Mayor Toni Harp did something smart, according to the state’s top elected Republican: She listened to him.
The Republican, State Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, made that assessment about the mayor’s recent steps to address the rise of drug abuse and overdoses on the New Haven Green.
He said that after he publicly attacked her for ignoring the problem, she listened and took the right steps.
The pair made those remarks in back-to-back interviews on WNHH radio.
The back-and-forth began on Aug. 16, while city emergency crews and officials raced to respond to a spate of over 100 overdoses on the New Haven Green caused by a bad batch of the cannabanoid K2.
Fasano, the Republican president pro tem of the State Senate, issued a blistering press release. He accused Harp of ignoring a problem right outside her office window and allowing the Green to become a “place of despair.” That led to responses from Harp and others in town who were outraged that a suburban legislator would inject himself into a local issue like that for, in some people’s view, political gain. (Read Fasano’s statement and some local responses here.)
Fasano said in an interview on WNHH’s “Dateline New Haven” program that, as someone who works in New Haven, he had seen the problem firsthand and needed to speak out.
The city has increased police patrols, arrested K2 dealers, worked with medical institutions to identify and help addicts, and worked out on a longer-term plan that includes a probable new drop-in center run by Hill Health Center to help overdose victims and others using drugs on the Green.
“Mayor Harp has stepped up. I call them like I see them. She has shown leadership and said, ‘We’re going to deal with this problem,’” Fasano said in the radio interview. “I think she’s done a good job since it reached that pinnacle.
“But until it reached this pinnacle, nothing was being done. The only time she took action was after I wrote that letter. Now she showed mayoral leadership. She’ll get all the credit from me that she did take to heart and worked on this. When you reach national exposure, you have to do something, and she did. Better late than never. And I applaud her for it.”
“B.S.!” Harp responded with a laugh the following day on WNHH’s “Mayor Monday” program. “So like it was him!”
“We’ve been working on it for four years. And we could use some help, by the way. Don’t criticize unless you want to ante up and do something about it. That’s my challenge to him,” Harp added.
Fasano said on the program that he’d be willing to support increased reimbursement to the city under the state’s Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, more money for treatment, and the proposed drop-in center.
But he added that he expects more transparent and responsible public spending in return from the city.
Which leads to the second chapter of this unusual series of exchanges between two former State Senate colleagues. Fasano issued a second press release personally attacking Harp soon after the K2 episode, responding to news reports that she spent $4,000 on new uniforms for mayoral staffers.
Fasano said the story “speaks volumes about Mayor Harp’s priorities…. Taxpayers in New Haven and throughout the state should be furious.”
Why would an out-of-town legislator weigh in on $4,000 of spending in one community? Would Fasano apply the same scrutiny to, say, the four-figure spending decisions of municipal officials in Avon or Winsted?
Fasano said he focused on New Haven because he grew up here and works here (as an attorney), and because Harp had criticized the state for cutting aid to the city.
“She went up 11 percent on taxes across New Haven. She argued that she needs more money. The city is broke. She went up 11 percent on taxes. The state’s not giving her enough money. She blamed everybody in the world. She’s telling the residents of New Haven, ‘We are broke. We have to tighten our belts. We have to go up 11 percent.’ Then you take money out of a firefighter’s fund, create a new line in your budget for wardrobe.”
It is “symbolic” of irresponsible spending, he contended.
“We need to give New Haven more money. But when I see $4,000 being spent on uniforms, it speaks to a fundamental fairness of fiscal responsibility. In North Haven, where I come from, my first selectman isn’t buying uniforms for his staff.”
He added that because New Haven’s a one-party Democratic town, no elected officials will criticize a Democratic mayor. So someone had to do it.
Harp responded that Fasano failed to call her or otherwise get the full story on the expenditures. She said his true motive is political: Donald Trump’s unpopularity is threatening the chances of statewide Republican candidates this November, including “somebody nobody knows” running for governor, and Fasano was looking for a Democratic punching bag as a scapegoat and diversion.
“I think what he is doing is attacking me to rally his base,” Harp ventured. “It’s fine with me. But get the story right.”
Fasano denied any political motivation in his remarks; he’s not “running for mayor,” he said.
“I don’t consider myself a suburban legislator. I am as much an urban legislator as Sen. [Martin] Looney is. I was born and raised in New Haven. I work in New Haven. I come to New Haven virtually every single day. In fact, the legislators at the Capitol consider me a New Haven legislator because I vote in favor of [New Haven] bills. Because I believe the strength of our state is dependent on the strength of our cities….
“Look, I like Toni Harp as a person. I think she’s a nice person. I just think that some things in New Haven have to change. And some things I don’t think she got right.”
You can hear the two officials’ full explanations of their positions, including Harp’s update on the uniforms, in the videos below.
Click on the video to watch the full interview with State Sen. Len Fasano on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.”
Click on the video to watch the full episode of “Mayor Monday” on WNHH FM.
This episode of “Mayor Monday” was made possible with the support of Gateway Community College and Berchem Moses P.C.