Sunday, October 14, 2007
Experienced State Representative, Intent On Cutting Red Tape
(Observer publisher John Murray sat down with State Representative Tony D'Amelio inside the newspaper office on Bank Street in late September for a wide ranging interview on ethnic politics, the health of the Republican Party in Waterbury, and how the leader of the the city should spend more time lobbying up in Hartford. D'Amelio has served the 71st District for the past 12 years. Photographs by Michael Asaro)
Observer: Your parents were both Italian immigrants and some people will look at Tony D’Amelio and say you are living the American Dream. Through hard work you started your own business, have been a community leader for 19 years, and now you are running for mayor in the 5th largest city in Connecticut? What has been the key to your success?
D’Amelio: A lot of hard work. I got involved in public service for the right reason and that’s why I’ve managed to have longevity. It’s about what you can do for your constituents and not what you can do for yourself. I honestly live that. My father came here when he was 18, my mom when she was in her twenties…
O: Were they from the same town?
D: From the same region. The towns were next to each other. My cousins John and Joe own D’Amelio’s restaurant and their father and my father are brothers, and their mother and my mother are sisters, so we call each other brother-cousins. I hope they never need a liver or a kidney, because we might match. (big laugh)
We are a tight knit family. I have aunts who are 10 to 12 years older than me and we all kind of grew up in the same house. My grandmother raised all of us because my parents went off to work. Being brought up in that culture affected my values. I watched my grandparents and parents helping each other out. If someone was sick or hospitalized they didn’t have to ask for help. Meals were prepared. Community values were instilled in me.
It wasn’t always easy for me because my parents got divorced when I was young. That was devastating, especially because they were Italian immigrants. As a young guy when that happened your whole world is taken from under you. But I learned from that experience that you have to work hard because no one is going to hand you anything.
O: How has politics changed in Waterbury since you were first elected to the board of education in 1989?
D: Individuals that are elected now take things more personal. When I was first elected Joe Santopietro was the mayor and I served on the school board. There was always give and take with the other side of the aisle, but after the meetings everyone would sit down and have a beer together. I don’t see a lot of that going on now.
Now people are often against a proposal because of who proposed it. They are against an individual and don’t see the bigger picture. Another difference is the confidence of the voters. Back then there was a lot of pride in Waterbury. I think people felt better about their elected officials. Don’t forget that since I was elected Joe went through his problems, Phil went through his problems, and then the Governor. There was pride when I was first elected and now it’s “what the hell do you want to serve for? Why are you running?” People looked at you back then with honor, and now when they look at you they don’t have the same amount of trust that they used to have.
O: Former Governor John Rowland called politics in Waterbury a “contact sport”. How would you describe the political process in Waterbury right now?
D: It’s still a contact sport, but I have always prided myself on sticking with the issues. I don’t hit on someone’s personality or someone’s character. But in Waterbury now it’s all about character assassination. If you’ve been in public service for a while you must be a crook. My opponent for the state rep race last election called me everything under the sun. He said I was a crook and that everything I’ve achieved in life is because of my political connections.
O: How do you deal with that?
D: I’m very grounded. I know who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am. It bothers my wife and family more than it bothers me. I know it’s politics and I’m just going to roll with the punches. If you are going to be in politics you have to have a thick skin. Especially in Waterbury. Your opponents are going to attack your character to try and show that you’re not the person you really are. It’s very difficult and that’s the reason it is so hard to get people who want to run. It is getting harder and harder to find people who want to serve.
O: Tony, you’ve been on a short list of mayoral candidates for the past 12 years. There was talk of you taking on Mike Bergin in 1995 and of challenging Phil Giordano in 1999. Every municipal election in the past 12 years your name has been bandied about as a mayoral candidate. The Republican Party leadership has begged you to run before and you always said no. What’s different in 2007? Why did you say yes this time around?
D: It’s very simple. I’m very much a family guy; my family comes first before anything else. I have two daughters in college now and I have a 12-year-old son. I wasn’t sure where my daughters were going to school and I wasn’t going to jump into a mayoral race. Both girls go to UConn so it’s affordable, but they could have chosen to go to Fordham or Yale. My wife and I are committed to giving our children an education and we don’t want them to have a huge debt. I never wanted to rely on politics for my livelihood because it’s so uncertain. So my family came first.
Secondly, I had to consider my business. I’m self-employed. I started Three Of A Kind restaurant with my two partners in 1983 and then in 1997 I opened Paisanos. I made a huge investment in that new building so there was no way I could walk away from that. I now have a good management team in place, and a great staff, so I can run for mayor.
On a personal note, the first time they wanted me to run in 1995 against Mike Bergin I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to take on that type of position. Now I’ve been involved for 18 years. I’ve been a board of ed member, I’ve been an alderman, and I’ve been in the state house for 12 years so it’s a different day. I know exactly what this city needs.
O: The Republican Party has a solid history of selecting young Italian males from Town Plot as its mayoral candidate. It hasn’t worked out all that well for Waterbury because the last two Republican candidates elected mayor went to prison. There is a very real fear in some quarters of this city from voters who look at Tony D’Amelio and say “Oh no, here we go again, another Italian male from Town Plot.” What would you say to those voters?
D: It angers me that this was even brought out. When I first announced I was running the mayor went on TV talking about Phil Giordano and Joe Santopietro. The only similarity that we have is that we’re Italian Americans from a certain area. That’s where it ends. I think I have proven myself. I’ve been involved in public service for 18 years and there’s not a blemish behind my name. With all the scandal that’s gone on here in Waterbury there’s nothing been said about Tony D’Amelio.
And this issue drives and motivates me. If I do become mayor I am going to do a fantastic job. The Italian community has been labeled because of Santopietro and Giordano, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all bad. I have daughters that are Italian-American and they shouldn’t be labeled because of what two individuals did. It is important to the Italian community to have me run and clear up this issue. They want this stereotype to go away.
The mafia originated in the Italian community, we all know that, there’s a history of that, but we’re not all Mafioso, or a part of that. We’ve contributed a lot to Waterbury and America. We are good hard working people.
O: I agree, but one of the challenges of your candidacy is to convincingly bring that point across. Voters around the city are concerned about this issue. Joe Santopietro was just arrested again this year for his effort to help the mob control trash hauling in western Connecticut. Giordano had links to the mob that were being investigated before he was arrested for pedophilia. This is not the Sopranos, this is Waterbury and the mafia has been right here in the city. Organized crime has been in the mayor’s office. This is a difficult issue for people to put on the table and ask you, but voters are talking about it all around you, behind your back. That’s why I wanted to ask you directly to your face and let you respond to the issue.
D: I appreciate that. The Italian-American community has struggled with the corruption of Joe Santopietro and Phil Giordano and that’s why the Italian-American community is thrilled that someone like me is running for mayor. They know me. I have a strong record of public service for the past 19 years. I’m excited to show Waterbury that this problem isn’t about all Italian Americans, and I think they know that. A lot of the politicos want to make a case to discredit me, they use a whisper campaign….he’s Italian, he’s corrupt, and the campaign started off that way this year. They wanted to put fear in people’s minds that here’s another corrupt individual. The minute that article came out that quoted the mayor as saying I was backed by crooks and felons, the stereotype was being put forward.
My daughter wrote a letter to the editor that expressed how she felt. It was very powerful. She didn’t tell me until after she sent it in. It brought tears to my eyes. My 19-year-old daughter wrote that her father had done nothing but serve the community, and opponents have no issues against him so they try and drag him through the mud by bringing in the Santopietro situation and the Giordano situation.
She wrote that she was an Italian-America and asked if that made her bad. Her letter was very powerful and that whole issue died down.
O: The one part that let’s people keep the issue alive a little bit is that you are very good friends with Jeff Santopietro. You don’t hide that, he doesn’t hide that. He’s in your headquarters picking up lawn signs. There is something radioactive about the name Santopietro, and suddenly he becomes the cunning fox pulling your strings. Is he?
D: Not at all. When I first decided to run people told me to keep Jeffrey out of the picture, in the background. That’s not me. I don’t hide my stripes. I am who I am. Jeff has been a dear friend of mine for the past 20 years. I became really good friends with him when he was going through the situation that he had. It wasn’t easy for him. His brother was a very popular mayor and his whole world collapsed. He was a young man, I think he was 19, and it was a very tough time. He has always been there to help me and we’re good friends.
If you look at Jeff today he is married, he is running a very successful business and he continues to give to the community in so many different ways. He is a great guy. If people are concerned about the Santopietro name, they shouldn’t be concerned with Jeff. He doesn’t control me in any way, shape or form. No one controls my decision-making. I have to do what’s right for me.
O: The last two Republican candidates for mayor, Mark Forte and Tom Tremaglio, both had innovative and refreshing ideas, yet both men said they were screwed over by the very Republican leadership that urged them to run. It’s been a tough time for Republicans in Waterbury. What’s your take on the health of the Grand Old Party in Waterbury?
D: I’ve helped energize the party with my candidacy. The majority of the party feels we have a legitimate shot. I understand how Mark and Tom feel, after the Giordano mess our party was splintered. I applaud them for taking the helm, for actually putting their necks out there. And Dennis Odle in 2001.
Even now, the party gives you the nomination and you hope for some help, but it all falls on your own back. Some members are great, and some members hand you the nomination and don’t volunteer or work hard. That’s in every political party.
I am one of the few people who get along with everyone. I was good friends with Nick Augelli, I was good friends with Sam Caligiuri. There was a big split there from what Sam did to get the leadership of the board of aldermen from Nick. He did what he did, but I remained friends with him. Now we’re even better friends since he came to the Statehouse and we work together and we have really gotten to know one another. Nick I served with for years on the board of aldermen. When everything went down with Joe Santopietro it was Nick Augelli who was our leader. I was on the school board at the time but he was the figure that kept us all together. He said we can’t get discouraged, we have to stay together, and not long after that Giordano got elected. But Nick was the leader that held this party together and a lot of people forget that history. If you look at all the camps out there today there is little factions everywhere. Not everyone is happy with his or her party, and that’s just something you come to live with.
O: 34% of all tax dollars in Waterbury go to unfunded pensions and retiree medical costs. Despite the unfunded $450 million pension nightmare. Some of your opponents have stated that the medical costs to retirees is likely an even larger liability to the taxpayers. How would you tackle the problem?
D: That’s the next huge hurdle that Waterbury is going to face. We don’t know what that exact number is yet, but we have to find that out and deal with it the same way we are dealing with the pension fund, and that’s pay as you go. Some people may disagree with me, but when you have a debt of that magnitude, when the actuarial reports say we must pay $40 million a year, we have to do that. Waterbury is not out of the financial woods yet. We still have a huge debt. It’s no different than your home. You have $100,000 debt on credit cards and you borrow against your home and start making monthly payments. You think you’re out of the woods, but you still have that debt. Unless you sell your home that debt is not going to go away until you pay it off. It’s going to take us 18 years to get out of debt but we have to do this. When we find out what the health care costs are we are going to have to do the same thing.
O: How do we figure out that number?
D: That’s a good question. For years I don’t think anyone knew what they were doing in dealing with health care benefits. Now that we are addressing this issue I think it’s scaring a lot of people. Just imagine what the state of Connecticut is on the hook for. But whatever these numbers are we are going to have to deal with them head on. No smoke and mirrors. Whatever the debt is we’ll have to tackle it. Sam Caligiuri proposed legislation in Hartford that would have the state bond the money for the pension fund and then Waterbury borrow that money. But there is only $25 million in the bonding package before us right now and Waterbury needs $450 million. There are 78 communities out there right now that have a pension fund problem so it’s going to take a while to convince Hartford to actually bond that money. That would be the best scenario because we would bond that money at the state rate and pay that debt slowly.
These issues bring to light our financial situation in Waterbury. We have a $7 million surplus this year. That’s nice to say that but we have a $460 million pension fund debt, and whatever that health care cost is going to be. We’re not sitting as pretty as we think we are.
O: The Republican mantra is always to cut taxes, or to keep taxes as they are. Waterbury has the highest tax rate in Connecticut. People are drowning here. And another pig is about to drop on the table with the health care costs. The bad news isn’t over is it?
D: No. The Oversight Board did yeoman’s work by reversing a lot of the sins that occurred in the past 30 years of mismanagement in Waterbury. The $40 million a year that we have to contribute every year is because of the mismanagement of city finances. We are paying for that. I would love to be able to say that I will cut your taxes but that’s not who I am. I can’t lie to people.
There are things that can be done and I think economic development is the key to that. It’s no different than my business. I have fixed costs just like the city and those costs go up every year. Lights, fuel, payroll, health care benefits, they are not going to go down. Unless you bring in more revenue to cover that, the money has to come from somewhere. So what do you do?
Can you go to the taxpayers? No, people are tapped out. Everybody is just barely surviving in this area. We are a blue-collar town.
O: So how do we attract more businesses here?
D: We need an aggressive economic development plan. First we need to encourage developers and businesses that Waterbury is a place they want to be. One thing I learned in Hartford is that there are 169 communities in this state and we’re all competing for the same factory, the same fuel cell business, everybody is in on this game. Years ago suburbia wasn’t in on this; they wanted to maintain their same small town character. But that’s changed. The small communities now understand the importance of economic development in keeping their taxes down and they’ve created industrial parks like the one in Watertown.
I propose that we pre-permit sites in Waterbury. One of the things Waterbury is known for is that when a developer or new business comes here they get discouraged with red tape and bureaucracy. They decide its going to take them too long to get up and running and they go somewhere else. But if we pre-permit sites, we have so many Brownfields, and buildings falling in disrepair that are no longer viable, that we need to get them ready for change.
O: How would you do that? Pick out a site and take us through the process.
D: We are trying to do this with the Harper Leader property on South Main Street. We have applied for money to remediate that property. It was an old fuel company that fell into disrepair. We would take that property and apply for all the necessary permits on the state level.
O: You’d take it by eminent domain?
D: We can, but with this new Brownfield legislation it’s going to be a lot easier for the city to go in and take these properties. We could work it out with the existing owner who doesn’t have the funds to clean the site. We can do all the necessary legwork as a city to get this property ready to be permitted. They we can go out and market it. If we want we can apply for the money and clean the property and get it ready for a potential developer or factory owner. By doing this we can take all the leg work out of the project for any developer or business looking to move in. This will get rid of the stereotype Waterbury has that nobody moves fast enough and you’ll get tied up in red tape. If we pre-permit these sites we could get the Waterbury Development Corporation to remediate the property and then we could sell it to a developer. We would get back the money we spent cleaning the property up and we’d have a new addition to our tax base.
O: It’s interesting that you talk about the feedback you get from businesses and developers about their frustration dealing with Waterbury’s red tape, and we just had the top two leaders at the Waterbury Development Corporation leave in frustration that the city is imposing red tape on them making it difficult to start projects.
D: Alderman Paul Vance proposed to have everything go through the board of aldermen and that’s not what WDC was created for. It was a shoot off of the Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation and was supposed to get rid of all the red tape. If you look at all the projects NVDC did in downtown redevelopment like the Palace Theater, UConn and the magnet arts school, all that money went straight to NVDC. In Hartford we didn’t want that money going straight to the city because it would slow down the process. The most recent example is the money to fix the football field at Municipal Stadium. We earmarked the money to WDC because we wanted to avoid the nightmare of having the project bogged down in the city’s bureaucracy.
I got a $150,000 to fix up Town Plot Park a year ago and nothing has been done. The money is to buy new playscapes, to fix the walking trail, to fix the sprinkler and other maintenance things.
O: Is the money still in Hartford?
D: No, the money was earmarked to the Park Board and it hasn’t gotten done yet. The city for some reason sits on its hands. There is no motivation to go out and do these projects. That’s what has to change. So I don’t blame Mike O’Connor (the former executive director of WDC) for being frustrated, and he started to air some of that frustration about the City Hall project. That project was adopted after a painful referendum on the issue. On May 30th of this year the aldermen adopted the $39 million project. It’s October 1st and we don’t even have a contract yet. That’s obscene. When there is a standard contract used throughout the industry, and it’s the same one Michael O’Connor used for the $300 million downtown development, we need to sign that and get the project started. It was good enough for the Palace and UConn, it’s not good enough for City Hall?
O: The mayor just came firing back with an op-ed piece in the Republican-American newspaper saying that standard contract was set up to protect the contractors and not the city. He said a new contract would better protect the citizens.
D: Maybe that’s his belief, but I’ve spoken to attorneys who deal with this issue all the time and they have told me that the contract doesn’t protect the developers. There is equal protection and that’s why it’s an industry standard. There was a 30 day grace period after the referendum in case someone challenged the results, but during that time the mayor could have had someone working on a contract. There is no excuse for the delay. So imagine you are a private business having to go through this, where every single day is costing you money, you couldn’t do it. That’s why the real money, the real businesses that we look to bring into the city don’t even look at Waterbury. They get frustrated and aggravated that everything takes too long.
O: So how do you fix WDC?
D: By having leadership. The mayor has to take a strong lead on these things. He has to be an ambassador for development in Waterbury. Whoever takes that seat has to dedicate a majority of their time to economic development. If that doesn’t happen we are in deep trouble. Because our costs are only going up. If you look at our tax bills from ten years ago and compare them to today’s, they have almost tripled. So how much more can you ask from a taxpayer? We can’t ask for anymore.
O: So you have to take a pair of scissors and cut the red tape?
D: Absolutely. Not create more of it like they are proposing to do now. The mayor is seeking more control over WDC and that’s not why they were created. WDC has an executive board, the neighborhood has some people, the chamber is on that board, and then there is a board of directors of 25 individuals. There is checks and balances with WDC. You want to take it out of government’s hands because any time the government gets involved it will take you forever. I see that on the state level. State projects take forever because you have to go through all that red tape.
O: Downtown Watertown is fully occupied and flourishing, and Waterbury’s downtown isn’t. Why is that, and what can you do to specifically help downtown Waterbury?
D: If you look at what Carl Rosa and Main Street are doing they have some great ideas. As a mayor you have to become a part of that, you have to become a real cheerleader for Main Street.
I did a merchants walk and the number one concern from the merchants was parking. They complain that sometimes a customer will pull up and run in and get something quick and when they walk out there is a ticket on the windshield. We have sent the message that we won’t tolerate illegal parking, but we have to go beyond that and address the parking so businesses can survive downtown.
Another issue is that property owners want to put money into their property but they will have to pay more taxes on the improvements and there is no guarantee they will get tenants. So we need to give tax breaks on property improvements to help get things going. These are ideas that the property owners have come up with. There are beautiful buildings down here with spaces that can turn into apartments so we can create more living space downtown. A lot of kids getting out of college would love to live downtown in a one of these apartments but we have to market that and have to give the landlords and property owners an incentive to rehab those apartments.
O: Just so I’m clear, what would you do with the parking tickets? Would you stop issuing parking tickets?
D: No. That’s another stream of revenue that the city has, but I think there needs to be some common sense applied. If you see someone pull up to Louie’s Pizza to run in and grab a grinder we shouldn’t be racing over to give that customer a ticket. If the car is sitting there for an hour, tag them. You don’t want to create the image that we’re giving away free parking, that’s not what I’m trying to say. We just need to use wiser judgment to make it more business friendly. I go to Tony’s Men’s Shop all the time, I buy the majority of my suits and clothes from Tony’s and I go to Fine Crafts because they are specialty shops. It’s a little harder to convince our wives because we have become a mall society. But we have great ramparages downtown and we need to do a better job marketing that they are clean and safe. Maybe we should offer free parking a few days out of the year to try and get more shoppers downtown. Once they are downtown they can see that we are safe. The image is that downtown is not safe. We have the buses on the Green, and the people that hang around the Green might be good people, but they make some people uncomfortable.
We have a beautiful downtown and if we can get the transportation center going I envision parking all around the Green. Maybe we can open up some of those shops on West Main Street. Parking is the number one issue, and number two is giving incentives to property owners to rehab their buildings, and number three is to go out and actively recruit.
We had the Information Technology Zone down here and that was extremely successful, but we didn’t reapply for that money. I don’t know why the city would let that money go. I was told that 23 applied for the ITZ and 15 are still here. That’s pretty successful.
Carl Rosa and Main Street just put on the BeerFest in Library Park and 1000 people came into downtown. We need to do more of those types of events. I’ve talked to Carl about creating a restaurant zone in downtown Waterbury. The workers clear out of the insurance companies in Hartford after work, but people come back into Hartford to eat at Max’s Downtown, Hot Tomatoes and the Trumbull Street Grill. We can do that here in Waterbury. Look at City Hall Café and Diorio’s, we just need more places.
O: Part of the difficulty is that when people walk out of the Palace Theater they run smack into a fortress of UConn. If you look to the left it’s dark and creepy, and people do one of two things – they head to the parking garage at UConn, or the one behind the theater. People aren’t wandering around downtown. There are tens of thousands of people coming downtown and we don’t have a really good way to capture them after a show.
D: You’re right. But if we can turn that dark area into Max’s or a Hot Tomatoes people will come down even when the Palace isn’t open. Food attracts people from all over the place. I’m not talking about Subways or my place, but fine dining restaurants. Higher end restaurants. Carmen does a great job. Nobody thought he’d make it with a high end steak house on Chase Avenue, but he’s doing a great job. Diorio’s is doing a great job and attracts people from all over the state. That’s the kind of caliber restaurant I’m looking for. I talk to Carl about creating incentives for restaurants to come down here to liven up downtown after office hours. But we do have to clean up the image of downtown. We have to provide better lighting. Maybe create more off street parking along East Main Street, and create more parking around the Palace Theater. Maybe there’s streets we can totally block off and create outdoor dining. That’s what people want these days, and we have to give them what they want. The restaurants will help attract more speciality shops, places where you can’t go anywhere else to get the product.
O: In December 1993 you were the sole alderman to vote against a plan by Mayor Bergin to purchase and renovate the Palace Theater for $4 million. You clearly stated that the city and its taxpayers should not own the theater. Ten years later the Palace Theater was renovated for $30 million and the city of Waterbury now owns the theater. What do you think now of this arrangement?
D: Two different scenarios completely. Back in 1993 Mayor Bergin’s proposal was to have the city buy and renovate the Palace Theater. We couldn’t afford to do that. Being involved in government back then I saw that we couldn’t even run our Park Department in the right manner so what made us think we could own and operate a theater. The city has no business being in the theater business. The structure that they had in place was all wrong. We were going to create another layer of bureaucracy by creating another city department and hiring all kinds of people. Once we made that investment Waterbury was going to be married to that project for years and years and years and we weren’t going to get anything in return for it. So it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t an easy vote for me because the night of that vote it was the who’s who of Waterbury that came down and spoke in favor of it. But being in the restaurant business, and being with the average Waterburian who works hard every day, I knew that they didn’t like this idea, and I didn’t either. I voted my conscience. After the vote the who’s who belted me saying I didn’t know what I was doing and that I should be ashamed.
O: Well the Republican-American loved you. They wrote an entire editorial praising your courage.
D: But I didn’t know they were going to do that. Later we had a referendum on the project and my vote really stood out because I had the pulse of the people. I work with the people, it’s not a magic formula, when you work with the people every single day you know what they are feeling. This time around the Governor proposed doing the theater with state money. It was all state money that came in and we did it the right way. We created the Palace Theater Board, they are running it. They’ve done a great job and God Bless Jim Smith from Webster Bank for stepping up and pouring a lot of money into that endowment. So it’s not costing the city. We might own it, but the city’s involvement is not there. It was a completely different proposal that is not costing the taxpayers of Waterbury any money to run. You could argue that it’s still taxpayer dollars no matter how you look at it, but we have a tourist tax in Hartford that funds a portion of it and the delegation needs to keep fighting for funds to help run the theater. I think the way Steve is running the place he is doing a great job, I mean Frank, Frank Tavara.
O: You’ll give Frank an identity crisis.
D: (laughs) I don’t want to do that.
O: Part of your economic plan is to capitalize on your contacts in Hartford to help secure more funding for development projects in Waterbury. Former Governor John Rowland pushed the Waterbury envelope for ten years. Isn’t Hartford a bit tired of Waterbury right now?
D: Absolutely. Before John Rowland, Waterbury got nothing out of Hartford. We were like the state’s step child. But a lot of that falls on the leadership of the city. I’ve seen how communities present their ideas up in Hartford and how they get money. Bridgeport has a $1.6 billion proposal that Magic Johnson is involved in to develop a waterfront park. We need to get on the ball here and it has to come from the mayor’s office. Every year before our legislative session we sit with the mayor, it doesn’t matter who is the mayor, to come up with a legislative agenda for the city of Waterbury. We want to hear what the mayor is proposing that year and we bring those ideas up to Hartford. We create bills and try to convince our colleagues to support our ideas, but we have to remember there are 169 communities in Connecticut and they are all doing the same thing.
The chamber of commerce has a legislative agenda and some of the items they are looking for mirror what the mayor is looking for, and some are separate. We look to help them achieve some of their goals. And then you have individual legislators who are looking for their own area. I’m looking for park money here, we’re looking to do municipal stadium, we’re looking to do Fairlawn Park. We get some of the funding because we have a great delegation that works well together. There is no politics when its comes to the seven of us working for Waterbury, but the problem we have and why we’re not really getting what we should is because other communities, their mayors, their first selectman, come to Hartford. And when they come to Hartford they come with their city planners, they come with their chamber members, they come with their business community, they come with 15 to 20 people as a team.
They come with blueprints and when they go into the Governor’s office their delegation is part of that, and then they convince the Governor what the project can mean to not only Waterbury, but greater Waterbury. This is what we need to do.
O: Mike Jarjura isn’t doing that?
D’Amelio: No. That’s never happened in my 12 years in Hartford. It doesn’t matter who is mayor they never come to the capitol with the chamber of commerce or as a team. Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim was a pain in John Rowland’s ass because he was up in Hartford all the time looking for money. Bridgeport came as a group, a team, it wasn’t just the mayor’s idea.
We can get money to fix the stadium, but to get the real money the mayor has to work with the chamber of commerce and go to Hartford as a team. Our mayor needs to show real leadership in creating a vision for Waterbury and that isn’t happening now. That’s what I want to do, it’s the only way to do this. We have to sell Waterbury to Hartford. We have to sell the governor and the other legislators, we have to show them what this project can mean to Waterbury, and that’s not happening now. We need a united front. We shouldn’t have a mayor’s agenda and a completely separate chamber agenda, there are differences but they have to work more closely together. Government and business have to be on the same page on what we are going to do for Waterbury, and then we’ll get things done.
O: Forty percent of students who enter 9th grade in Waterbury public school do not graduate four years later. The truancy and dropout rate is a full-fledged crisis in this community. Do you have any ideas how to address this nightmarish problem?
D: I served a four year term on the board of education and I went to visit the schools. On a weekly basis I would go into a different school and it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea about some of the hardships going on within the community. There are a lot of kids struggling. We want them to have higher test scores, but do we know what’s going on with them? Some kids are being brought up without any parents, or their parents are alcoholics or strung out on drugs. It’s hard to compare the test scores from Cheshire to Waterbury. I bet a majority of kids in Cheshire come from a two parent home, the family is making good money and not struggling like a lot of the families in the inner city of Waterbury. That’s why our test scores aren’t doing that well.
What can we do about it? We have to listen to the educators that are on the front lines every day, and that is our teachers and administrators. If they are spending 80% of their time trying to calm one or two kids down it’s not fair to other kids who are there and want to learn.
O: Some of this isn’t about test scores. Forty percent of the kids aren’t graduating on time or are dropping out of school. That is an outrageous number. What happens to these kids? Where do they go? Many of them end up in shitty jobs or in a dead end scene. That’s the future of Waterbury. What are we going to do about this?
D: For Waterbury to succeeed we have to have a strong educational system. That’s why I favor the neighborhood school concept. The middle schools are what is driving middle class out of the city, or they are sending their kids to private schools. There is a lot of fear about what’s going on in our middle schools. I was in the second graduating class from Westside Middle School. Prior to that was Barnard School, which was my neighborhood school. My cousins, myself, we went to school together. Everyone in our neighborhood went to Barnard School. There was a sense of community. Everyone knew who your parents were, my parents knew the other parents and there was a lot more respect and a lot more pride in the neighborhood. If there was an activity you could walk to your school. Let’s not forget there is a lot of people in Waterbury that don’t drive and we are busing their kids half way across town. It doesn’t matter which ethnic group you belong to, everybody wants neighborhood schools. They work. The middle school concept has failed us.
We have to look at the curriculum in high schools. Why are so many kids dropping out? Well maybe they know they aren’t college material and we aren’t given them a purpose to come to school. We aren’t training them for any type of job skills. We need to address that. We need to change that. When I went to Kennedy High School we had college prep, business, and industrial arts courses. If you were geared towards college you’d be in the college prep course, business you’d study business, and if you were in industrial arts you studied shop or auto mechanics so you felt like you were learning something useful to help you get a job. We have to go back to that concept and make sure the students not going on to college are prepared and trained for some type of job. Not every kid is going to college and when they get to a certain age they are bored and ask themselves “what am I doing this for?” God knows what these kids are going through at home. For a kid to drop out you have to wonder if the parents are actively involved with them. There are a lot of reasons why these kids are dropping out and we have to figure out why.
O: The Observer was involved in helping to launch a youth newspaper this summer called Young Voices. We had 12 public school students sit down for two days to brainstorm all the reasons they believed their peers were getting discouraged and dropping out of school. After lengthy discussion they zeroed in on Waterbury’s strict dress code as the #1 reason kids were dropping out of school. Every one of the students had been suspended for being in violation of dress code. One student received in-house suspension for wearing the wrong colored hair tie to school. The students believe the teachers and administrators are spending too much time enforcing a bizarrely strict dress code. Last year for example there were more suspensions in 9th grade than there were students in 9th grade. The kids say they are suffocating under petty rules, get sick of the daily hassle and drop out? What do you think of the situation?
D: These kids are faced with a lot. That’s why I think it is so important that the mayor gets involved with the education system. We need to listen to the teachers. The board of education is probably putting the pressure on the schools about the dress code.
O: Dr. Snead (superintendent of schools) loves it. He absolutely loves the dress code. He said that the students know what the rules are and the should follow them or be held accountable.
D: Maybe teachers can share with you. A teacher might step forward and say the situation is ridiculous, that this is a great a student and it doesn’t matter what color hair tie she has on today. Maybe our teachers are frustrated with the dress code too. We have to ask them and find out what’s really going on in the classrooms. One thing I learned by being on the school board is that we have great educators here in Waterbury. They are very caring and concerned, but we tie their hands in many respects. I wonder how many school board members actually go around and visit the schools. We grab these ideas like the dress code, which can be good in many ways, but maybe there’s problems too. The idea was that everybody looks the same now. I think it’s a healthier environment with a dress code.
O: All the kids on Young Voices agree there should be a dress code. No one is saying there shouldn’t be a dress code. They are saying it’s too anal. They feel they are being choked for ridiculous things.
D: My daughter got a demerit because one of her buttons was undone. Does the board of ed really understand what this policy is doing? That they are discouraging people from learning.
O: The mayor has created a blue ribbon commission to address the truancy and dropout rate and there are 50 community leaders involved and there are hardly any kids involved in the process. There are some minorities represented on this commission, but it’s mostly middle aged white folks trying to figure out why blacks and Hispanics are dropping out of school. There is a total disconnect. These kids want to talk, they want to express themselves to the board and tell them what is really going on inside the schools. Students want to bring their ideas forward and if you are elected mayor would you be willing to hold a Youth Summit to allow the young people of this city to speak out?
D: I think it’s important that we do that. We need to hear what their frustrations are. A lot of kids won’t participate, but the ones that do will give you a good insight. I have two daughters that recently graduated from high school. My wife and I take a strong interest in our kid’s education so we kind of knew what was going on in the schools as they were developing. But we really need to figure what is going on in those classrooms. Teacher bashing is the easiest thing. People say look at how much money they make and our test scores are down, but there are reasons and we need to look deeper into the situation. We also need to look at different teaching methods and how some principals are motivating their staff and students. The principal at Wendell Cross got his school engaged by offering to kiss a pig if they did good on their test scores. They did, and he kissed a pig. By looking at what is working, by studying success, we can find out how to spread this throughout the school system. Look at Rotella School, it was selected the best magnet arts school in America. How is that principal motivating her teachers? We need to study that and learn. How do we do that? By having a mayor who is willing to get into the schools and engage the teachers. I will do that.
Some senior citizens aren’t concerned with the school system anymore. They raised their kids already so they aren’t worried so much about what is happening today, but its of great concern to the entire community because the school system determines what your real estate is worth. If you have a strong school system, where people want to come in, that will create more demand and the price of your home will go up.
O: You are a former alderman so you experienced the stress of having to make big decisions with little information, or information given to you at the last minute. Do you think we should provide aldermen with a support staff so they can better handle the important issues coming before them?
D: Absolutely. People have to realize there is virtually no pay involved in the job. You do get a stipend, I don’t even know what it is, $4000 maybe. The most frustrating part for me is that you have to seek out your own information. If you’re working full-time and trying to juggle your family and everything, it’s very time consuming to get into the meat of an issue. You won’t know where the issue came from or whether you were casting the right decision on this. Basically you are depending on the mayor’s office for whatever information you have. Corporation Counsel provides information, but they are pretty much run by the mayor. In Hartford I have a legislative aide that is shared by five legislators. We need to create some type of system like that here in Waterbury where an alderman can call up the aide and say there is an important issue going on in the south end of Waterbury and I don’t really understand it. Can you research it and provide all the data. This would give the alderman more of a comfort level on the issues before they cast a vote.
O: Plus you’d get an independent assessment of what’s going on, something different than a partisan mayor’s point of view.
D: That’s important. I would like to create a legislative aide that is bipartisan. Not one for Republicans and one for Democrats. We need a researcher. Whatever the pressing issue that we need research on they have to conduct it. And most likely when they do that research it’s going to be for the entire board. We do have staff that provides that, but it’s not a bipartisan staff. Let’s face it, when a mayor is in office, the corporation counsel and every department head will go along with the mayor. So it’s very difficult as an alderman and that’s why you see a lot of the votes going the way they do. It’s just so much easier to say no. Mike Bergin used to do something that Phil Giordano never did, he called individual aldermen in. He would say this is the issue and if you’re going to break my balls on it I want you to know why I think it’s important and this is how I came to my conclusion. That tactic worked. 90% of the time he was right, and it was very hard for me or the other alderman to go against him. John Rowland did that a lot in Hartford. Personal lobbying showing you facts. You had to doubt them, but if you don’t have someone doing that independent research it makes it very difficult to go against them.
O: Mayor Jarjura has actively been involved in personal real estate development around the city. The mayor says he’s just investing in the city he loves, what’s your take on the issue?
D: It’s easy to sit here and say that the mayor is lining his pockets as mayor, but you have to understand that Mike and I go back. I know Mike, I know him as a person. I don’t have a problem with Mike making money in real estate. He’s a good person. He’s an honorable guy, there is no question about that. The problem I have is that when you are mayor there is a fine line sometimes. When you have a million dollars invested in a piece of property and you need a city board to pass that development it can be very tempting to get involved. How can you keep your hands out of that?
O: Especially when you have appointed members to the board that you are seeking approval from. And when the head of the Inland Wetlands Commission is appointed by you, and works at a city job, like Kathy McNamara does, it places her in an awkward spot.
D: Exactly. Everything could be above board but it’s the public perception that will hurt you. Mike has to realize what Waterbury has gone through, not only with two mayors, but a governor. There is a lot of distrust out there, and now you have a mayor who is a developer and it makes people scared. I said in the beginning of the interview that I don’t ever want to rely on public service for my livelihood, I own a business and would continue to manage the restaurant from a distance if I was elected mayor. Mike was a developer before he was mayor and has continued to manage his developing from a distance. But when you are mayor and developer you open yourself up to criticism. He took some hits for his project in Middlebury when his office space lured doctors out of Waterbury and the city lost revenue. It was a good business deal for Mike Jarjura, but not so good for Waterbury. If Mike wants to continue developing then a fair amount of criticism will continue to come his way. He needs to understand that many people, myself included, don’t think you should be mayor and developer. It’s a bad image.
O: There seemed to be several different ideas how to develop senior centers around the city, what are your ideas on this issue?
D: I’ve been lobbying in Hartford for the past three years to expand the Chase Park house. Joe Savoie is the Town Plot neighborhood president and they came to me and said they wanted a senior center in the Town Plot area and I believe sooner or later we are going to be able to secure those funds. Chase Park is an existing structure and we want to add on to it to create a space for seniors to meet.
Dennis Odle has an idea to create one big senior center for the entire city and build it out in the East End. It will be like the original Palace Theater proposal under Mike Bergin, it will create another department and more bureaucracy. We have five senior centers in the neighborhoods and we should continue to keep them in the neighborhoods. It’s where they belong. People are used to going down the street, they don’t want to be transported across town.
O: If you had one minute alone with every voter just before they entered the voting booth, what would you say to convince them to vote for Tony D’Amelio?
D: I am truly a public servant. If you look at my 20 years in politics I am not a headline grabber, or someone who wants to stand out in the limelight. I just truly want to serve. I am someone who truly cares. I’m not going to change. I haven’t changed. I love the constituent service I have provided to the people I represented in the 71st district. As a small business owner in Waterbury I know what has been lacking and that’s what has propelled me to do this. In order for Waterbury to survive we need to change our course. I can provide the leadership we need. I am the type of individual who will bring people together. I’m not stubborn and say I have all the answers. I am willing to listen and to create new ideas. I want the business community engaged. I want the neighborhood communities engaged. I hope Waterbury is ready for that type of leadership, because we haven’t had it for a long time.
Keep Momentum Moving Forward, Not Time To Change Leadership
(Observer publisher John Murray sat down with Waterbury's three-term mayor, Michael Jarjura, in the mayor's office for a frank discussion about the city's financial health, politics, and the mayor's personal real estate dealings in the city. Photographs By Michael Asaro.)
Observer: You’ve now served three terms as the mayor of Waterbury. What is the number one lesson you have learned that will guide you in governing the city through a 7th and 8th year in office?
Jarjura: Patience. Realizing that government operations sometimes take a little longer because of systems of accountability and checks and balances. Patience helps keep frustration out of the process, because it’s important that there is a process in place to protect the taxpayers to make sure money is being used wisely and appropriately.
O: You had patience when you came in. You’ve always been a patient man and a good listener, so you already had that skill set. Is there something else you picked up along the way these past six years?
J: We spent a lot of time booting up procedures here and capacity here that didn’t exist. Now that it’s there, it has afforded us the opportunity to do some really neat and good things. Now that you have the Finance Department and the Human Resource Department all set, and the computers in place, now you spend more of your time looking at the city to see where it is, and where it needs to go in terms of quality of life and economic development.
O: Being mayor of Waterbury was never your dream. It was party loyalty and a strong push by Governor Rowland that led you into a three way democratic primary on September 11th, 2001. What is motivating you now to try and serve another term?
J: This is a very critical time in the city’s history. With the Oversight Board recently departing, this is the time to have a leader who has been doing the job. This is not the time to have a mayor who has not had the experience of serving on the Oversight Board. I bring stability. I bring the steady hand at the helm of the ship. That cannot in any way be minimized. I don’t believe this would be a very good time for us to be experimenting on untested individuals. While Waterbury has made a great renaissance it is still in a very fragile state and needs to continue to be managed closely. This is something we have proven we can do and that is why I am motivated to stay for a fourth term.
O: How has the job changed in the past six years? In a way you are now reapplying for a job that has a completely different job description than the one when you began in 2001.
J: The first couple of terms we were in a crisis management mode. When we first arrived the city was hemorrhaging. The city had trouble meeting its payroll and had trouble answering its financial commitments. There was decimation on so many levels and so many different areas that the city was responsible for. We spent the first couple of terms cleaning up a mountain of problems. The last term shows that now we have gotten through the crisis we can be proactive. Look at the area of litter and blight where we have taken a very aggressive stand. There have been some false stops and starts, but now that we have the time to concentrate on this you can see how successful we have been with the police, the public works and the health department all getting involved as one on this. The city has experienced great progress in this area.
O: So you are satisfied right now at the way the city looks?
J: I would say we are far ahead of where we were, and this work is not something that will ever end. This is going to be a constant battle that will exist for a long time. If you go back and look at some of the papers in the 1930s and you’ll see they had the same issue back then. Maybe not as visible, but they had some articles talking about it. Look at the archives. You can see now that we have resources that we are dedicating to milling and paving, fixing up some of the infrastructure. This is where we have shown that in the second half of our third term, now that we don’t have to spend as much time on the operation, we can concentrate more on the programmatic needs and the quality of life needs.
O: So the first four years were more of systemic changes and concentrating on how government works. Once you get the boulders in place now you can fine tune things.
J: Yeah. Once you build a solid foundation, and we now have one after we redid the entire charter for the city of Waterbury. That was a big step. Now they are redoing the land use laws. We were also able to bring modern technology to a $350 million corporation that was in desperate need of some technology. Even after we brought it here, there needs to be a comfort with the technology and we are constantly doing training and helping our employees get familiar with it. Another important piece of the foundation was the personnel. We lost a lot of people in the aftermath of Waterbury’s municipal corruption scandal which left us near bankruptcy. So it wasn’t the easiest thing to bring in high achievers and people that were going to bring value, and we’ve done that.
O: You told me two years ago that you would gladly step aside if you saw someone you were confident could continue moving Waterbury forward. Are you running again because you don’t see any capable replacements yet?
J: No I wouldn’t say that is completely accurate. I’m just not comfortable leaving the city at this time in it’s history. We have a tendency to be very short term in our thinking as Americans. Six years is a blink. A drop in the ocean. So I wanted another couple of years to really institutionalize the changes that we worked on in cooperation with the Oversight Board. These changes involve the way we do business, the ethics laws, purchasing and procurement laws. Everything that we are doing now I really want to let it settle in and become the norm. I was fearful if there was a change now in the leadership of the city that some of those hard fought battles would go by the wayside. People’s memories are short in nature and that we would find ourselves pulling back from some of the really tough battles that we’d won.
O: So you find yourself sailing on ship with no land in sight for you to get off?
J: (chuckles) No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s a very difficult thing to walk away from something you care so much about. Clearly I recognize there is going to come a point in time where my usefulness to the people of Waterbury will come to an end. There comes a time when you need a new set of eyes, new imagination. That time is not now. Waterbury has been through such a violent storm that a switch now will be a step backwards. But it is a very difficult thing for an individual to walk away from something they have invested so much of their psyche and emotion. But I will have to recognize when that time is, and just do it. Although I can’t tell you today when that time will be, either you know it, or the voters know it.
O: Prices of homes are dropping, our school test scores are poor and we have the highest tax rate in Connecticut. Citizens are crying for help. Can you hear them?
J: We do hear them. We listen very intently to people who live here and want to communicate with us. I have regular office hours, I have a call-in show on both cable and radio on a regular basis. I don’t shy away when people want to talk. I do think there are a lot of people who are optimistic who like what has been done here in Waterbury, so not everything is doom and gloom. We do recognize that we have challenges and when I talk about patience, these challenges can be overcome through a disciplined methodical approach, and we are following that approach. If there was a way to reduce taxes or the current budget don’t you think someone would have seen it and put it forward? We had an Oversight Board whose sole responsibility was do that.
O: Just holding the line was a miracle.
J: That absolutely was one of our crowning achievements. We have individuals currently running for this office who have never put forward an amendment or a proposal that made sense to reduce the budget, or to reduce taxes. In terms of home values the whole country is experiencing a cooling off. Waterbury is not cooling off as dramatically because we still have good value, we have always maintained a realistic value for homes. I think if you see what is going on around the country, Waterbury is still in pretty good shape in the residential real estate sector.
O: What’s more difficult to solve – the $460 million pension deficit – or the perception that Waterbury is an unsafe city rocked by systemic political corruption?
J: The perception because it is not based in reality or fact. It is something that people feed upon and it feeds upon itself. Dealing with a real number like a $465 million unfunded pension liability is a problem and you work up a matrix to solve the problem. Now there isn’t just one solution to the problem, there can be several. We are following a solution that is based on very conservative true blue Yankee principals, and that is, you’ve got this liability and you start paying it down while you continue to pay the people who are entitled to their pensions today. Over a period of time, working with your investment advisor and your money managers, and you are very disciplined, you will pay off that liability.
O: How are we doing with that?
J: We are doing very well. I know some of my opponents will tell you that the numbers have remained the same or gone up, but what they fail to tell you is that was anticipated. We knew there was going to be a series of retirements as the changes of the contracts were made (mass exodus of the police) and as people were able to retire and had enough years. So we knew that number would either remain the same or go up. And we worked that into our matrix for dealing with it. Clearly if you follow the spreadsheet it’s about ready now to crest. And hopefully you’ll start to see that number come down. More importantly it’s not the unfunded liability. The fact that when we got here there was probably less than five million in the trust fund and today it’s well over sixty million dollars in the trust fund in a short six years. So we can see that the trust fund is building up and will continue to build up if we follow this plan. That’s not to say we don’t consider other solutions if they make financial sense. People often talked about selling the pension obligation bonds. It’s something we’ve repeatedly looked at and it didn’t make sense according to our investment advisors and money managers at the time. There may come a point when Waterbury can borrow cheaper and receive a better return, but that point does not exist here now.
O: You said the perception would be a more difficult challenge to tackle. How do you begin to tackle that?
J: Well I think we have begun. The fact that you have not heard Waterbury and the word scandal mentioned together in the last six years is progress. As I travel across the state, when you get away from the political rhetoric that goes on here just about every day in certain quarters, when I travel across the state people say to me all the time “Mayor, we’re hearing all good things about Waterbury. What’s the secret?” And I hear that repeatedly. In all corners of the state. I think the perception is definitely changing. People have a very good feeling about what’s going on in Waterbury. And it’s sometimes harder for the people who live here to let go of these bad feelings as opposed to people from the outside.
O: I have to correct you for a second. In those six years, John Rowland toppled in that time period. That was Waterbury…
J: I was talking about the government in the City of Waterbury.
O: It’s not just that. The perception is like a fog over the entire city and when John went down the perception was on steroids again. Just this last spring it was Joe Santopietro with mob connections with the trash authority. People were saying the mob is in Waterbury. I haven’t heard anything like that about you. Thank heavens. (Jarjura knocks on wood). But as you try to get Waterbury moving forward the governor crashes and Santopietro flares up again. Those are steps backwards.
J: It’s part of our recent history of the city. You can’t dismiss it. So it’s there. All we can do is manage it when it comes up and not be crippled by it. And then move forward and say we recognize what happened here and guess what? We as a city took action. Decisive action. We have a lengthy ethics and conflict of interest ordinance that far exceeds anything in any other city in the state of Connecticut. We didn’t just talk about the problem, we walked the walk too. So what you tell people is that was yesteryear, and here we are today and we have six balanced budgets in a row. We are working on our infrastructure. We are building facilities for our children. We are working on the education infrastructure also. We have recently been featured in a documentary highlighting our contributions both on our battlefront and the home front by Ken Burns. These are the things that people are also looking at and saying “you know that city has a real lot to offer and they had some unscrupulous leaders that brought them dishonor and embarrassment, but they picked themselves and moved forward.
O: That’s only part of the perception problem that I hear. Perhaps even more damaging than the political corruption is the perception that downtown Waterbury is unsafe. Suburbia is putting their big toe in the water but they haven’t embraced Waterbury yet. When the Palace Theater opened I talked with Police Chief Neil O’Leary and he said they had three or four times the number of police needed in downtown that day to try and tackle the perception from theater goers that downtown was unsafe. People are not feeling safe from Middlebury, Southbury, Woodbury, Litchfield and Cheshire. It’s important to get them in here and try and make them feel safe. How do we do that?
J: Well I don’t know why we don’t feel safe because we have never had an incident as far as I know. We have the Downtown ambassadors who will actually walk people to their car. These are students and young adults that volunteer. Mainstreet has been a wonderful addition to our city’s marketing plan. They recently had their BeerFest and I think they doubled their number from last year. There are people willing to come in.
O: For beer?
J: Well that was an event and it brought people from many many areas. I tell you that on a theater night the Palace seems to be pretty packed from people from Middlebury and Roxbury.
O: It does. I don’t disagree with that at all. But I think it’s when people walk out of the Palace, there’s this fortress of UConn. This intimidating wall that’s right there and you look to the left and it’s dark down the road. Nobody goes that way. If you stand there and look at people they are all turning to the right, going across the street, going to the parking garage, or looping around the corner to get out. They don’t wander. You see people wander in Hartford or New Haven. You don’t see people from the Palace Theater wandering. How do we deal with this perception so people can move around Downtown and feel safe?
J: I personally see people walk up to the City Hall Café and they have trouble even getting a table or a seat. There are people making that short trek. Some people are turning the corner and going to Circa. Many people will not walk, but they will drive over to Diorio’s or Dreschers because that’s the nature of some folks. They would just rather have their car. It comes with patience and incremental progress. We aren’t going to become New York City in a short time. New York City didn’t just happen in one night or one year or even one decade. Over time, I think those people will become more comfortable and there are more offerings and more progress. You’ll start to see that flow of traffic.
O: How can we specifically begin to address the ongoing public perception that Waterbury isn’t a good place to live or do business. We need more aggressive marketing and many people believe that begins with you. What have you done in the past six years to address this issue?
J: We have invested some resources into the marketing. We created a program called “The Center of it All” and we had a contest where people would take t-shirts and pictures from wherever they may be around the globe. We put that into the business journals and trade journals. Some of it was on the radio. But to do marketing, if you really want to do marketing to the degree you would have to, your talking about a major investment in dollars. And quite frankly we were stretched for dollars, so we put our resources where we thought they would do the most good which was the public works and improving that. That’s not to say in the future we won’t be more aggressive and creative in the marketing program. When you play with one area you have to toughen the other. There has to be a balance. It’s interesting, the very same people that probably said there wasn’t enough marketing were probably the same people when the Mayor of Bridgeport, Joe Ganim, and John Rowland, were on TV every five minutes and that became a major controversial issue. You wonder what is the proper role of the CEO in the marketing campaign. And it may be to be out front or it may be.....
O: You in a canoe paddling along?
J: I doubt that (big laugh). But maybe where you work on a branding, like who’s better than the GEICO Gecko? Everybody looks for the Gecko. And so that may be the way to go. I’m not saying a Gecko, but something catchy like that. Where you start to do full fledged television ads and things like that.
O: The very first response many people have to “The Center Of It All” is corruption. It is doom and gloom at the center of it all. What’s your response to that?
J: Well that ad campaign was to show that we are the center of cultural activities, center of arts. Talk to Lynn Novack and Ken Burns, they said what we have here is a national treasure when they looked at what was offered at the Mattatuck Museum, Time Expo, the library and it’s archives. They were just blown away by the Palace Theatre. We said center of education, we’ve got our UConn branch, that has tripled since it moved there and is busting at the seems. We have the Higher Ed Center at Naugatuck Community College, Post University, so that’s one of the aspects that we were trying to promote. Financial center, we’ve got the world headquarters for Webster Bank and we have other financial institutions right here. So there were various aspects that we were trying to say and that’s how we came up with center of it all – financing, education, culture, restaurants, business activity.
O: I understand where you’re coming from and I understand the idea of the campaign but I heard people chuckling about it, the center of what? They weren’t going through all the litany of the good things. People are still hurting around here and it’s still fresh. When you were first elected state rep and I was starting the Observer, the RUDAT team came in here with city planners from all over North America and they were flabbergasted at the infrastructure here – the churches, the buildings, the Green and yet as they went around and talked to people, the perception of Waterburians didn’t line up to what’s here. It’s not just suburbia beating us up, it’s us ourselves.
J: We are our harshest critics. I am fiercely sensitive and defensive about the honor of this city. You can ask anybody when I was in Hartford, and if they said anything about Waterbury I would stand up and challenge them. I feel like some of our political aspirants feed into the criticisms, or self criticisms of Waterbury, and they really don’t stand up for our city. And that really bothers me because you better believe in the city. You better believe in the people of this city and the goodness of this city. I really feel like some of the aspirants do not have that deep love for the city of Waterbury.
O: If you look across the country, and as deplorable as it is, it’s negative campaigns that seem to move the polls. They have to rip at you and that’s just the way it goes.
J: Nothing new. It’s been done for the last I don’t know how many years.
O: So your opponents can’t be cheerleading.
J: No. But they don’t also have to misrepresent fact either.
O: Dennis Odle, the independent candidate for Mayor, came out with this quote that said, “34% of all tax payer dollars go to unfunded pensions and retiree medical costs.” Is that accurate?
J: Just about 13 of the 54 mills is exclusive just for the pension. So I would say that’s probably accurate. When you say unfunded, these were obligation that were made, they’re not mandates, these were obligations that were agreed to and entered into by the management of the city over a number of decades, and that have to be paid for.
O: So we talked about the pension fund. But it seems like a year or so ago that you and Dennis were in agreement that even more challenging than the pension fund was the retiree medical benefits. What’s being done to address that? It seems like there’s no hard number. We know that $460 million is for this pension fund, but we don’t know what the retiree benefits are.
J: Well I wouldn’t say that it’s more challenging. I would say that it’s an issue that exists that we should all be cognisant of. What is being done is that we have a firm that is working on the analysis of our medical obligations both now and into the future. They are extracting from that analysis a number, much like the pension number, that says over a period of time this is what the costs are going to be. Part of the difficulty with this one, unlike a pension where you have a set number calculated based on number of years of service by a multiplier, our challenge is to try to predict where medical costs, prescription costs, hospitalization is going to be not only today, but 10 years from today, and 20 years from today. That’s very, very difficult.
O: Like reading tea leaves?
J: (Laughs) That’s right. So, the firm has presented us with some preliminary data and they will present us with some other data. The difference in why I say it should not be as worrisome to the people of Waterbury is the cost of providing medical for the employees, to the retirees and their dependents is already a number in our base of our budget. That is something that we have paid for out of the operating budget for as long as I can remember. So it’s not going to be anything new. It won’t be a new burden. But what they are saying, the government accounting standards board is saying, we want you to show that on the balance sheet. Should your company go out of business, what would be a number you would have to come up with to pay for these folks and their dependents if you had to put it into a trust fund. So there is a lot of work being done on this. We have not in anyway hidden anything from the taxpayers or people of Waterbury. We have been very transparent about it. I’m not going to scare the people of Waterbury. The pension was different, they had not been putting in the required contributions. So when the rubber met the road and the state came in and they had to put the required contributions in you saw those forms say a 10 million dollar contribution up to a 30 million dollar contribution up to a 40 million dollar contribution today. That was a new number in the budget.
O: So no sucker punch coming down?
J: It won’t be a new number. And we’ve also already taken steps, even though we weren’t required to, to set up a trust fund to mitigate some of the future medical costs. I think our first year we put in 2 million dollars to start that trust fund.
O: Almost everyone I talk to says that Mike Jarjura is a nice guy. Even your opponents, say you’re a nice guy.
J: They may tell you that, but I don’t think they tell the people that.
O: They say you’re a nice guy, but that you haven’t been out front on economic development. Which is the key of growing the grand list and lowering the mill rate. Some people describe you as reactive, instead of proactive. What economic development have you brought into this city and how have you been proactive?
J: Well I think they couldn’t be more mistaken in regard to economic development. We took office probably during one of the most challenging times in the history of this state and the history of this country. It was during a period of extended recession. In that period of time where we we’re seeing property values spiral downward, we were able to see property values stabilize and spiral upward. We have looked at where our niche is and we have been very successful in the service retail sector. We saw Wolcott Street and Lakewood Road, which were decimated, totally come back to life. You saw Walmart and Bobs and Panera Bakery and all that plaza come on line. Across the street we saw Price Chopper take over that plaza. Come around the corner and you see the old Bradley’s knocked down and Target built there. So we did have quite a bit of success in the retail service sector.
We also had success in our industrial sector, not so much from the manufacturing stand point, but from a couple of big projects that came on line. One was the liquefied natural gas tank, which was a $110 million construction project that put people to work, and now its on the grand list. There is an abatement program but they are paying taxes which will ramp up over the next six years. So given the climate that Connecticut finds itself in, which is not a very business friendly climate, Waterbury has not only been able to maintain, but we have thrust forward.
O: So you’re pleased with economic development under your watch?
J: Would you want more? Sure. Everybody always wants more., but I wouldn’t say we were asleep at the wheel, or we were AWOL, we have worked with all the stake holders and created an agency called the Waterbury Development Corporation. A lot of people were complaining that they wanted a seat at the table, well we gave them a seat at the table. We gave the chamber so many seats, we gave the neighborhood folks so many seats, we gave government, all sides of the aisle, a seat at the table. We got the shakers and movers of the city involved in that project, Jim Smith and other industrialists.
O: Are there too many cooks in the kitchen now?
J: No, I don’t think so.
O: What’s gong on with WDC now? With the top two leaders resigning it seems like a managerial crisis at the least.
J: Some of the higher managerial guys have secured jobs in the private sector and you can’t stand in the way of someone’s career advancement, but they happened to come at a very awkward time just before an election, and both coming at the same time. In every challenge there is an opportunity and it allows us to sit back down with all the stakeholders and say what has been done right and wrong and what can we do differently as we move forward.
O: It seemed like Michael O’Connor (former executive director of WDC) was particularly frustrated with all the red tape that was slowing down projects and development. Do you think what he said was accurate, and if so, what can we do about that?
J: I think the conversion from Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation (NVDC) to the Waterbury Development Corporation (WDC) was a cultural shock for many people. NVDC had operated autonomously from the governmental process. While we are fortunate that nothing untold went on, there wasn’t a system of checks and balances, like there is today, from elected officials. What we tried to do in the creation of WDC was preserve that creativity and flexibility that they had, but also honor the edict that in the end we must have accountability for the people of Waterbury because we are spending government money. In creating WDC we attempted to balance the principals of flexibility, creativity and accountability. In the end we have to account for the money and say exactly how it was spent. We can make adjustments if there is bureaucracy standing in the way of economic development.
O: Are the red tape items in place to ensure accountability?
J: That’s exactly it. Maybe it’s because we added a few steps and people are reluctant to do the steps. But once you do them a few times they become old hat. Or have we been caught up in our historic malfeasance that we’ve put in too many hoops to go through. That is the question we will need to analyze going forward. WDC is in its infancy and it’s expected to have some growing pains, but I don’t think we throw the whole thing out because of a few growing pains. The bottom line is that we have to make sure government dollars are accounted for.
O: Is that why you insisted on having a new contract drawn up for the City Hall project? You’ve taken some heat for not using a standard contract and the project has been delayed by several months. Is that red tape all about accountability?
J: City Hall is a centerpiece project. We are spending $36 million of government money. I would rather take a little more time up front to make sure that all the precautions are in place. A perfect example is the I-84 project where we spent $60 million and now we have to spend another $30 million because they didn’t put the drains in. Because the City Hall project is such a historic project, we are working on a Cass Gilbert designed building in a Cass Gilbert district, I’m not going to go down to Staples and take some contract off the shelf. So we hired legal experts to draw up a new contract that better protects the citizens of Waterbury. All the contractors will know what the deliverables are up front and there will be an exact time line they have to follow. If there are problems the citizens of Waterbury will be able to collect damages. We don’t want that, because we want to hope for the best, but when you are in a management position you have to contract and prepare for the worst. This city is replete with terrible contracts that were left behind. Forget the $1 million dog pound and all that stuff. We were stuck with a 99 year contract on a parking garage over by the Marriott that we don’t get a plugged nickel for. I would hope that the people of Waterbury would want someone to make sure that the contracts are examined up front and are good.
O: Downtown Watertown is fully occupied and flourishing and Waterbury’s downtown isn’t. Why is that, and what can you do to specifically help downtown Waterbury?
J: Well Watertown is much smaller. If you blink you’re through downtown Watertown. (Big laugh). It is also fully occupied and flourishing because there is not that many commercial opportunities in downtown Watertown and they are adverse to expanding. Waterbury, we do pretty good during the day. We have a lot of people coming into downtown to do business during the day, but there is a tremendous exodus at night. We don’t have the kind of vibrancy that we would like to see.
I continue to support Main Street financially and emotionally. I support the chamber and its downtown business group. We have had pockets of success like what Ede and Dan have done at the John Bale Book Company. Jim Whitney (from the NW Connecticut Convention and Visitors Bureau) has been working with Hank Paine (owner of The Connecticut Store) to create some flex space (at the Howland-Hughes Center on Bank Street). Maybe that will bring more people downtown. I think part of what some of the political aspirants want to do is run peoples business. I think it’s important that we run the government, and make sure that’s running as best you can, and not so much get involved in the marketplace or commerce, because that is naturally going to take care of itself.
If you can make sure there’s fertile ground and people have a trust for their government. That their surroundings are clean, that there are activities going on that people can look to and see that there is some musical event, some cultural event, some restaurants and some other things. That to me is the role of the government of the city of Waterbury. It’s not so much to get involved in the marketplace or the stream of commerce. You can subsidize all you want, and after the subsidy is over, if they’re not going to be a success, they’re not going to be a success, and where have you gotten? Nowhere. But if something is a success in and of itself and a subsidy only helps them take off faster, that’s the way you want to go.
O: You publicly stated this past Spring that Republican candidate Tony D’Amelio was being supported by crooks and felons when you referred to Joe and Jeff Santopietro. Can you explain that comment?
J: Well sometimes you say things you regret later.
O: Do you regret it?
J: I’ve known Tony for a long time. Tony is a friend of mine. Tony is a very honorable gentleman. I was concerned at the time that individuals that were part of our not so pleasant history, not so proud history, were making a move to get their foot back into government operations. And I don’t want to see that happen. Not that I have any ill will towards these other gentlemen that I mentioned, but I just don’t want to see them re-emerge and feed into those perceptions that you’ve talked about, that we’ve tried so hard to overcome.
O: You’ve been widely criticized for developing private real estate projects while you are mayor of Waterbury. Four years ago you said you were investing in the city you love and invited all the other candidates to do the same thing. Can you understand the concern many people have with you acting as both mayor and real estate developer?
J: I understand the perception that has been created by my political enemies. I understand that. I understand that people rightfully deserve to know everything about their mayor, privately and publicly. And so, I have conducted myself as mayor in a very transparent way. My life is an open book.
O: What would you call the book?
Jarjura: I don’t know, what I’m trying to say is that it’s an open book. People who want to know something, we ‘re not living this…...well I guess we would call the book, “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
O: By Mike Jarjura.
J: (laugh) Yeah by Mike Jarjura. Because what we’ve had in the past is almost like dual lives going on from your municipal leader and I think quite frankly we were all caught off guard. Others probably had an earlier indication. We’ve almost had these camouflage lives going on. And ultimately when they did bubble up they were shocking to the people of Waterbury. And one was, well we all sort of know of the public facade of a family man, three children, lawyer, and then to find out that (other) portion. And others have obviously had the deals going on that have led to municipal corruption and things like that, that have been camouflaged and hidden.
O: So you’re out in the open?
J: I told everyone when I came into this job, you can’t just stop being who you were before you got here. Because guess what? In a very short order you’re going back there. If this was a 20 year job or career, you could say okay, I’m going to divest myself of everything else and not worry about your own financial future. But that’s not the case. This is a two-year commitment and if you want to re-up, you try to re-up every two years. So you have a two-year life span. So what you do is put your private life as best you can, in terms of your business of yours, into someone else’s hands. And I have done that. Whether it’s my interest in the wholesale company or my interest in the development company. And I am very fortunate that my partners have all risen to the occasion and have run things. They don’t bother me and on rare occasion I will check in just to make sure everything is okay. Everything I have done has not in any way involved the government of the city of Waterbury. We have not gotten a grant, we have not gotten an abatement. We have not sought or gotten anything involving the city of Waterbury. On a rare occasion, just like if you were going to build a deck on the back of your house or a swimming pool, we may need to apply for a permit. But that is handled through the normal governmental processes.
O: The 24-acre property in the East End has gone to whole different level because it’s under the Wetlands Commission. The project is going before a commission of people you’ve appointed, and Kathy McNammara, the head of the commission also has a job at Waterbury Development Corporation. Now that’s a little bit awkward.
J: What I would say to folks is that you have to have some faith that these individuals, even though they were appointed by the mayor, they in their own right are people of merit. They are people of integrity. Anyone who knows these people and you just mentioned one, Kathy McNammara, knows that nobody is going to tell her what to do. Whether it’s a job or whether it’s an appointment, nothing gets in the way of her integrity. I could see if it was a zoning change or if it was a variance that we were seeking, people could say ‘Oh, it’s political. But when you’re dealing with the wetlands, the wetlands are operated by a very detailed and complex set of laws from the state of Connecticut and the federal government. So the question is are you complying with the laws? And I think you’ve seen this Wetland Commission recognize their laws, which is that they have to make sure whatever you’re proposing is within the legal boundaries of what is established by the state and federal government when it affects wetlands. That’s all they’re doing. It does make it subject to the criticism, because you are before a board. But it’s not like you’re trying to seek a zoning change or a variance, you’re simply complying with the land use regulations of the municipality that the property happens to find itself. I have not in anyway talked to or contacted the commissioners about this, it is being handled by attorneys and engineers. Anybody is free to review the records and the laws. I think they’ll find that nothing is done differently than if it was ‘John Jones’. We say the same thing right across the street were Kohls is going to build get through the process in 30 days. They have taken their time. It has been over 120 days, and we tell them to take as much time as you want.
O: The Republican-American newspaper wrote a very strong editorial on this issue entitled “Mayor of Builder, but not both”, in effect saying you have to decide which career you want to pursue. How do you respond to that editorial?
J: When was that editorial?
O: This past Spring. It was the lead editorial and the only one I ever recall that they wrote that aggressively poked you in the eye. You didn’t see that?
J: (laughs) I probably did, but I just don’t remember it. I have tremendous respect for Mr. Pape at the newspaper but I don’t always agree with their stand on issues, or the way they have conducted their affairs during political processes. They have an opinion and they are free to have their opinion. Ultimately the opinion that matters is the voters and taxpayers in the city of Waterbury.
I think they’ll say that Mike Jarjura has been mayor for six years. Mike Jarjura has faced tremendous odds and tremendous harassment since the day I got here from political aspirants. I think they’ll say that I’ve done a very, very, good job of being the steward of the city’s finances and of righting the ship.
No one I take seriously has ever questioned my integrity or my ethics. It has been questioned by political operatives, and their attacks have been unrelenting. These people can’t criticize the operation of the city so they attack me personally. This is one area where they can probably get away with it because my business dealings are out there.
O: Forty percent of students who enter 9th grade in Waterbury public school do not graduate four years later. The truancy and dropout rate is a full-fledged crisis in this community. You created a Blue Ribbon Commission to study this issue, how is that working?
J: Very well. The group has broken down into various committees and been very diligent in their work. I believe they will very quickly be issuing a report and I expect that to come out shortly. I was asked to provide the resources and the clout to getting it going and I was happy to do that. We are living in a different era than the one you and I grew up in. We were fortunate that we had good families that provided us with structure. People ask me all the time what is the problem now in our schools, why aren’t we seeing the achievements we used to see. I think it’s because the family structure has so broken down these kids face a different challenge than we did. It’s not universal, but it is a big problem in this city. There is no problem with the teaching staff or with the curriculum, so what do we in government do to correct this problem? That is a very, very tall order. There is no simple solution to that problem.
O: The Observer was involved in helping to launch a youth newspaper this summer called Young Voices. We had 12 public school students sit down for two days to brainstorm all the reasons they believed their peers were getting discouraged and dropping out of school. They talked about the family issue, but they didn’t think that was the biggest issue. After lengthy discussion they zeroed in on Waterbury’s strict dress code as the #1 reason kids were dropping out of school. We started to peel that back further because that had me scratching my head a bit. But a story began to emerge. Every one of the students had been suspended for being in violation of dress code. One student received in-house suspension for wearing the wrong colored hair tie to school. The students believe the teachers and administrators are spending too much time enforcing a bizarrely strict dress code. Last year for example there were more suspensions in 9th grade than there were students in 9th grade. The kids say they are suffocating under petty rules, get sick of the daily hassle and drop out? What do you think of that?
J: If that plays out to be correct, that draconian dress code enforcement is breaking the spirit of marginal students, this is something the school board should be brought up to speed on and there should be some adjustments. But we must recognize that the concept of a dress code or some type of standards is important. Ultimately education is preparing you for life, to get out into the real world and be a good productive member of society. Most workplaces you have to go dressed for serious activity.
O: These twelve kids produced an excellent newspaper wearing blue jeans and t-shirts. They were totally out of dress code, but nobody was coming to work in anything inappropriate. We worried more about what was going on in their heads and empowered them to go out and challenge the system. Six of the kids went and interviewed Dr. Snead about the dress code and he was unbending in his views and said the dress code is here to stay. The kids want to express their views and if you are re-elected mayor would you consider holding a Youth Summit to address this issue?
J: I’m never one who draws a line in the sand. We have to be receptive and hear all aspects of an argument. The pro side, the negative side, and that’s how you make good informed decisions. You get all the facts. You get all of the arguments behind the policies, and then you make an informed decision. Clearly that would be the way to go. A youth summit seems like something exciting. It could be more than just the dress code. It could be a way for us to invigorate the spirit of learning.
O: You’ve been very specific on several ideas to improve the school system, including neighborhood schools? What is your #1 priority?
Jarjura: Obviously the physical structures of our buildings. We have made a tremendous investment and progress. You look around at every building now. We’ve put in windows where windows should have been a decade ago. Roofs were leaking and they’ve been replaced. Our buildings are equipped with state of the art security systems.
You have to buzz doors to get into the building. Camera systems exist in certain buildings for security reasons. So we’ve taken steps to beef up security in the aftermath of some of the most tragic events at some of the schools across our country. We’re going on a building program.
My job as Mayor is to provide the tools and the structure. I don’t get involved with the curriculum and I know I’ve been criticized for that from some people. We have 10 board of education people whose sole job, that’s why they run for that office, is to manage the department of education. They have a superintendent and two assistant superintendents, building facilities manager, operating officer, and all types of resources. If they need my help they aren’t going to be bashful to call for it.
My role as mayor is to provide all of these tools and resources that they need to get their job done. It’s up to them to go do their job. Quite frankly that’s what they’re there for. That’s why you have 10 board of education members elected. My priority is to continue to support the board of education’s initiatives by going up to Hartford, by going to the federal government, by providing what resources we can so that they can effectively do their mission. Which is to educate as fully as you can the 18,000 students that we have in our public schools every year.
O: Two years ago you lauded republican mayoral candidate Tom Tremaglio’s idea for providing a support staff to the board of alderman. Aldermen complain that they have to provide their own number 2 pencil and get a big stack of papers right before they have to vote. You said you would were willing to investigate that idea. What happened?
J: We did talk about it during the budget process. Quite frankly it didn’t really receive wide spread support on the board level.
O: Really? The aldermen themselves aren’t excited about a support staff?
J: Well, they talked about it. But when it came to make final amendments to the mayor’s proposed budget it never flourished.
O: It seemed liked it collided with the alderman by district proposal. It seemed like there was something else...
J: Yeah, there’s something else there. There’s always something else. I think that our current staff has been very forthcoming in working with any board of aldermen at any time of the day or night. Mike Dalton has tremendously reached to all 15 aldermen. He is the city clerk, and as such he is the clerk of that board. Him and his staff will write letters, help them prepare letters or motions and things like that. The legal staff, any time they get a call from any of the 15 aldermen they invite them right in. They are able to see the budget director, the finance director any time of the day or night.
So it’s not as if they don’t have access to a very highly qualified staff. Now do they have a set person or office? No, not yet. Part of where we are headed with the new city hall is that they will have offices. They will be able to go into their offices. Not individual offices, but collectively they will have one for each caucus. The offices will be well equipped with a computer modem, with phones, with desk and they can receive visitors in their section. They’ll get keys to their office.
O: Speaking of aldermen, do you foresee any motion on your part to revisit the alderman by district?
J: I would like to see a charter revision commission. There are some other things that we proposed that didn’t go through that we should take a second look at. And clearly when you do that, the way we elect our board of aldermen has been a topic that has been around for a number of years. It should be talked about and examined and analyzed. What the correct answer is I couldn’t tell you. I can’t sit here and tell you the way we’re doing it is bad or good, or that this new proposal is bad or good. I think we have to look at it.
O: So you would put it on the table?
J: Yeah, I think it definitely has to put it on the table, you can’t just ignore it.
O: What has been the coolest moment for you these past six years?
J: When say cool, what do you mean by cool?
O: Cool, a moment when you just kicked back and said “Hot dam, that was something.”
J: It would have to be when we won the write-in campaign. That was cool. That was great. When it actually happened you had to sit back and go whew. We were part of history.
O: Met anyone that amazed and awed you?
J: (long pause) Let’s see. I met him once before, and I was really amazed and awed by his rock star appeal, and that would be former President Bill Clinton. His ability to relate to people is amazing.
O: If you had one minute alone with every voter just before they entered the voting booth, what would you say to convince them to vote for Mike Jarjura?
J: Let’s keep Waterbury’s renaissance thrusting full steam ahead. We do that by keeping in the management team we have had for the past six years, which is headed up by me. It also involves all the terrific department heads in the city and my colleagues on the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Education, and our City Clerk, Town Clerk and City Sheriff. Let’s keep our momentum going forward, and we do that by keeping in the Jarjura administration.