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Waterbury mayor forced to see the light

Published April 24. 2012 4:00AM   Updated April 25. 2012 4:03PM

"When I make a promise I keep it," Waterbury mayoral candidate Neil O'Leary said last year after he told voters that if he were elected mayor he wouldn't take the $91,000 annual pension he earned for 30 years as a policeman and simply live on the $119,000 the city pays the mayor.

The voters loved it, and Mr. O'Neil won the election.

So imagine how the same voters felt when the mayor let them know it was true that when he made a promise he kept it, but not the one about the pension.

What they felt was considerable anger and they apparently let the mayor know it because after a couple of days of almost living on a very nice income of $210,000 a year, he's back living on a very nice income of $119,000 a year.

The mayor thought he had a good reason for breaking the promise about forgoing the pension. His elderly aunt had had a stroke and needed expensive nursing home care. Then there was the tuition for his children in parochial school to pay and he wanted to continue to support local charities.

There were one or two little problems, however. The mayor didn't explain the part about his sick aunt until the day after he said he was taking his pension. He also said the pension was set aside for him and claiming it would cost the city nothing.

This seems unusual as pension funds are normally invested and not stored in a box in the treasurer's office with the recipient's name on it - but this is Waterbury, so you can't be sure.

But even with the excuse about his sick aunt, the mayor probably didn't impress the voters of Waterbury who live on maybe a quarter of the mayor's salary and there are a lot of voters like that, enough to make a one-term mayor.

And so, on Thursday, the mayor sent a note to the hometown paper, announcing he would reverse his decision to reverse his decision about the pension and apologizing for the temporary lapse.

The mayor did the right thing but it cost him an interesting distinction. In a city that has had more than one mayor who enriched himself by looting the city treasury, Mr. O'Neil could have been the first mayor to get in trouble enriching himself with his own money.

Whether the voters are of a mind to forgive the mayor for playing so fast and loose with the pension promise cannot yet be determined. But he's a new mayor and he has time to make amends before he has to face those voters again.

Fortunately for the mayor, the pension wasn't the only promise Mr. O'Neil made in his successful campaign.

He also said he wouldn't raise taxes and, so far, he hasn't. He didn't say, "Read my lips, no new taxes," as another famous promise breaker did but he did say, "When I make a promise, I keep it," which is almost as good.

It would probably be a good idea for the mayor to do everything he possibly can to avoid reversing the promise about taxes, even if he has any number of good reasons.

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