Hamden Mayor Curt Leng was in his office around 9:30 one morning last week when he checked the Facebook Messenger app on his iPhone 8 Plus. A constituent from Park Road had something to tell him.
“Hey Curt,” she wrote, “I don’t mean to be a pain, but they haven’t filled the pothole in front of our house yet.”
Leng forwarded the message to his public works director. Public works, he recalled, “just happened to be driving the east side” at the moment.
Within a half hour, he said, the pothole was filled. Later that day he reported the news to the Park Road messenger, who reciprocated with a happy-face emoji.
Government action doesn’t always happen that fast.
But the Facebook-to-tar-and-asphalt encounter reflected the way running a local government has changed thanks to modern technological tools. And the way elected officials stay connected to constituents and can be held accountable to them.
At no time has that been on display more than since this past weekend, when Leng has been online from morning until late into the night updating Hamden residents on government and United Illuminating efforts to restore power and keep people safe amid a deep freeze in the wake of a winter storm.
On a typical day, Leng said, he posts two to four times on Facebook, automatically reposting on Twitter, to keep in contact with constituents. He regularly checks his personal and mayoral pages and Facebook Messenger. He checks SeeClickFix twice a day to scan for complaints. He’ll post on Instagram a few times a week as well.
“It becomes part of your routine. It can become a good tool to connect with people” — lots of people in a short time — Leng said.
Leng, who is in his second term as Hamden’s mayor, spoke about his social media routine and about other efforts to connect constituents with government during an appearance on WNHH FM’s “Dateline Hamden” program. He has hit on a formula that matches new-school techniques with old-school tactics.
Like mayors and governors and Congresspeople and senators across the country, Leng has learned that he and his government are a media outlet of their own, able to harness web tools to get out important information and hear from people in real time.
Besides tech and social media, Leng is looking at expanding Hamden’s community policing initiative to make more of those connections, in person.
During the interview, Leng said in response to a question that he plans to run for a third two-year term this year. He also said he recently testified at a charter revision meeting against extending mayoral terms to four years, “even knowing I was going to run as mayor. You can do a lot of damage if you don’t know what you’re doing. You want to give people an opportunity to give you a report card and telling if you’re going the right way or not.”
Besides the two-year report card, voters get to fill out daily progress reports to Leng through Facebook posts. Or through one of his most popular media, text messaging. Leng texts. And texts. At last count he was receiving 5,000 texts a month, he said. He called it a quicker form of email.
He decided to create both a Curt Leng Facebook page and a Mayor Curt Balzano Leng Facebook page when one of them started approaching the 5,000 limit for followers.
So how does he have time to concentrate on in-person interaction and thinking, and decision-making?
Leng has a strategy. He doesn’t get Facebook notifications. He’ll set aside times to go through posts and messages, usually between 9 and 10 a.m. and between 9 and 10 p.m.
And he doesn’t over-document his personal life. He sees the web tools as a means for distributing town information. He rarely turns the camera on himself to produce Facebook Live videos, for instance. Rather, he’ll video-record interesting civic events he believes constituents would benefit from experiencing as well. For instance, he Facebook Lived a presentation at a meeting about the town’s plan for redistricting schools. Before swearing in new members of Hamden’s Chamber of Commerce, he Facebook Lived some of the speeches about business developments in town.
Leng went into self-described “overdrive” when an ice storm and subsequent freeze last weekend killed the power in over 2,000 homes in town. Under cover of darkness, he went out on Four Rod Road, Meadowbrook, seemingly everywhere live-streaming crews restoring power. He posted several times an hour, mixing safety tips with updates. He followed UI crews, blasted alerts about closed-off streets, shared information about extended centers at the town warming center and the opening of a second center for families without heat in their homes.
“With the storm, it was by far the fastest way to get information to the largest number of people in the town,” Leng said. “It took it beyond constituent service to public safety.”
Leng dabbled with the Next Door social media site, which he believed had a lot of promise. He has found postings there the “least productive,” so he infrequently uses it now. (That may have been a polite echo of nationwide complaints that the site has been overrun by racists and haters and other cranks and trolls.) Leng still posts breaking information there involving public safety, say, or weather alerts on the site, along with others, he said.
Leng brought in SeeClickFix to Hamden in October 2017. The New Haven-based service directs citizens complaints directly to government departments, generates work orders, tracks responses. The town pays $10,000 a year for the service.
Meanwhile, Leng resuscitated a strategy from the past century to connect police with Hamden citizens: police walking beats.
As a kid, Leng heard about walking beats from the man who inspired him to enter public service: his grandfather, Hamden police Sgt. Andrew Balzano. He learned a lot about addressing problems from his grandfather.
“He was always trying to solve problems and find compromise” in dealing with people, Leng recalled. HIs grandfather advocated for tough penalties for perpetrators of violent offenses — and second chances for people who made smaller mistakes.
Leng began working on political campaigns as a student at Notre Dame High School. He first ran for a Legislative Council seat, as a Citizens For Hamden party candidate, at 19. He won a seat two years later. In between serving four terms on the council, he held Town Hall jobs for Democratic Mayors Carl Amento and Scott Jackson. He ran community development, then oversaw line departments as chief administrative officer.
Since becoming mayor, he has worked on expanding the town’s community policing program, he said. Under his watch the department assigned walking beats for the first time in 40 years.
Walking beats can’t cover most of the city’s 33 square miles, he acknowledged. Additional bike patrols, at 12 rotating locations, have added a “middle-ground” strategy of coming more face to face with citizens while also being able to reach locations fast.
In the coming year, Leng said, the police will direct all 106 sworn officers to carve out time on each shift for one-on-one actions with citizens. The city has also entered into a contract with a new agency to build its street outreach worker program, targeting young people (formerly just teens, now offenders in their early 20s as well) most responsible for violent crime or most likely to be engaged in it. (Click here to read about that new agency, called Connecticut Violence Intervention Program, Inc.) The town will also choose a new police chief, probably within three months, Leng said.
Click on the play arrow to listen to the full interview with Hamden Mayor Curt Leng on WNHH FM’s “Dateline Hamden” program, which includes discussion of his administration’s top priorities for 2019.