Published December 09. 2012 4:00AM
This past Wednesday Daryl Justin Finizio observed his one-year anniversary as the mayor of New London, and what a year it was.
When in November 2010 city voters approved a charter change to convert from the city manager form of government to one led by a directly elected mayor, Finizio was an unknown. A new resident of the city, he was on no one's list of potential mayors when speculation began about who might be that first city mayor in nearly a century. His ability to come from nowhere to take the top prize in the November 2011 election was a remarkable political story.
Seizing on a desire for change that had led city voters a year earlier to approve a charter change and abandon the city manager form of government, Finizio easily defeated established political figures in both the Democratic primary and general election. During the election he built a strong grassroots campaign, relentlessly and systematically campaigned in every neighborhood, and tapped into segments of the populace, particularly some of the newer and younger residents, who had not been invited into the political process before.
But the glow of that inaugural night a year ago, which included a swearing-in at the Garde Arts Center and reception at the Crocker House, dimmed with stunning quickness. First came a series of day-one executive orders, including instructing police not to enforce the law for marijuana smoking on private property, an order he had to rescind when a local prosecutor noted it was beyond the mayor's authority to tell police what laws they should or should not enforce.
Meanwhile, at Finizio's order, City Hall was being renovated to create a suite of mayoral offices.
Critics said the new mayor was already overstepping his bounds and called his actions pompous. It had been a mistake, they said, to elect an outsider.
In rapid succession the controversies kept coming. Mayor Finizio announced he had reached a retirement agreement with two police captains, and was letting the deputy chief go, as part of his plan to restructure that department. The council refused to sign off on the deals, saying the mayor had promised the retirees too much. Finizio made wholesale personnel changes in the City Clerk's office and at public works. After years of glacial change in New London, suddenly the city was shaking from seismic shifts.
The frequent procedural clashes with the City Council continued. Then came the mayor's pronouncement at a news conference that a review of the city's fiscal condition showed he had inherited a $12 million shortfall in an $80 million budget, figures challenged by members of the council.
The series of mayoral declarations led council President Michael Passero to decry it as "government by ambush."
Last week I sat down with the mayor to discuss his tumultuous first year. He told me his aggressive behavior in those early days was by design.
"The authority of the office needed to be established right away and I had to come on strong and lay down a marker that there was now a mayor in the city. This was no longer government by committee, no longer a council telling a manager what to do, but another branch of government with executive authority.
"This was a system completely and utterly foreign to New London. And add to that the fact that the guy holding this new office was largely unknown to the other established political actors in town," Finizio said.
His fear, he said, was that if he let the council take the lead and eased into the transition from city manager to a mayoral government, it would have weakened the new office, and him, and made the changes he thought were needed that much more difficult.
"You have to do all the clean up, tear off that Band-Aid, in that first year," he said.
Finizio said it was during the campaign that he first had suspicions the city's finances were suspect.
"The council had increased spending by nearly $1 million without increasing taxes because they had 'found some revenues,'" he said, using his hands to illustrate the quotation marks around the last three words. It his contention and that of the city finance director that prior council members knew, or should have known, that their revenue projections were not realistic.
Despite his campaign suspicions, the extent of the fiscal problems still shocked him. "The initial numbers were so bad they seemed impossible," said Finizio.
Working with the council to reduce city spending has been difficult, said Finizio, and he recognizes the 5 percent tax increase remains unpopular, but the mayor told me he is committed to doing whatever is necessary to avoid running a deficit this fiscal year, which ends June 30. More difficult and unpopular cuts could come, he said.
He calls the handling of the Al Mayo personnel controversy "the biggest mistake during my first year, hands down."
Mayo was set to become the first African-American firefighter to join the New London Fire Department in more than 30 years. Then bad reports coming from the Connecticut Fire Academy, where he was training, led to a recommendation from Chief Ron Samul and the Personnel Department that the city terminate Mayo's service during his probationary period.
Finizio said the reports he was receiving indicated Mayo was not a qualified candidate and, as much as he wanted to diversify the ranks of his city fire department, he did not want to keep someone on the fire force simply because he was black. In retrospect, however, Finizio said he could have pushed harder, demanding better evidence that Mayo was not up to par for the job.
The controversy dogged the first few months of his term. Finizio, who won election as an openly gay man, found himself criticized for enabling segregation. At an NAACP-sponsored hearing, Finizio heard stories of other minority firefighters who felt they had been treated unfairly at the fire academy.
In hindsight, Finizio said, that was a missed opportunity to reverse course sooner on his Mayo decision, yet he balked because he still lacked hard evidence of misconduct by the academy. The mayor only ordered Mayo rehired, with back pay and attorney fees paid by the city, when a state investigation initiated by state Rep. Ernest Hewett found evidence that instructors at the academy did not treat Mayo fairly or equally as compared to white recruits.
The mayor feels the city's response to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath shows he has put a good team in place. And he takes credit for initiating what he feels is a more frank discussion about the city's financial health.
Moving forward, Finizio said the city's fiscal problems will take time to fix. Another tax increase next fiscal year is almost certain, he said, pointing in particular to the need to increase education spending after several years of flat funding the Board of Education budget.
On the positive side, the coming year, he said, should see the start of the Village Thames apartment and condominium project at Fort Trumbull and possibly an announcement about locating the Coast Guard Museum here.
"Our staff is donating a lot of time to the museum," he said.
At this point Finizio said he expects to seek another term in 2015, but added that his ability to lead the city to better fiscal health and get development started will determine his electoral viability.
For all the controversy surrounding his first year, he is convinced New Londoners are growing more comfortable with their new form of government and it is here to stay.
"I, as mayor, may not make it more than one term, but I am confident New London will have a mayor," Finizio said.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.