Grilled at a two-hour-long confirmation hearing, the returning City Hall official Mayor Toni Harp has tapped to oversee city services said his first priority will be reining in runaway police and fire overtime costs.
Sean Matteson, former chief of staff in John DeStefano’s administration, gave those answers during a job interview for the chief administrative officer’s (CAO) position. During his confirmation hearing at City Hall on Wednesday night, members of the Aldermanic Affairs Committee grilled Matteson on his qualifications, his management style, and his ideas for a role that will put him in charge of New Haven’s public safety and infrastructure.
Mayor Harp picked Matteson to replace Mike Carter, who resigned from the position a month ago. But Matteson still needs the alders’ approval before he officially gets the job on a permanent basis.
Often at the hearing, Matteson responded with non-answers, saying he didn’t want to get ahead of himself. But he said that he plans to devote most of his attention to staffing models.
Because the clock is ticking on a 30-day deadline by which the Board of Alders must act on a confirmation, alders on the committee did not vote on whether Matteson should get the job. That would have delayed the process beyond the deadline, as the full board would schedule multiple readings before a final decision. So the committee discharged the matter without a vote to the full board, which will meet on Monday, where they can take up the matter as a “committee” and vote on it.
While the votes are still being counted, at least one alder who’d asked the toughest questions of Matteson said she expects that he will get the job.
The CAO oversees nine of the city government’s nuts-and-bolts public services: police, fire, dispatch, emergency management, public works, engineering, parks and recreation, libraries, and human resources.
In a letter to the committee, Mayor Harp said the CAO’s job is among the most challenging at City Hall. She said she picked Matteson for the role because he has “the experience, the presence, and the New Haven-specific expertise” to step into the job without any disruptions in the city’s essential services.
“Most departments under the purview of the CAO are up-and-running, on-duty, and on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year,” Harp wrote. “There are no days off, there is no down time, there is no opportunity for Sean to be less than completely vigilant. … Thankfully, his prior experience in this building gave me every confidence he’d be up-to-speed in no time.”
Matteson is a familiar face downtown. He served as Mayor DeStefano’s chief of staff for seven years, earning a reputation for effectively taking care of business behind the scenes. He said that he shepherded through DeStefano’s big projects, like New Haven Promise, the School Change Initiative, the Prison Reentry Initiative, and the Elm City I.D. card.
He grew up in a dying town, Youngstown, Ohio, one of America’s fastest shrinking cities. As he worked his way through Kent State University, he said, he became enamored with politics and government, as he thought about both “the good [and] the bad it can do in how it impacts individuals.”
After graduation, unwilling to join George W. Bush’s administration, Matteson said he scoped out hotbeds of “progressive politics.” He wound up in New Haven working as a political lobbyist for the union now known as UNITE HERE, where he sometimes took shots at the mayor he’d later serve.
Most recently Matteson worked as chief operating officer for the statewide charter school advocacy group ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now).
Hill Alder Evelyn Rodriguez, the committee chair, asked Matteson about the similarities and differences with his prior city job, Matteson said he plans to take the same task-oriented approach, only this time he won’t let politics influence his decisions.
“It’s still public service, it’s still managing people; it’s still diving projects. Those things don’t change. It’s just different scale and some different departments. But the biggest difference absolutely is the politics, or lack thereof,” he said. “As chief of staff, I was responsible for the political relationships in the city and the administration. That is not the role of the CAO. In fact, I think when using your data to determine where trees are trimmed and where the streets get paved, being political is the worst thing you could be. The politics, we just can’t do them and then explain to people why this street got done and not that street.”
The top priority, he said, will be reining in police and fire overtime, which has already blown through 40 percent of their budgets in the first two months of the fiscal year. Other big issues will be figuring out how to deploy a small crew of tree-trimmers citywide, protect trash-collectors who are too often getting hurt on the job, and improve customer service on the police’s non-emergency phone line.
The alders budgeted $6.58 million for police and fire overtime this fiscal year. Based on spikes this summer, both departments are projected to run over by an extra $4.09 million. The chiefs say some of that overtime will be offset by savings on salaries from their reduced forces.
Alders Evette Hamilton of Edgewood and Hacibey Catalbasoglu of Yale pressed Matteson for specifics on how he’d get a handle on the budget. Matteson said he needed more information to figure out why the current staffing model isn’t working.
“Are these events in a particular time? Is it absences of officers due to illness and injury? Are there vacancies which may cause a problem? Within deployment, who’s back at 1 Union Ave.? Who’s sitting behind the desk? What are they doing? Are these people being asked to move out of one district to cover another? Do we have too many people in one particular district?” he asked.
“I think all of these are part of the conversation, in terms of understanding where some of the overtime is and who it’s being spent on.”
While he doesn’t have all the facts yet, Matteson said he isn’t afraid to ask for them and figure out how to adjust, even if the conversation turned “uncomfortable.” That could mean asking whether firehouses really need minimum staffing or how soon the police academy really needs another class, he suggested later in the hearing.
Matteson said he’ll also build on the work that Carter did. In particular, he said he’ll continue rolling out a new neighborhood sweep campaign, where multiple agencies enforce code violations and solve other problems in the city’s neglected areas. Matteson said it’s important to make sure departments follow through after the cleanup, “because it doesn’t do any good to walk through and point these things out, if you’re not going to get it done.”