An administration under siege
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio finds himself isolated on a lonely political island. The waters around him are filled with critics relishing his policy failures, would-be allies unwilling to come to his rescue because they do not trust him to be a reliable partner, and loyal supporters drowning because he has provided them so little to cling to in his defense.
And sadder still is the fact that Mayor Finizio shipwrecked himself there.
This mayor arrived in office with a strong voter mandate. A Democrat elected to lead a city dominated by that party and with a council on which fellow Democrats controlled six of seven seats. That's a lot to work with.
Certainly there were challenges. As the first strong mayor since voters changed the charter, and abandoned the city manager system, the new chief executive was sure to face some rocky times as the council adjusted to its new role and entrenched interests in the city came to grips with the reality there was a new boss in town.
And Mayor Finizio was a relative newcomer, having moved here in 2010 before making his quick political ascension last year.
These factors made it all the more important for the mayor to try to form a respectful collaboration with the council and its president, Michael Passero. This did not mean that the mayor and council should agree on all things. Friction between the two branches of city government is part of the checks and balances built into the city's new system of governance.
But instead of searching for common ground, the mayor has alienated the council at almost every turn, and most particularly the council president. There have been too many mayoral edicts, too many press conferences in which council members had little or no notice of the news about to be broken.
This newspaper has given due credit to the mayor for identifying the serious financial challenges facing New London. While individuals can disagree with some of Mayor Finizio's spending decisions, such as the severance deals and staffing choices, he inherited the fundamental structural problems that created a large budget gap.
Yet identifying the problem is hardly enough. It is the mayor's challenge to find the votes on the council to address it. That's the political part of the job.
Instead Mayor Finizio faces a council in full revolt, the tipping point his recent announcement that he would have to lay off 25 firefighters and 10 police officers to live within the $83 million budget for the coming fiscal year sent to him by the council. The mayor held out the possibility the city could avoid the layoffs if the administration obtained savings through labor concessions.
In and of itself, that was no different than the tactics pursued by mayors and governors across the state and country in recent years as fiscal realities forced these executives to give public workers the ultimatum of concessions or layoffs.
It's how it happened, with the mayor giving no hint of these large-scale layoffs during the council budget discussions, which left the administration isolated. If you are going to threaten to lay off firefighters and police in hopes of winning concessions, you better make sure you have political backing. It appears the mayor had none.
And on Tuesday the council, in its final vote on the budget, pushed back, moving funds to save the fire and police positions and taking direct aim at the mayor, cutting the salaries of some of his staff, and eliminating other jobs within the executive branch, including a position Mayor Finizio called a priority, the deputy police chief.
At a press conference Wednesday the mayor dug in, saying the layoff notices remain in place and talks to gain concessions continue. Given the council's action, however, it is hard to imagine union leadership conceding little, if anything.
Most alarming, however, is the large credibility gap between the mayor and council.
"This is not an honorable administration," said the council president, himself a New London firefighter. "I can't get to the truth."
"The mayor said the police and fire departments could be funded under these budgets. Well, surprise, he lied again," said Councilor John Maynard.
It is hard to imagine how this budget fight now plays out, with a mayoral veto possible. Mayor Finizio may blame the council for refusing to cooperate and for denying the reality of the fiscal challenges, but until he recognizes his own culpability in causing this poisoned relationship, and moves to fix it, his administration cannot expect much success in achieving its primary mission - moving New London forward.