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Finizio: Breaking the cycle of 'the way it was'

Daryl Justin Finizio burst onto the city’s political scene in 2010 promising strong leadership, progressive policies and change.

He was a 34-year-old attorney and college instructor who had never held political office in New London and was considered by many an outsider facing an uphill battle against well-established opponents — most of whom were familiar faces around the city.

Finizio not only secured a primary victory over the Democratic Town Committee’s chosen candidate, Michael Buscetto III, he went on to win a landslide victory in a six-candidate field to become New London's first powerful mayor under charter changes adopted a year earlier.

Four years later there are similarities in his run for a second term.

He continues to embrace the role of the outsider pitted against the established Democratic Party or “old guard” — in this case his way of referring to his Democratic opponent, Michael Passero, a city councilor and firefighter.

Passero, like Buscetto four years ago, received overwhelming endorsement by the Democratic Town Committee, though he scoffs at the term “old guard.”

Finizio appears unsurprised by the committee’s backing of Passero, a candidate he said has the support of the “vocal minority” in a faction that closely resembles conservative Republicans. He said his supporters are quiet but more abundant.

Finizio previously served on the Westerly Town Council from 2006 to 2008 and later accepted a teaching position at Northeastern University in Boston where he taught introductory and urban law courses.

He has interned with the Rhode Island Attorney General's Office and served as a page in the U.S. Senate.

He formerly worked as a legislative policy analyst and staff analyst for the New York City Council and worked with the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice while a graduate student at New York University, where he obtained a master's degree in public administration in 2001.

Finizio earned a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Rhode Island, a master's degree in public administration from New York University, and a law degree from Roger Williams University.

In his campaign stump speeches and door-to-door interactions, Finizio is articulate and exudes an air of confidence while talking about his accomplishments and fight against the establishment.

“When people talk about going back to the way it was ... crime was rampant, the downtown was less occupied, less attractive. The schools were judged as failing, almost losing accreditation,” he said. “Pfizer had just pulled out. The eminent domain debacle was still on people’s minds and there were no major prospects for development.”

He now points to lower crime rates in a police department he said is now experiencing fewer civil rights complaints. The department, however, has lost about one-third of the number of officers who were working in 2009. 

New London High School graduation rates are up, the city has raised the hourly minimum wage for municipal workers to $10 and state intervention in the school system is ending.

A proposed $80 million National Coast Guard Museum in the heart of downtown, for which he lobbied, will be a “game changer” as a future economic driver for all of downtown, he said.

The city can also expect millions in PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) in the near future thanks to reforms by the General Assembly, something he has lobbied for during his four years in office.

He wants to use the added income to help control the tax rate while providing money for an increase in services and badly needed hires.

He considers his biggest achievement the passage of the nearly $200 million magnet school bonding ordinance, which required City Council approval, acceptance at referendum and a special law because it had missed the deadline.

The plan will complete the transformation of the school system into an all-magnet school district.

It will involve, among other things, renovating as new the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and New London High School.

Some facilities at the Garde Arts Center will expand to accommodate an arts magnet high school downtown.

The state legislature has approved reimbursement rates of 95 percent for the Garde project and 80 percent for the rest of the project, leaving the city to pay a balance of about $34 million.

“That would be hands down the greatest achievement of the administration in its first term,” Finizio said. “One of the biggest motivations in me wanting to run for re-election is seeing that through to completion.”

He said the school system, taxes and quality-of-life issues dominate the conversation on the campaign trail.

Taxes have risen steadily over the past four years. Finizio says his administration, on coming into office, was immediately hamstrung by a budget deficit left over from what he said was years of underfunding to keep a lower tax rate.

“The conservative approach of hold the line on taxes is fine, but they never wanted to cut anything,” Finizio said.

He said it led to a lack of maintenance on vehicles and buildings. The city's credit rating was downgraded in 2012. He takes credit for restoring the fund balance and for ending a long period with no increases for school costs.

“It wasn’t easy. It was painful. But we came out of it,” Finizio said. “The question is: How do you provide services and avoid the tax increases?”

He said the city is behind on road repairs, maintenance of facilities and staffing, especially in the public works and police departments.

Finizio said because of factors such as recently hiring a new grant writer and increasing the fund balance, the city is in a position to rebuild. 

Plans are underway to combine the city and Board of Education finance departments, a move he said will help improve accountability and efficiencies.

Critics say it is too little too late. The local police union has publicly decried his lack of support for police and says 34 officers have left the department since Finizio took office. The city has hired six in the last year.

Finizio said he is not only focused on building the department back up but ensuring that “past practices” that led to complaints are not repeated. 

“I do not dislike cops. This is not an anti-cop thing. This is an anti-abuse position I have,” Finizio said. “If I see law enforcement tactics that would violate the Civil Rights Act, I’m going to say something about it.”

What he refers to as the city’s “biting dog program,” led to complaints and statistics show a disproportionate number of those bitten have been minorities.

“I’ve stopped that practice. That in no way says I do not like cops. It was a particular law enforcement program with glaring numbers of potential civil rights violations,” he said. “Respect for the police, I think, has gone up. Negative sentiments expressed toward the police locally has gone down.”

He said that despite placing her on administrative leave during an investigation into potential wrongdoing, he supports Chief Margaret Ackley, especially her attitudes concerning civil rights training and community policing.

Finizio said one of his biggest disappointments was when a previous City Council overrode his veto of a five-dog minimum K-9 unit. He called it a purely political move and an attempt to appease a vocal police union critical of his administration.

“There was no rational analysis done, no demonstrated need for a biting K-9 unit,” Finizio said.

Passero has also criticized the mayor's lack of motivation in hiring new police officers and the fact that the City Council had money specifically set aside for hiring of police that was absorbed into the general budget.

“You can’t spend money that you put aside for police if you have deficits elsewhere in the budget, which we’ve had,” Finizio said. “But the moment I’ve gotten any OK from the finance department that we’re going to balance our budget and we can hire a cop — we hire a cop. We will hire as many as police as we can.”

With new hires, Finizio said he thought “morale would improve, community interactions with police will improve and crime will continue to decline.”

Finizio said the Public Works Department is in as much need of hiring as police and just as important. Finizio had fired former department director Tim Hanser following a death at the transfer station and federal safety violations.

Finizio has taken criticism since his election but brushes it off. “It is a feet stomping, social media blasting, talk radio calling, letter writing, big check writing minority,” he said.

“While it is a small minority, they will be at everything. If you look, it’s the same folks over and over again. A lot of them have been active in New London for years. A lot of them were supporters of Mike Buscetto in the last campaign," he said.

Finizio calls criticisms of his hiring and calls for the return of professionalism a “red herring.”

“When I came in and exposed the problems the city had, they didn’t want to believe it,” Finizio said. “Whatever it was, they wanted to make sure I got blamed for it. One of the simple ways to explain it is 'The mayor hired a lot of his cronies.' What I find about the criticism of qualifications of appointments is that they tend to be personal, people they don’t like.”

City Council President Wade Hyslop, who is not seeking re-election, bucked the Democratic Town Committee in his support for Finizio over Passero. While they did not always agree on policies, Hyslop said, he thought some of the criticism of Finizio was unfounded.

“I think most of it was personality conflicts,” Hyslop said. “People saw him as an interloper.”

Finizio said those personality conflicts led to his announcement that he would not run for re-election.

Finizio said those personality conflicts led to his announcement that he would not run for re-election.

He said after the announcement criticism died, arguments subsided and policies he had championed cleared the City Council with relative ease.

It was only after he said that others urged him to return that he changed his mind and jumped back into the election.

Answering his critics, Finizio said he intends to hire a chief administrative officer after the election. The position is something akin to a city manager and mandated by charter.

His original appointment to the position, Jane Glover, resigned following an illness in 2014. Finizio appointed Laura Natusch his new chief administrative officer in redefined role with fewer responsibilities.

Finizio said his administration still plans to handle the bulk of the responsibilities.

“We have a professional finance director, personnel director, risk manager, law director. I don’t think you need a city manager there all day,” Finizio said. “But what you do need is … someone to be there to work on the smaller day-to-day managerial decisions, because the mayor has to be in too many places."

Finizio, who shares an Ocean Avenue home with his husband, Todd Ledbetter, said his desire to serve the city stems from his love of the city.

Looking back prior to his move to New London in 2008, Finizio said he saw it was a place "where we could be ourselves and where we could feel completely at home, where our church was, where our friends were, where our community was. We moved here for that.

"I feel like there's something more that's happened in the past four years, besides balanced budgets and school investments, as supremely important as all of that is," Finizio said. "There's also been a move towards saying the diversity of New London, the people of New London, is New London's greatest strength."

g.smith@theday.com

Twitter: @SmittyDay

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