Harp Ups Ante, Asks Johnson To Reconsider

Thomas MacMillan PhotoMayor Toni Harp made a last-minute plea to her neighborhood anti-blight chief Monday, offering him a $26,000-plus raise to turn down a new job he has already accepted in Hartford.

Harp made the offer in a meeting with Erik Johnson (pictured), executive director of the Livable City Initiative (LCI), City Hall’s front-line agency dealing with economic development and code enforcement in New Haven neighborhoods.

Johnson had accepted a new job as deputy economic development chief for the city of Hartford, according to his new boss-to-be, Director of Development Services Thomas Deller. Deller said Monday that Johnson has agreed to start his new job, which pays $125,000, on July 7.

Johnson informed people around New Haven late last week that he was leaving the Harp administration to take the Hartford post. But he hadn’t formally given Mayor Harp his resignation.

Instead of doing that on Monday, he agreed to consider the offer to stay at a higher salary, Harp said Monday afternoon. Harp said she offered to match the Hartford salary dollar for dollar. Johnson’s New Haven salary had been slated to rise to $98,230 in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

Johnson could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon. Reached earlier in the day, he declined comment on his situation.

Hartford’s Deller said Monday afternoon that he hadn’t known that Johnson was considering an offer to stay in New Haven after all.

“I guess I’m going to have to talk to Erik,” he said.

He was asked if he will up Johnson’s salary to hold onto him.

“I usually don’t enter bidding wars,” Deller responded. “Erik and I sat down and reached an agreement. I’m sure we’ll sit down and have a discussion and take it from there.”

Following is an earlier story, with more background:

Thomas MacMillan PhotoErik Johnson is set to leave his job at City Hall just as his department is in the midst of some ambitious anti-blight and neighborhood development efforts.

Johnson has accepted a new position as a deputy development chief in Hartford. He will wind up his work as executive director of the Livable City Initiative (LCI), city government’s neighborhood anti-blight and development agency, in June.

Mayor Toni Harp tried in recent weeks to convince Johnson to stay on board, in part by seeing if New Haven could match some of a pay increase he will receive in Hartford. In the end, Johnson decided to pack up.

Johnson, who grew up in Newhallville, could not be reached for comment Friday. He began telling people around town about his new job on Thursday.

“We are very excited for Erik. He has been an amazingly talented and versatile part of this administration and the previous administration. We will miss him terribly,” said his immediate boss, city economic development chief Matthew Nemerson. “When you have very talented people, you want to see them fly higher and meet new challenges.”

Nemerson said the administration hasn’t yet decided if it will hire a permanent new LCI chief by July 1 or appoint an interim director. “We have excellent candidates we’re considering,” he said.

Johnson is departing as some key LCI initiatives are in crucial stages. He has been working with Newhallville-based cops, activists, and heads of other city departments to craft an intensive anti-blight and redevelopment project in that neighborhood. Two major development deals he helped negotiate—the construction a new 5.39-acre retail-office-hotel complex on Legion Avenue across from Career High School and a dense mini-city of apartments, stores, and offices at the old New Haven Coliseum—recently won local approvals and now need shepherding to actual construction. The rest of the envisioned remaking of a 16.2-acre strip of undeveloped land along Route 34 West, a project Johnson has spent years developing, awaits its next conclusive planning stages. He won approval for a framework for a makeover of the “Hill-to-Downtown” area linking the train station to Yale Medical School environs and the center city, with the real detail work yet to begin. And Johnson had just launched an ambitious online marketing campaign to convince people to buy homes in the city.

In Hartford, Johnson will serve as deputy to Director of Development Services Thomas Deller. He will earn $125,000 in the job, Deller said Friday. If he had stayed in his New Haven job, his salary was slated to rise to $98,230 in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

Deller said he will “look to” Johnson to help him rethink how Hartford approaches housing and neighborhood revitalization and economic growth.

“I’ve been looking for a deputy for two years. Erik and I started talking 10, 12 months ago,” Deller said. “I like his thought process. I like his skill set.”

In recent years, Johnson made perhaps his most distinctive mark by demonstrating how a public official can admit a mistake and then work with outraged citizens to try to make it right.

The mistake was the choice of a Bridgeport-based developer to rescue the declining former Dwight Co-Ops on Edgewood Avenue. The developer broke all of his promises, stiffed the city, and left the complex in wretched condition. Johnson repeatedly apologized to neighbors; sent city crews to clear snow and make emergency heating repairs; and spent countless hours negotiating with federal officials and prospective developers to find a more credible builder to step in. Click on the video above and click here, here and here for sample stories about that saga, after which tenants repeatedly thanked Johnson for sticking with them.

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posted by: Jim Travers on May 30, 2014  6:17pm

New Haven will certainly miss you my friend.  I am glad that I have had the opportunity to work with you.  New Haven’s loss is Hartford’s gain.

Be well, and knock em dead!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on May 30, 2014  7:41pm

Kelly Murphy?

posted by: cp06 on May 30, 2014  7:55pm

Why has no media followed up on the change of heart of the Mayor who, during her campaign, wanted to dismantle LCI. It never happened. Maybe I am missing something, but not one article covering the change of heart. From wanting to dismantle to begging Johnson to stay, I would have expected the Independent to cover that! What’s happening with you guys?

Maybe Johnson can do some good in Hartord, who otherwise cannot seem to get out of their own way for decades now.

posted by: M Short on June 2, 2014  9:52am

Erik came into the City when the type of development Economic Development was working on was large scale and Downtown/Hospital centric from my perspective. To me, a person who lives and works on the fringe of Downtown in one of New Haven’s many complicated neighborhoods, full of all types of residents, hospitals, businesses, schools, non-profits, there was a clear need for more direct attention and strategy from City Hall for neighborhoods like mine. Erik brought that and new and different skills than were common at City Hall at that time into the fray.

Erik, you raised the bar. I wish you well in Hartford.

posted by: FacChec on June 2, 2014  2:34pm

Harps effort to retain Erik Johnson is nothing short of unbelievable.

First, Johnson’s performance has, in my opinion, been nothing short of dismal, up to and including a complete failure to eliminate blight in New Haven, indeed blight has increased along with the high rate of vacant units and buildings. His failure to meet even the minimum goals set by the LCI agency, such as:

Enforcement of the city’s housing code and public space requirements.

Design and implementation of housing programs to support high quality, affordable, and energy efficient housing opportunities.
Educating and increasing awareness on solutions for neighborhood concerns.

Design and implementation of public improvements and programs to facilitate safer, healthier, and more attractive communities.

Harp has the opportunity to perform a national search, as she did in the search for a new CSA administrator; instead she chooses to accept mediocrity and has the audacity to
increase the position salary above that of an executive management position, without even performing a performance evaluation.

In a word ..Pitiful.

posted by: Shaggybob on June 2, 2014  4:00pm

I think it’s insulting to all residents of New Haven that are hard working minimum wage earners or the equivalent that ANYONE in City Government should be offered what amounts to an annual blue collar salary as an INCREASE in pay.

He makes almost $1,800 a week now.

How can anyone who can’t enforce the payment of fines levied on blighted property owners deserve such a lavish salary ?? even at 90k.

Lets get some new blood in here for a fresh start at a reasonable cost.

posted by: LookOut on June 2, 2014  4:41pm

Last fall, one of the key ‘ideas’ that Harp had was to dismantle LCI because of its dismal performance.  Now, suddenly, the manager is a superstar?  Where is this extra money coming from?  Is Harp going to eliminate one of those new positions?

Where is the accountability?

posted by: robn on June 2, 2014  7:36pm

How about, “No.”

posted by: tbialecki on June 2, 2014  8:09pm

The first thoughts that come to mind of Erik leaving are “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone”.  I trust that the Mayor and Nemerson will find a qualified replacement.  But Erik is so qualified - almost over qualified for this position.  In all my work w/him I was impressed with his knowledge and insight of the issues and more important how to resolve a problem.  Besides being an incredible family focused guy and finding time to be a great father he was committed to his work and all the challenges that come with it and trust me when you do the math the hourly pay is below current minimum wage.  Thanks for all you did and good luck in Hartford!

posted by: Billy on June 2, 2014  10:09pm

That kind of raise for Erik Johnson, when you just forced the B of A, to
RAISE OUR TAXES (at least they had our best interest in mind, and didn’t go for your entire figure)?!? Shameless, Mayor Harp.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on June 3, 2014  12:39am

It was indeed prudent of Eric to seek employment elsewhere.  Especially considering the fact that Toni ran on dismantling the man’s job.

Additionally, since the administration has realized the importance of Eric’s value to LCI, and are willing to give him an additional, $26,000, in my view, they should be made to explain to the public the sudden change of course.  Unfortunately, not even the Board of Alderman can hold them to that standard.

posted by: WC parent on June 3, 2014  7:35am

tbialecki summed up my feelings nicely.  I hope a replacement is not needed and Erik stays.  I appreciate the honesty he brings to the position as well as the thoughtfulness of his future planning for the city of New Haven. He knows and understands New Haven.  A national search will not bring anyone more qualified and not for the salary being paid right now.  Good luck either way Erik.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on June 3, 2014  7:40am

This was absolutely, positively the wrong step for the Harp administration.  Mr. Johnson brings great value but it was time for her to place her own stamp on things. 

I agree, and have always agreed, with her campaign plan of consolidating the two branches of LCI into the housing code department and economic development.  This would actually make housing code enforcement more streamlined and centralized.  It would provide a greater consistency and training of inspectors.  Moreover, it would make the economic development aspect of LCI just that - economic development. 

If Mr. Johnson stays, it will be great for the status quo and he will do many GOOD things.  However, if the Harp administration seizes this opportunity for what it’s worth, a new direction may accomplish many GREAT things for the city at a savings.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 3, 2014  8:13am

Glass Ceiling Notes:

1. The decision to irrationally reverse herself shows again, a weakness and lack of management experience in the Harp House.

2. Being a family man and father have nothing to do with heading LCI.

3. Johnson has made some huge errors in judgement that have left taxpayers and residents vulnerable.

4. In reality, LCI is among several departments that should be re-organized and put under the supervision of another department. Management should be flattened so that it operates less like an adult day care, and more like a an agency with an accountable mission with measurable goals. Have you ever heard of “results based budgeting?”

posted by: Edward Whalley HCJ on June 3, 2014  8:26am

In all of the time I worked with Erik I was always impressed by his dedication to a integrated approach to neighborhood revitalization.  He had a keen eye for identifying strategic residential sites across a neighborhood for infill and rehabilitation and understands the importance of investing in neighborhood business corridors as an integral part of the effort. 

Erik and I spent an afternoon years ago walking throughout Trowbridge Square and Kimberly Square identifying the important linkage sites. 

If Erik does indeed go to Hartford it will be our loss.

posted by: Long Time NH Resident on June 3, 2014  10:02am

@ tbialecki

Not to down play your personal praise of Mr. Johnson BUT I did the math.

$92,000/$10 per hr = 9200 hrs per year. Divide by 52 weeks and he works 172 hours a week. Considering there are only 168 hrs in a 7 day week…....Just sayin.

The Mayor shouldn’t have tried to remove his position and he may have stayed. Better for him to leave without the threat of his Department being dismantled when Mayor Harp changes her mind yet again.

posted by: Atticus Shrugged on June 3, 2014  10:22am


I agree that Erik is an asset to New Haven.  But not as director of LCI.  I think he should be “deputy director of economic development” and in charge of either all housing related deals or all deals between $1 million and let’s say $50 to $100 million, in which the city is a player.  That is a job worthy of $125,000 a year and it would come with the same title and power he would otherwise get from Hartford.

LCI should then be consolidated into the Housing Department, Rafael Ramos could be deputy director, receive a $10,000 to $15,000 raise and manage certain code inspectors.  This would enable the City to release two to four administrative staffers, freeing up around $80,000 ($120,000 for 4 admins less the $40,000 in raises to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Ramos).  The City could presumptively then hire another inspector or two to help with the current work load.

Regardless of whether Mr. Johnson stays or goes, this should be the course taken over the next two or three years.

posted by: Razzie on June 3, 2014  2:50pm

I thought this day would never come ... however, I am in agreement with practically all of what NOTEWORTHY stated above!

Erik Johnson may indeed be a great person, smart person, good father, well-liked by his superiors, etc., but there is little to show that his talents are well suited to the current mission and operation of LCI. And there is little to show that the increased salary grade of the LCI Director would be justified under the increase proposed by the Mayor. If the job position is appropriately rated at the current level of compensation, what is the justification for such an outlandish pay increase in relationship to all other department heads. Irrespective of Erik’s talents and good nature, I am afraid that the Mayor’s proposal is based on all the wrong reasons, and will be impossible to correct once Erik moves on. Any increase in pay grade should only be accompanied by a review of all Department Heads’ compensation packages and job responsibilities. Otherwise, the LCI job position need be revised and upgraded from its present status.

If the Mayor simply is looking for a way to offer Erik more money, that can perhaps be accomplished by doing what Atticus has suggested, move Erik to Deputy Economic Development Director.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on June 3, 2014  11:59pm

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an LCI where folks actually picked up the phone when you called in? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an LCI that aggressively enforced blight issues and levied fines against violators? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an LCI that made sure that those who buy city properties on the cheap do what they say they’re going to do in a timely way or get fined? Wouldn’t it be nice to have an LCI that didn’t want to give a free pass to people like those at the 433 Chapel property that bought a city property cheap 12 years ago and now what to sell it for big money? Come on, we can do better than this. It’s not rocket science. Get people who work hard, manage effectively and make sure the job gets done efficiently and well.  No snake oil. Taxpayers deserve nothing less.

posted by: robn on June 4, 2014  7:25am



posted by: Stephen Harris on June 4, 2014  8:56pm

LCI’s mission morphed over time into something it wasn’t supposed to be. I wish Erik all the best. I think he was a good man in a difficult situation.

posted by: Razzie on June 5, 2014  4:58pm


Since even before Erik came on the scene, LCI was responsible for administering various LDA’s (land disposition agreements) involving city owned properties turned over to developers with continuing compliance conditions attached. LCI dropped the ball on several high-profile LDA developments (similar to the ones recently noted on Sherman Ave, lower Chapel St., and of course the Garfield Spencer debacle). We can take little solace in the fact that Erik is working hard to now fix those oversights. Bottom line is, those mistakes cost New Haven $$ and in some instances jeopardized the health and safety of affected residents.

LCI, under Erik’s reign, has also admitted to knowingly failing to administer the fines and penalties provisions of the LCI ordinance against landlords who are required to register and comply with housing ordinances. His response upon being called on the carpet for this neglect, was that he didn’t have staff assigned to administer this area of responsibility.

These above two areas are and have been major functions of LCI. If the position “morphed” into performing other functions, at the expense of those functions expressly assigned to LCI by ordinance, then I would question the administrative wisdom of that set of priorities.