Interim city administrators to remain in the new year

After a tumultuous year for the administration of Mayor Toni Harp, City Hall will close 2018 at a temporary standstill, as several high level positions will remain filled by acting staffers into the new year.

In Harp’s fourth year at the helm of the Elm City, two of her longtime aides left her administration. In August, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Michael Carter resigned from his post as New Haven continued to struggle with managing soaring costs and tightened budgets. Sean Matteson, a top staffer in the administration of Harp’s predecessor John DeStefano, stepped in as acting chief administrative officer, but the Board of Alders rejected an October vote to confirm him officially to the position.

Additionally, Matthew Nemerson, who headed the city’s Economic Development Administration, resigned from his position last week to return to the private sector, with his duties as development chief assigned to acting City Plan Director Michael Piscitelli. But Harp, who has not named any potential picks, is comfortable with entrusting the duties to acting administrators for the foreseeable future.

“In each of those cases, Mayor Harp is confident about the manner in which the positions are filled,” mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer told the News. “For the time being, there is no other search [for replacements] underway.”

Harp named Carter and Nemerson to their high-profile positions soon after winning her first mayoral election in 2013 and stuck by them even as their leadership styles proved controversial. In 2017, Carter verbally berated a union official and — despite calls for his resignation — retained his position. Matteson, who spent his entire career in the private sector prior to joining the Harp administration, also clashed with officials and was temporarily placed on unpaid leave in June.

The August resignation Carter — Harp’s first out-of-state hire who came to the Elm City from the public works department of the nation’s capital — highlighted administrative concerns in the city. The chief administrative officer is tasked with coordinating the implementation of the mayor’s policies with the Elm City’s various agencies. One of the key responsibilities of New Haven’s chief administrative officer is to work with the police and fire departments, whose persistent inability to stay within their respective allotted budgets has been a particularly sore spot for the cash-strapped municipality.

Negotiations for the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2019, are already underway. Matteson and the next chief administrative officer’s priorities will include negotiating with the police and fire unions, who exceeded their budget allotments last year and are on track to do so by more than double their allotments this year, according to the city’s most recent fiscal report.

The alders rejected Harp’s nomination of Matteson to the fill the post long-term in October — the first time the Board exercised their power to deny Harp an administrative pick. Several alders highlighted their concerns with his inability to articulate how he would rein in overtime, the primary contributor to the city’s budget-exceeding costs. To avoid bankruptcy this fiscal year, the city opted for its largest ever refinancing of debt and took out additional loans.

Ward 1 Adler Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 told the News that the Board was concerned by Matteson’s failure to offer a “concrete explanation” in his confirmation hearings as to how he would manage overtime. Grotheer told the News that overtime costs related to the public service departments are symptomatic of larger issues with understaffing, but that the administration is collaborating with the Board of Alders to address staffing concerns.

Matteson is legally permitted to continue serving as acting chief administrative officer despite the alders’ downvote lasting six months, through mid-April. New Haven’s city charter requires that the mayor submit a proposed budget to the Board of Alders by March. The Board will then balance and finalize the budget by early June in time for the beginning of the new fiscal year just weeks later.

Whether the mayor re-taps Matteson or sends a different choice to the alders for the chief administrative officer post, Grotheer suggested that Harp has no intention of submitting a nomination well in advance of the April deadline. Matteson will likely be responsible for steering the administration through the challenging budget talks for the upcoming year as a result.

Harp is similarly unconcerned about choosing a successor to Nemerson, whose four-year stint heading up one of the city’s most important administrative branches led to sweeping changes in New Haven’s developmental landscape.

Nemerson resigned from his position on Nov. 29, accepting a position in the private sector. Although his department is currently overseeing ongoing projects, Nemerson felt that he could leave his post after overseeing the recent completion of several projects. He told the News that, although he was proud of the administration’s accomplishments during his tenure, he believed that the City needed “new blood.”

Piscitelli took over for Nemerson during the latter’s unpaid leave in the summer and will tack on the responsibilities of acting development chief to his already existing role as acting director of the City Plan Commission, a sub-department of the Economic Development Administration.

According to Grotheer, the additional interim responsibilities complement Piscitelli’s existing position, and Harp envisions Piscitelli serving in his dual role for “up to a year.”

Harp was first elected mayor of the Elm City in 2013.

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu

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