Published March 14. 2012 4:00AM Updated March 14. 2012 10:27AM
Even before Daryl Justin Finizio officially became New London's first elected mayor in 90 years, he was breaking from tradition and doing things differently. He tore apart the third floor of City Hall during the transition period to create offices for himself and his new staff. And for the inauguration, rather than squeezing into Council Chambers in City Hall, where swearing-in ceremonies traditionally have been held, Finizio selected the 1,450-seat Garde Arts Center as the venue.
The 34-year-old mayor, who favors argyle sweaters over neckties, wanted as many people as possible to attend.
After the ceremony, Finizio, the newly elected city councilors, the police chief and hundreds of others, all led by bagpipers and a police color guard, marched down State Street to the Crocker House ballroom for a party.
The next day, Finizio issued executive orders that would affect how police dealt with illegal immigrants and those suspected of marijuana possession.
Later, after New London State's Attorney Michael L. Regan told him it violated state law, Finizo rescinded a section of the marijuana order, which told police to look the other way if marijuana were being used on private property.
"I anticipated controversy with the executive orders,'' Finizio said during an interview last week at his office. He added that he was surprised there wasn't a greater outcry.
"I thought there'd be demonstrations on the steps of City Hall,'' he said.
The executive orders were the start of what would prove to be a busy and contentious first 100 days in office for the new mayor.
"I'm hopeful his second 100 days is better than his first 100 days,'' Councilor Adam Sprecace, the lone Republican on the City Council, said Tuesday.
He said Finizio's management style appears to be divisive, citing the mayor's campaign promise that catering to the south end of the city will end and the north end will no longer be neglected.
"That language suggests he is more of a divider than a uniter,'' Sprecace said. "We just don't need that here in New London. That's kind of rhetoric I'd expect to see on Fox News."
Finizio maintains that he has had public support for all his decisions.
"For years, so many people have not been part of the political scene," he said. "People in New London are OK with my policies. Some who don't like them are leaving, and that's OK."
Since his inauguration in December, Finizio fired one police officer and accepted the resignation of another. He also accepted the retirements of two police captains and refused to renew the one-year contract of the deputy chief, offering the three department members enhanced benefits instead.
He fired the first minority firefighter the city had hired in decades, just days before the man was to graduate from the state fire academy. He also announced that the fire chief will retire in 2013.
The city clerk, assistant city clerk and the assessor retired. The special assistant to the city manager, who was in charge of public works and the Office of Development and Planning, left.
Finizio filled several new positions and signed a settlement agreement with Police Chief Margaret Ackley, who had threatened to sue the city over alleged harassment by former City Councilor Michael Buscetto III. Finizio released a report on Ackley's allegations that found Buscetto had done nothing libelous. Even though Ackley was not likely to win in a civil lawsuit, the agreement awarded her $25,000.
The council, however, has refused to fund some of Finizio's changes, including Ackley's settlement and the police retirement agreements, saying the mayor acted before getting funding approval from the council.
One police captain has sued for breach of contract and the police union president has filed an intent to sue, alleging the administration violated his first amendment rights to free speech.
'Shock to the system'
Despite the controversies, council votes and lawsuits, Finizio, who describes himself as a progressive Democrat, makes no apologies.
He said he knew there would be resistance to personnel changes from those who have been in power for decades, but most people he talked to while campaigning wanted the changes.
"The public knew what we were talking about,'' he said. "They weren't surprised."
He explained to the City Council in February that the changes have been a "shock to the system."
"It was the rip off the Band-Aid approach," he said.
But Finizio's heady first days came to a screeching halt in February, when he discovered the city was facing a fiscal crisis.
Finizio predicted a $12 million budget shortfall over three years.
"We had no idea the conditions of the city finances were so bad,'' he said. "I knew there had been no tax increase in years and I knew that was not sustainable.''
The administration is taking steps to shrink the gap, he said, and "hopefully it will not be the worst-case scenario."
The deficit gap in the current year has been reduced by about $2 million. But recent news that the state is sending $600,000 less in its grant for distressed municipalities brings the shortfall back up to about $3 million.
Sprecace, who spent weeks poring over budget documents, estimated the shortfall in the current budget might be closer to $1 million. He estimated transition costs for the new government totaled about $900,000 - money that had not been budgeted.
Council President Michael Passero said the mayor's biggest mistake during the early days of the administration was unauthorized spending.
"The city's always austere budget is hard pressed to absorb the enormous costs of the retirement and separation agreements that were entered into without council approval, as well as the additional positions that were added and other unnecessary transition costs that were incurred,'' Passero said Tuesday.
Early mistakes could have been avoided, he said, if the new administration had consulted the council.
Even before he was officially sworn in on Dec. 5, Finizio seemed to send a signal of controversies to come.
In a carefully orchestrated press conference at Riverside Park in November, Finizio, as mayor-elect, declared a sales agreement with the Coast Guard null and void before the votes had been tallied as to whether the city should sell half of the park.
The head of the Coast Guard, Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., later said he was not sure the city wanted the Coast Guard and said it might be looking elsewhere to expand the academy and locate its national Coast Guard Museum.
Finizio said not reaching out immediately to the Coast Guard is one thing he regrets.
"If there were more hours in the day, I would have started discussions with the Coast Guard earlier,'' he said.
Finizio has since visited Papp in Washington, D.C., and has reported that both sides are working together to meet the Coast Guard's needs.
And while he said he's heard people criticize his frequent use of press conferences, he said talking on camera directly to his constituents is part of his promise of an open and transparent government.
"If something is happening, I want residents to hear it directly from me,'' he said. "Television is the way to do that."
Passero is still optimistic the administration and the council can collaborate and move the city forward.
"The mayor has assembled an administrative team that is both talented and dedicated, and for that he should be commended,'' Passero said. "I am confident that once we get rolling, this new form of government will bring our city the success that it has been denied for many years.''