He was brave enough to stand in front of angry cops and tell them they would be laid off. When a monster storm rolled in, he was the “orchestra leader” in the emergency command center.
That’s how two people described former Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts at a farewell reception that featured heartfelt appreciations and rowdy roasts.
The event, which doubled as a fundraiser for the public library, drew over 100 people, including many past and present city staffers, to the basement community room of the main library branch at 133 Elm St. Friday evening.
Smuts, who’s 34, joined City Hall as a mayoral appointee in 2001 and got promoted to chief administrative officer in 2007. He left office on Dec. 31, as his longtime boss, John DeStefano, ended a 20-year run as mayor. Smuts said he is still weighing options; he’s leaning towards going to the San Francisco Bay Area.
His farewell shindig featured polenta bites and tiny frittatas from Claire’s Corner Copia vegetarian restaurant and pizza from Abate’s.
Officer Dave Hartman, the city’s police spokesman, gave a wide-ranging roast. First, he jokingly thanked mayoral aide Patti Lawlor for allowing entry to the library without keycard access. Then he began ribbing Smuts for his boyish looks.
“The first time I saw Rob was in the mayor’s office,” Hartman recalled. “I was confused.” He knew what DeStefano’s two sons, Jimmy and Danny, looked like. And “I didn’t think it was Bring-Your-Son-To-Work-Day.”
Smuts, however, turned out to be “pretty brave,” Hartman said. He recalled how Smuts “stood in front of a bunch of very angry cops, telling them they’d be laid off.”
Smuts exhibited “patience under adversity—even when confronted by Jason Cutler,” a downtown club owner with whom the city has clashed over the years. (Click on the play arrow to watch their 2011 sidewalk debate.)
Hartman pronounced himself “inspired with admiration” for Smuts.
“Congrats on your retirement,” Hartman said, “and being one of the few to get out of here without a respirator.”
DeStefano arrived to honor Smuts. He didn’t have a respirator. He did have a new hairdo, combed straight back instead of to the side, and more long and fluffy.
“I feel like I’m responsible for this party” by leaving office, DeStefano said. He recounted his nearly 13-year run working with Smuts.
“Robert was left on my doorstep when he was 2 years old,” DeStefano quipped. “He was left in a basket. We put him to work.”
DeStefano met Smuts in 2001. Smuts had just graduated from Yale. DeStefano was embroiled in the hardest-fought reelection battle of his career, against state Sen. Martin Looney. Smuts joined the campaign.
“Because I believe in patronage, [Smuts] came to City Hall” once DeStefano won reelection, DeStefano said in a joking tone.
“We had to get identification that he was of working age.”
DeStefano, who just started teaching a political science course at Yale, said he had always been wary of Yale students: “As a native New Havener, I consider every Yalie to be fair game. I don’t believe in traffic-calming on Elm Street,” where droves of undergraduates routinely jaywalk across traffic, he quipped.
“But Robert was all right.”
After two years, DeStefano promoted Smuts to “deputy chief of staff” to keep him around. In 2007, DeStefano promoted him to chief administrative officer—one of the mayor’s top four highest appointees. The CAO’s duties include overseeing the police and fire departments, city parks, public works and the libraries. DeStefano noted that because of a change in the city charter, Smuts will be the last CAO whose appointment did not require approval from the Board of Alders.
“It would have been an iffy thing” if Smuts’ appointment had needed approval, DeStefano said, drawing laughs.
Smuts spent over nearly seven years as CAO. But his tenure is better measured in police chiefs, DeStefano suggested. Smuts “went through four police chiefs,” DeStefano recalled. “I picked two,” and Smuts picked two. DeStefano said he picked his chiefs by making a phone call, while Smuts “insisted on process.”
DeStefano thanked Smuts for holding down the fort at City Hall while DeStefano was busy running for governor in 2006, taking half of his mayoral staff with him. (Smuts worked until Aug. 30, then took a two-month break to help DeStefano’s campaign.)
“Rob was always there for me,” DeStefano said. “He did whatever needed to be done. He did it passionately.”
In brief remarks, Assistant Fire Chief Ralph Black thanked Smuts for being the “orchestra leader” at the Emergency Operations Center below 200 Orange St. Smuts oversaw the city’s emergency response for several major natural disasters, including Tropical Storm Irene, Hurricane Sandy, and Winter Storm Nemo, the biggest blizzard of the century, which took place while Mayor DeStefano was vacationing in Ireland.
Smuts was known for staying calm under pressure, and elucidating the mechanics of city government work in a video series in the Independent entitled, Smuts Explains (check out an episode at left).
“It’s been a tremendous seven years” as CAO, and 16 years living in New Haven, Smuts said.
“New Haven has really become my home.”
Smuts said he has many good memories about New Haven, including “when I started as CAO and there was a controversy in hiring in the fire department.”
“Glad that was resolved!” called out a voice.
(The joke: There was not just one controversy. Smuts dealt with a pretty much continuous string of fire-promotion controversies in his time as CAO, including one case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Smuts said he doesn’t miss spending days on end in the Emergency Operations Center. During Winter Storm Hercules, he said, he was glad to be far away from the EOC, reading about the storm in the Independent on his phone.
Smuts, who has worked for DeStefano for his entire post-college life, thanked DeStefano for teaching him everything from how to run a meeting to how to organize a photo album.
Joining him at the party were many former and current city officials. Former Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy chatted with DeStefano and former mayoral staffer Matt Smith.
Purchasing Agent Mike Fumiatti (whose appointment is “for life”) sat with his daughter, Jessica, who works at the library.
Police Chief Dean Esserman caught up with former mayoral candidate and former Alderman Justin Elicker.
Personnel Director Noelia Marcano chatted with Kathleen Foster of the city corporation counsel’s office and Assistant Police Chief Denise Blanchard.
John DeStefano’s wife Kathy reunited with Rosemarie Lemley, DeStefano’s longtime executive assistant, and Renee Coppola, DeStefano’s childhood friend.
Smuts said nothing has been firmed up, but “there’s a good chance I might end up in California.”
“It will be really sad to leave New Haven—and to leave all of you,” Smuts said.