100 days in, New Haven’s Toni Harp jarred by teen murders

New Haven — A newly elected mayor sat in a pew at Beulah Heights First Pentecostal Church on Orchard Street to join a community in mourning a gunned-down child. A realization hit: That’s what this job is about.

John DeStefano had that experience in February 1994. He would always remember it as the jolt that drove home the responsibility he had personally assumed by becoming New Haven government’s chief executive.

A newly elected mayor named Toni Harp found herself in that same position last week when she sat in Beulah Heights for the funeral of 17-year-old Taijhon Washington.

“I’ll tell you what really got me,” Harp said in an interview in her City Hall office about her first 100 days of mayor, a milestone she hits Thursday. “I was sitting in the pulpit area. I thought about the young people in the community. I looked at their faces. They were almost stoic.

“What hurt me was the impression that so many young people have seen their friends cut down by urban violence. There was this stoicism I didn’t like seeing on the faces of young people. I’m a mother. I have kids. We’re all fragile human beings. To think that these young people have to face this as a reality in their lives—it’s something I don’t want to see happen. I want to see us figure out a way so kids don’t have to spend their mornings at a friend’s funeral.

“That was the wake-up call for me. What we’re doing is not enough.”

Harp’s first 100 days have been a trial by fire—or snow, incessant snow—as she has raced to put together the first new city administration in 20 years, meet a two-month deadline to prepare a city budget, struggle to keep on top of a particularly stormy winter, and react to almost daily political dramas. Meanwhile she has found herself responding to the unexpected, the daily mini-crises or surprise developments that throw off any mayor’s schedule—including controversies involving some of her appointees, from a prison reentry chief who was barred from doing work in a prison, to a development chief who startled the governor by going off-script in asking for state money. (More about that later in this story.)

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Thomas MacMillan / New Haven Independent


Harp (pictured after cutting the ribbon on a new downtown police substation) got her final top appointments completed this week as her new chief administrative officer, Michael Carter, started work, and her choice for community services administrator (aka social services chief), behavioral health expert Martha Okafor, agreed to take the job.

Harp knew she’d be working more than full time in the job. She didn’t expect, she said, to be working seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 9:30 or 10 or 11 p.m. She has had three days off in the first 100 days of her tenure, she said. She has adjusted. Like her predecessor, she has been omnipresent at community events from parades to store openings while also conducting government business at City Hall, continually visiting the state Capitol to seek support, and, in one case, visiting prisoners at the Whalley Avenue jail to discuss her expectations for when they reenter the community.

“I’m getting used to the work load,” she said. “I think it’s going well. There are always problems and issues that need to be solved.”

And she spoke regularly as a candidate about the violence claiming lives of young people in New Haven, about her promises to open more youth centers and boost community policing and improve the schools and offer families and returning prisoners more government support.

Keepers

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Allan Appel / New Haven Independent

But talking about all that—and then sitting in the pews of Beulah Heights as the city’s mayor at a time of communal grief and frustration—are two different matters.

The day after Washington’s funeral (pictured), another teen, Torrence Gamble Jr., was gunned down in the Hill. Like Toni Harp, Gamble had attended Washington’s funeral. He had also asked to take part in a new anti-violence effort Harp’s team was putting together.

In the days that followed, throughout the weekend, Harp and her top aides met and spoke continually about how to respond. They ramped up new efforts they had underway, talked about new ones.

They readied the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, the effort in which Gamble had enlisted. It identifies young people who’ve been shot or have shot people or otherwise cycled through jails, and teams them up with adult volunteers like cops or firefighters or teachers. The Harp administration plans to unveil the campaign Wednesday afternoon with a public discussion and then a neighborhood canvass.

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Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent


Harp (pictured addressing Amistad Academy students at a Black History Month event) said in the interview Tuesday that she has also asked schools chief Garth Harries to plan a new transition school for seventh-graders through 12th-graders who are coming out of lock-up. The school would be a temporary destination for the students. Through small classes and personal assessments, it would prepare the students to reenter regular schools.

Meanwhile, she has moved ahead with planning to open new youth centers, including a planned new home for the old Dixwell Commuity “Q” House. Gov. Dan Malloy visited town to announce a $1 million state grant for the planning; insiders expect he’ll return to town before November’s election to announce another $15 million or so to build it.

“If we put our hands together, we can begin to solve some of these things,” Harp said. “Every child needs a caring adult who believes that child has a future.”

Taxes & Rancor

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Melissa Bailey / New Haven Independent

Harp grew most passionate during the interview when the subject returned to young people—even when she was discussing the budget.

Her proposed $511 million budget for the coming year includes a 3.8 percent tax increase. (The Board of Alders is expected to whittle that increase, but not eliminate it totally.)  That prompted angry protests in East Rock and among some critics in town. She defended the increase by stating that other cities have lower or similar mill rates—and that cutting more city services would hurt New Haven.

“Most towns, New Haven included, have already cut to the bottom,” she said. “Do we close libraries? Do we reduce our already seriously reduced workforce in public works and the parks department? What rally killed [former Mayor John Daniels] politically—you would drive by our beautiful parks, and the grass was knee high.”

Nor would she resort to one-time-revenue or long-term operational borrowing gimmicks that would threaten the city’s bond rating, she said. “The next downgrade would make our bonds worth junk,” she said. “I thought it would be irresponsible of me to do sleight of hand” that would lead to a downgrade.

Critics have focused on her requests to add positions, particularly a four-person grant-writing office. (A Board of Alders committee reduced that request to one position.)

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Thomas MacMillan / New Haven Independent


Harp (pictured announcing her budget at a late February press conference) responded that she eliminated other positions in the budget to make way for new requested positions.

“I absolutely stand by these positions. We’re the only city in the state of Connecticut without a grant-writing office. Where else are we going to get the money?”

She called the grantwriting office the best hope (in addition to tax-generating economic development projects) for bringing in new foundation and government money, help out young people with new youth centers and family programming, and avoiding tax increases. When she got to the youth-center part of the argument, she ticked off centers that have closed, like the Q House, the old Barbell Club, Latino Youth Development. Her voice rose in intensity.

“All of these kids have very little to do, no adults supervising them” while their parents are at work, she said. “We have let these families down!”

As in recent years past, the budget debate has featured some harsh public remarks about the mayor. Harp said she has learned to take in stride the personal attacks that have come to mark modern political and government debate, in person and online. In addition to criticizing her proposals, critics have called her corrupt, a liar, uncaring, among other epithets.

Harp rarely reads online comments threads, for instance, she said.

“There are a lot of people who are haters. If they have a policy point, it gets lost in vitriol. …

“I don’t internalize any of those attacks. I think it’s unfortunate on their part. I understand they have their policy point. Their policy point I’m willing to consider …

“I learned as a state senator that there are so many ways to see an issue. What I don’t care for is when people attack me personally and attack my motivations. Especially if they don’t know me. They’re living in a fantasy world.

“I don’t think I’ve said two words in my lifetime to Michael Stratton,” Harp said of one alder who has vocally criticized her. “He doesn’t know me.”

In response, Stratton accused Harp of living in her own “fantasy world.” “The mayor is trying to pick a fight rather than explain her lack of plan for this city or her incredibly self serving policies which take from the residents rich and poor and give to her friends,” Stratton said. “The only fantasy is the one Mayor Harp wants the people to believe. She wants them to think she is protecting their services when in fact she allows 80-90 percent of service budgets to go to her political allies and overhead. It is reprehensible. Public policy for her is taking treasure and services away from residents and giving it to political allies in central bureaucracy.”

Lessons

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Thomas MacMillan / New Haven Independent

Some of the more embarrassing moments in Harp’s first 100 days have involved surprises with her appointees.

She appointed Sundiata Keitazulu (pictured with Harp) to oversee the city’s prison reentry program, for instance; then she pushed him out of the job when it turned out he hadn’t told the administration about some outstanding warrants for pending criminal charges. Those warrants led the state corrections director to bar Keitazulu entry to the Whalley Avenue jail to work with prisoners about to be released into the community.

Harp said she learned from that episode to wait for the completion of background checks before having an official begin a job.

This past week she hired firefighter Michael Briscoe to run the city’s 911 emergency communications center. Firefighters union President Jimmy Kottage blasted the appointment because he said the city should have negotiated with him before making that decision; Harp said Tuesday that she thinks Kottage has a valid point. A bigger surprise came when she learned that Briscoe will be supervising his ex-wife, with whom he had a difficult divorce, in the communications center. She said she met with Briscoe Monday to underscore the need to act professionally in the position.

Harp said she believes he will do well in the position: “Mr. Briscoe impressed me. He’s a very bright man. He’s almost finished with a PhD.”

Another surprise came when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy reportedly got upset with Harp’s economic development chief, Matthew Nemerson, in a meeting over state funding for city projects. Nemerson was discussing, among other projects, the $395 million new mini-city that a developer called LiveWorkLearnPlay plans to build on the grave of the old New Haven Coliseum. The city has committed $12 million in bonding for public improvements for that project; it needs the state to throw in some $20 million or change to make the project a reality. Nemerson asked the governor for not only that $20 million, but another $12 million for public improvements. By several accounts Malloy was incensed or at least startled and annoyed: He had already apparently reached an understanding with Harp’s bosses that he would push for the $20 million in money for LiveWorkLearnPlay plus the $15 million or so for the Q House. Now he felt he was being presented with different priorities.

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Thomas MacMillan / New Haven Independent


Harp (pictured with Malloy at a Neighborhood Music School visit) Monday took the blame for the misunderstanding. She said she should have briefed Nemerson in more detail before he met with the governor.

“I had actually gone in there and not asked” for the additional $12 million, making the Q House a priority instead, she said. “It was perhaps my fault in not communicating with Matt that we’ve already make the ask; let’s just have him do what we told him we needed.”

Despite the daily drama and brickbats of local government life, Harp said she is enjoying the job. She said she feels a sense of mission—one she intends to seek to carry out into a second term.

“There’s a lot of work to do. I’m a problem-solver. Unless something different happens, I hope to run again,” she said.

She offered another prediction: “I’m not going to raise taxes next year. That’s for sure.”

This story appears in the New Haven Independent.

 

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