Published April 01. 2014 6:00PM Updated April 02. 2014 10:15AM
New London — In a move that surprised many, Democratic Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced Tuesday night that he will not seek a second term and instead will focus on stabilizing municipal finances in his final 21 months in office.
"Too much of the debate in our city has been focused on me instead of our real financial problems," Finizio said in his annual budget address. "We cannot face the challenges before us if for the next two years this political paradigm exists. The city must be put first."
The mayor had already spoken in support of a bonding package proposed by the city's finance director that he said would close out 20 years of bad management of capital accounts, double the city's fund balance, and resolve its cash flow problems.
"I cannot simultaneously lead the city out of this situation, do what is necessary, and continue to speak uncomfortable financial truths, if every proposal from my administration is perceived as a political maneuver designed to get me re-elected," he said. "It is for that reason that I have decided I will not be a candidate for re-election next year, but will instead dedicate myself fully to the task at hand."
Wade A. Hyslop, City Council president and a Finizio supporter, said he learned the news in a meeting with the mayor about 5 minutes before the budget address began.
"I am heartbroken by it, only because I have been supportive of him, and I believe that he has honestly represented the city," Hyslop said. "I also believe that there are people who do not want to see the city go forward. They want to see the city fail, and they're going to be happy about this. I don't see how anyone can be happy about anyone who is willing to take their own personal feelings out of the running. … He is willing to sacrifice his own political career to see the city move forward. I'm dissatisfied with him doing it, but I see why he is doing it."
In an interview prior to his address to the council, Finizio said he believes his decision not to run again puts him in a stronger position to make the city solvent and that he has every intention of stabilizing municipal finances by the time he vacates office in December 2015.
"The debate has become focused around me, not the issues," said Finizio, who in 2011 became the city's first elected mayor in 90 years. "The tone of every discussion now is where (people) stand with me versus the real issues."
While Finizio acknowledged that harsh and constant criticism has taken a toll, he said it is not the reason he's not seeking a second term.
"My partner and I knew when we started this together in 2010 that it would be a sacrifice, and it has been, but the decision is not related to that alone," Finizio said.
He has come to realize, he said, that the good of the city has to take precedence over mayoral politics, and his sole focus will be on straightening out city finances and moving along other projects, such as construction of the National Coast Guard Museum.
City finances will be his top priority, he said.
"Not only are we out of money, but we are out of time. There is no other magic trick to be played," said Finizio, saying that for the two previous decades, city leaders held the line on taxes and depleted the city's fund balance, leaving New London in financial peril.
"We've got a cash flow problem and a potential state takeover," he said, adding that anyone who doubts that should study past city audits.
The 36-year-old mayor, who earns $86,000 annually, was elected in a landslide in November 2011 after running a "boots on the ground" campaign that led the city newcomer from virtual political obscurity to a household name. Finizio topped a field of six candidates, including two longtime native sons, Republican Rob Pero and Democratic write-in candidate Michael Buscetto.
Finizio said he intentionally made himself a "strong" elected mayor, because he believes that was the intent of the 2010 charter change that eliminated a city manager and instead provided for an elected mayor to run New London for a four-year term.
"The office needed to be established as a strong office," he said. "There needs to be a point person, someone to blame and to be held accountable. And you only get one chance to establish that right of authority."
Despite controversies that have swirled about him and his administration, Finizio said he has no regrets about his tenure and has every intention of continuing to be a strong leader.
He said he believes he could have won if he ran again. While he acknowledged that he had filed paperwork for the purpose of fundraising for re-election, he said he always thought he would likely only be a single-term mayor. The decision not to seek another term, he said, was not all that difficult to make.
"No one enjoys a high-stress job for life," he said, adding that being mayor is a 24/7 job and except for trips to Washington, D.C., for work, he hasn't left the city overnight in two years.
"No vacations," he said.
Finizio said he's not sure what he will do for work when his term ends, but he will continue to live in New London.
"I was born in Westerly, but that's my parents' home. New London is my home now," he said.
He also said he's made every effort to let his critics have their say and not respond to their personal jabs, commenting back only on policy issues.
"Responding only feeds that kind of negativity," he said.
Finizio wouldn't speculate on who he thinks will try to replace him, and one likely opponent, Councilor Michael Passero, was not at Tuesday's meeting.
Other councilors said they were surprised.
"At first we thought it was an April Fool's joke," said Councilor Anthony Nolan. "I just hope if it is what he is really going to do, that his decision is not based on the naysayers; that it is based on him having planned for whatever he is going to do next. If he decides to leave, I can only wish him luck."
Republican Councilor Martin T. Olsen said, "I think this only changes the political calculus in the city, and how that plays out, only time will tell."
Staff writer Colin A. Young contributed to this story.