Published March 02. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 02. 2014 7:09PM
In a meeting with the Editorial Board last week, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, an amateur boxer, explained the axiom of leading with the head, not the chin. The forehead of the skull is thick, the chin vulnerable. This came by way of explanation as to why he wore a cap during meetings about the concerns of the downtown business community last Wednesday. The cap covered contusions and discolorations on his forehead. Yet better than taking a shot in the chin, he said.
Unfortunately, by employing the buddy system rather than a competency standard in making key appointments to his administration, Mayor Finizio continues to lead with his chin. It means his administration is weaker than it need be and leaves him more vulnerable to critics looking to land punches.
Yet we must admit that on this point, at least, the mayor's head is indeed thick.
Mayor Finizio will soon fill one of these key positions, chief administrative officer (CAO). The City Charter requires the position, stating the CAO "shall be the principal managerial aide to the mayor."
In rewriting the charter to convert from the city manager system of government to one led by a mayor directly elected by the people, the charter commission recognized the need to have someone focused on the day-to-day operations of the city. The intent was to free the mayor to focus on policy, interact with the community and businesses, and avoid getting mired in the trivial.
Appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the mayor, the charter states the CAO should be "appointed on the basis of substantial executive and administrative experience, qualifications and knowledge."
Upon his election, Mayor Finizio appointed Jane Glover as his CAO. From our perspective, this appointment did not meet the intent of the position, yet it was understandable. Only having lived in the city a couple of years before his election, the mayor said he needed someone better versed in the local political scene. Ms. Glover, a former councilor and ceremonial mayor, long politically and civically active, fit that bill.
With word of Ms. Glover's pending departure, Mayor Finizio has the chance to help him and the city by hiring a professional CAO. Instead, he appears intent on moving further from the intent of the position.
Mayor Finizio says he will choose between David C. Pressler, now assistant to the mayor, and Laura Natusch, office administrator and special secretary for the mayor, both recently appointed. Both are hard workers, perhaps, but neither is remotely qualified to be CAO of a $41 million organization, the price taxpayers pay for city government.
Mr. Pressler served four years in the Marines. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the American Military University and studied for, but did not complete, a graduate degree in homeland security from the University of Connecticut. He doubles as director of emergency services.
Ms. Natusch has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. She has led, it appears, the life of the struggling artist, working as a waitress between and amidst jobs as an artist. She runs a small business making soap and body care products. A supporter of the mayor, she ran unsuccessfully for council in November on the Democratic ticket.
The mayor should reconsider and appoint instead a qualified CAO. Not only could such an appointee help the mayor in management of operations, he or she could also insulate the mayor by dealing with, for example, complaints that the city did a lousy job of clearing streets in the downtown business district after a snowfall.
The mayor appears adamant that he needs no such help because he holds a master's degree in public administration and studied urban law and policy at the doctorate level.
"It was my intent all along to make sure New Londoners got control of their government. We've had a system of government, council/manager, where we would look outside our community in broad searches for … qualified people with resumes. And where did they lead the city? Not in a good direction."
His priority, he said, is appointing people "dedicated to the community" with experience in local organizations. He wants people who "know how I think, where I'm trying to steer."
This philosophy has led to the appointment of a public works director whose background is as a chemistry teacher and Pfizer scientist, not coming close to meeting the qualifications for the job as outlined by personnel policies. The city's economic director has no higher education degree, having worked as a Realtor and office administrator.
Passion and loyalty are admirable qualities, but they don't trump qualifications and competency.