economic development-the challenge is how you pay for all of the things we talked about, earlier, right? Ultimately, we’re facing serious challenges in the city economically, and our debt is going up. In the short term, it’s important to make some tough decisions so that we can hold the line as much as possible on taxes. The city is in a situation now where we’re competing with the suburbs, attracting residents, and taxes are already much higher here than in the suburbs, so what it does is it encourages people to move out of the city.

So we need to make some short-term decisions, but in the long term, we can’t cut or tax our way to fiscal solvency. The way we address the long-term budgetary problems is through economic development. New Haven is in a great place right now to capture the trend of people moving back into cities.

People want to live in an environment where they can walk to the store, they can walk to work, they can have, culture, arts, entertainment, where they don’t have to drive two hours commuting round trip in their cars. We need to make sure that we are creating a New Haven where people want to live and an environment that is somewhat predictable for developers so that they can invest in it because that increases the tax base, it increases available jobs, you have more people buying stuff, more construction in the city, so long term I think economic development is a very effective way to address some of our budget problems.

Just a quick question to piggy-back off of that. Some people, like you said, criticize the city for having high property taxes, and causing an exodus to the suburbs, what is your suggestion for addressing that?

A couple of things, we need to make some difficult decisions. When you look at your own expenses, you look at what you need, figure out what you want to have. There are a lot of inefficiencies in the city government. For example, the windows were open at Wilbur Cross High School all winter, and I think the reason why the windows were open all winter is because the person who pays the energy bill is in the central office downtown, and the principal isn’t responsible for paying the energy bill, and so the teachers aren’t asked by the principal, “make sure you close your windows everyday.”

There is a gap in responsibility for actually implementing what needs to be changed. The final area is this idea of participatory budgeting, which I’ve been talking about a lot. The foundation of the idea is you start off with how much you can spend, you give a neighborhood a million dollars to spend in upgrades to whatever and with a relatively robust decision-making process, the neighborhood decides what they want to spend the money.  The reason why it’s good, number one, is that people figure out exactly how much things costs and figure out how expensive things are, two, the neighborhood is living what’s in budget so they are the ones prioritizing how the city uses the money, and third, you have the majority people voting on what’s most important. Whereas right now, we are responding to the loudest group with the most political connections.

What are other things that you think set you apart from the mayoral candidates?

I don’t want to get too much into what their candidacies are about, but I can say that I bring a number of things to the election. One is, an incredible amount of energy and fresh ideas. It’s important for us to have new eyes for older problems in the city. I would say integrity is something that if you ask anyone that knows me well, they would say that I have the strongest integrity. If you were to ask my constituents, they would tell you that I’m honest with them and I work my tail off to address their problems in many creative ways, and if I can’t, I’m honest with them. The final thing is I’m there, which is the first step of government, is being accessible to the people. I go to every single meeting I can attend so I can listen from people and learn from them and truly represent them. I’ve been to hundreds of meetings since I’ve declared my candidacy, and I’ve been to hundreds and hundreds of meetings before the campaign as alderman, and I would do the same as mayor.

What have you done as an alderman that has benefited the community?

As alderman, I have touched on every issue that I would address as mayor. That’s everything from the little things that make people’s lives better, like addressing the illegal dirt bike problem in the city. It’s been a huge issue for many residents in different neighborhoods. It’s not only a quality of life issue. It’s a safety issue. We have cities working on basically an operation right now to catch these guys. They’re going to announce the results of it a few weeks from now and we have legislation from the state that will enable the city to better enforce this. I focus on a lot of the neighborhood nuts and bolts stuff and also on the larger picture things, like focusing on the budget and making sure that we are spending money in a responsible way for the long term. The reason for that is so that our kids can actually have money to spend on things like schools, library hours, police. If we’re spending it all now, and taking on a lot of debt, we’re only passing on these issues to the future. The mayor was proposing parking meter monetization, which, basically the idea was that we would take a big loan today and promise this private capital company a certain payment every year for 25 years to come.

The idea is to get a big chunk of money now and spend it how we want it, but then we would be on the hook for many years to come. And I led the charge against that and basically stopped it from happening, and the reason that’s good is we have a lot more money to spend today to spend on things, and we’re not passing along those budget problems in the future. I think that my constituents would say that I am the most responsive representative they have ever had.

I treat everyone the same no matter what they look like, or no matter where they come from. One of my constituents said that my reputation is what “if your light bulb goes out, Justin will be there to change it.”

Some people have said that it might be better for you to gain a few years of experience before pursuing mayoral candidacy. What are your thoughts on that?

I think that’s a cynical way of thinking about politics. A lot of politicians in this city think that you need to do your time in politics before deserving to run for mayor. John DeStefano was 37 when he got elected, and Obama had no management experience when he was elected president. I have a lot of experience addressing specific issues that the mayor will usually address-that’s knowing the budget and understanding the nuts and bolts of how the city works and basically managing city employees in my role as alderman. What I mean by that is that, as alderman, you don’t just call up and say, “A pothole needs to be filled on this street.” You need to work with city department heads and the employees on the ground to make sure that the issue gets addressed, and it’s not easy in a lot of ways, to be a manager that respects people, gives them credit for the work that they do, as opposed to taking credit on your own, you can get a lot more done. If you look at my record as alderman, and the type of manager that I’ve been in getting things done, I’ve been successful in addressing the issues of my constituents. I’ll work just was hard as mayor addressing issues citywide.

How do you feel about unions and, as mayor, how would you work with unions?

I think everyone in this city supports the right to organize, supports good union jobs that offer people the opportunity to make a good life for themselves and not rely on welfare and other social services. I don’t think you’re going to find any difference in any of the candidates on that. I think the municipal unions have had a very toxic relationship with DeStefano, particularly in recent years. While we need to make sure that we have a good balance between being responsive to the residents and taxpayers in the city and making sure that we are being respectful and fair with municipal employee benefits. The way that we do that is to bring respect to the table, to bring unions into the conversation when we are talking about changing city programs that might affect them.

So, New Haven has had a history of immigrant friendly policies, how do you plan on continuing that, and what’s your larger vision for aiding the immigrant community?

There’s a number of things on that issue. First, I’m a very practical person and I’m also a very ethical person, and the undocumented worker issue in New Haven is one that touches on both the practical and ethical side. If the federal government can’t get its act together with immigration reform, then we, as a city, need to get our act together and address these problems. I believe that everyone has the right to be a productive member of society. Everyone has the right to not live in fear and policies like the Elm City Resident Card and driver’s license for undocumented workers are both practical in that they are facilitating addressing a problem that already exists and ethical. I think that we need to empower residents in every neighborhood to have more say in government and what I mean by that is that our city hall currently doesn’t spend enough effort reaching out to residents, and making them feel that they have a voice in policies that we have.

So, I think it’s important, to, including the immigrant community and with undocumented workers, for them to have some say in showing up to community meetings and having some say in what they need addressed. I would also like to point out that I am the only candidate that speaks Spanish.

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posted by: mechanic on May 22, 2013  2:06pm

I’m really tired of people saying that the reason that the windows are open at Cross in the winter is because the people in those rooms (who happen to be teachers and students) don’t have to pay the bills.

The reason the windows are open is because of an inefficient heating system.  I don’t know if it could be more efficient, but Cross has a huge system in there to heat up a gigantic building, with all different exposures, and lots of bodies moving in and out of classrooms, with maybe 10 different thermostats to control the temperature.  If it’s 90 degrees in a classroom in January, a teachers first concern is going to be what they can do to keep those kids on task.

This example is never accompanied by a detailing of the cost to heat Cross, so it’s used to illustrate all the problems with the NHPS budget.  To find the real culprits of the misuse in the budget, look at central office and administration.  Or else look at another HVAC system.

posted by: Noteworthy on May 22, 2013  3:15pm

Mechanic -

The HVAC system at Cross is terrible. So open the windows during the day, close them when the teacher leaves. How freaking hard can that be? I’ve seen those same windows open not only during day, at night, on weekends. The same is true in Fair Haven. One weekend, the window to an upstairs room was so far open, the mini-blinds were waving in the freaking wind and this was the middle of winter. It’s stupid and lazy. And by the way, that’s one of the brand new schools.

Is it really too much to ask a teacher or the janitorial staff to close the window? This has been going on for years.

posted by: mechanic on May 22, 2013  3:24pm

Noteworthy—I agree completely. 

However, my point is that the Cross heating bill is a red herring when people discuss the ed budget.  It’s not a real answer to what’s wrong with the budget.  Also, it puts the blame for the budget on the wrong shoulders.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on May 23, 2013  1:22am

Ugh. When we come to high taxes, Elicker goes back to talking about open windows at Cross and
participatory budgeting. Really, this is the “big picture” vision of our city’s fiscal situation??! Half our property is tax exempt and it’s still about the open windows at Cross??

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on May 23, 2013  7:12am


I think you missed the point of what the candidate is saying.  He pointed out a problem of process, and as that process is determined by Central Office, he did, in fact, put the responsibility in the right place.

posted by: markcbm on May 23, 2013  1:04pm

To add to the side discussion regarding NHPS heating - and specifically that of Wilbur Cross - if I’m not mistaken, the thermostat is set in the central office. 

Schools, or at least Cross, have no control over the heating (or at least they didn’t when I attended).  Sometimes this means the schools are frigid (heat doesn’t, or at least didn’t, get turned on until November 1st) and sometimes this means they are inordinately hot (causing students or teachers to open windows to provide some relief - even on the coldest days).

I submit that school heating bills might be lower if each principal were responsible controlling the temperature.

posted by: Noteworthy on May 23, 2013  3:16pm

Beyond Discussion:

Open windows and wasted energy are emblematic of the city budget. Want another example? $80K was wasted in one stroke by replacing a brand new ceiling in the MBA Magnet School. According to my sources, that ceiling was replaced on orders of DeStefano who didn’t like it before the first student entered.

More importantly, if you watch the pennies or dollars the tens of thousands and millions take care of themselves. The amount of non-profit property has nothing to do with the city budget. If the city added up all the private PILOTS along with the state PILOT there is far less nonpay property than DeStefano would have you believe. It’s nothing but a canard in order to justify fat budgets and unfettered taxes.

posted by: Brutus2011 on May 23, 2013  8:41pm

My pulse quickened when I read in the above article that Mr. Elicker talked about “character education.”

I would like to add that our kids need to be taught how to be a student, what it means to be a life-long learner, how human beings learn, and how one figures out what works in the learning process for him/herself.

This is where the real reform lies—and not in the city and administrative politics of this city.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on May 24, 2013  1:11am

There are inefficiencies and money being wasted for sure. And on a larger scale, there are too many high paid folks at the Ed Dept. and too much school construc. debt. But the overriding problem is that half our property is tax exempt and the wealthy non-profits that own them are not paying their fair share. Pilot $ is just some of our own taxes coming back to us. Why do the super rich non profits in our city get off without a word, yet open windows at Cross gets repeated mention??  Hello.

posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on May 24, 2013  1:41pm

I, for one, will be ecstatic when just one of these candidates stops acting as if money alone is “the issue” when it comes to education, and starts talking about method as we seek to be productive in educating our children.

The simplistic assumption that money and how we spend it is the only answer to the education problems in this city and around the nation has taken hold of seemingly all of us like a pit bull gripping raw meat.

Of course, an intelligent use of our resources is important, but it’s not the only or the most important thing concerning the educating of our children.

A report from Atlanta, GA revealed this week that a frequently homeless mother of five has two daughters graduating from two different High Schools this year at the top of their respective classes, one Valedictorian, and the other Salutatorian. One daughter is graduating with a 4.466 GPA and a 1900 SAT score and enough college credits to enter Spelman College as a Junior on Full Scholarship. 

Clearly, money is not the only answer to the education woes so many of our students face.  But, the unwillingness of our politicians and politically controlled School Superintendents to address honestly what is (not?) happening in the homes, neighborhoods, and communities that effect our children’s education stifles our ability to have a full conversation about what we must do to help turn the situation around of low and underachieving students.

Parents are too insensitive to hearing necessary corrective measures like, turn off the TV, take away the iPod/pad, or GET HELP if you can’t help your child with their homework, and politicians and their lackeys are too cowardly to speak truth to those who possess the power of the vote.  Add to this mix of embraced dysfunction the desire to maintain a status quo that does not increase competition for the already privileged in our society and you have a perfect storm of achievement gap maintenance.  We can do better, but courage and selflessness are key.

posted by: Jim75 on May 25, 2013  1:02am

Reading and math tests are not an indicator of whether or not a person will succeed in life? Really? On what planet? That statement is at best naive, at worst cynical, probably trying to be opportunistic.