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How it went so bad, so fast, for Finizio

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published April 06. 2014 4:00AM

While there was definitely rejoicing in some circles last week when New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio announced he would not seek re-election in 2015, I felt a tinge of sadness. A relatively short time ago, Finizio seemed positioned to lead the city's transformation. Now he faces so much criticism that he concludes he must take himself out of the running for re-election if he hopes to save his city from fiscal insolvency.

That's kind of sad.

It was just two years and four months ago that the city voters elected Finizio as mayor under a charter change that for the first time in nearly a century put the election of the chief executive in their hands. Prior to the change, the council hired a city manager to run things and picked a ceremonial mayor to preside at its meetings and cut ribbons.

The charter change handed the mayor a lot of power, too much arguably. The mayor's administrative appointments are not subject to council approval. It takes six votes on the seven-member council to override a mayoral veto.

The Day had long argued for changing to a strong-mayor government, citing the need to provide consistency, to generate greater political advocacy for the city, and to make one person principally responsible for setting a policy agenda and accountable for it.

After an exciting election, in which multiple candidates had debated policy in a manner never seen in the days of the council-manager system, Finizio emerged as the voters' choice, winning by a wide margin. His victory was all the more impressive because he was a newcomer - having lived in New London only a couple of years before his election - yet defeated opponents with long political and family histories in the city.

The 34-year-old mayor brought excitement and the potential for change and growth to a city that seemed to be falling far short of its potential.

"To those who have waited for the moment when New London might turn that corner, the moment when the power of our people might be at last unleashed, I say, this is that moment. This is our chance. This is our time," said the new mayor at his swearing-in.

From inspiration to acquiescence is quite a fall.

In trying to analyze that fall, you can point to the mayor's missteps, and there have been many. It remains a mystery how someone so adroit at running a campaign could be so politically clumsy once in office.

Finizio faced an opposition that was virulent, persistent and amplified by social media. For Finizio, the bitterness of the campaign never faded. Instead, it grew. It is understandable why people disagree with the mayor and don't feel he has served the city well, but I remain mystified by the intensity of the animosity directed at him.

In last week's State of the City Address, when he delivered his announcement that he would not run again, Finizio suggested another factor - his status as a relative outsider had made his job more difficult than perhaps he anticipated.

"I wish I was a New Londoner. I wish all people in our city knew my heart and understood my motivations," he said.

From my perspective, that did not have much to do with it. The public does not receive bad news well, whether it comes from a native or a newcomer.

And delivering bad news was the biggest factor, among the many, which has made Finizio's term so rocky. A progressive wanting to pursue big ideas, Finizio has instead had to chip away at spending and programs. He inherited a city that was in worse fiscal health than he ever imagined. Finizio has had to tell citizens their city is broke. He has pushed tax increases, while cutting services and reducing staff by 25 percent.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be inspirational when repeatedly delivering that message.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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