Sunday, October 14, 2007
October 2007 - Waterbury Mayoral Candidate Dennis Odle Q&A
City Needs Mayor With Financial Experience
(Observer publisher John Murray interviewed alderman Dennis Odle in late September inside the newspaper's office on Bank Street. After an unsuccessful attempt to win the Republican nomination for mayor, Odle bolted the GOP this summer to accept the top of the Independent Party ticket in November's election. Odle has decades of financial experience in the private sector and worked at IBM for twenty years. Photographs were taken by Michael Asaro.)
Observer: You began your acceptance speech at the Independent Party convention in July saying that politics is one of the greatest issues facing Waterbury. You said politics is getting in the way of running the city. Can you can some examples to back up your statement?
Odle: The latest one is the proposal I brought forward as an alderman and a mayoral candidate for a senior center. And what I had done is I had looked at senior services in Waterbury and I looked at the same services in surrounding towns and in other cities and noticed the gap. Waterbury is significantly behind everybody else. If you want to take a look at Prospect or Torrington or any of those and then develope a kind of a need statement and then we went out looking for a solution. So after rejecting many places and starting with Downtown, we couldn’t find anything. After rejecting a lot of different ideas, I found something that would actually be perfect and met the needs exactly. So it’s a cost effective solution that’s available very quickly. So my opponents instead of saying let me take a look at the idea, or we’ll consider it, or we’ll look through it, instead of doing any of that they said, “oh this is a terrible idea”. We don’t need this. We can’t do it. With never seeing the presentation, never seeing the space, never looking at what we have versus what other people have. It’s just it’s a bad idea. Well, gee guys, look at it.
O: How do you define politics? You ran for mayor in 2001 and have been on the board of aldermen these past two years, doesn’t that qualify you as a politician?
Odle: It probably eliminated me from using my 2001 campaign slogan (“All Business, No Politics). If you’ve been an elected official for two years you can no longer use that despite the fact that that’s how I intend to manage the city. Does it qualify me? Yeah, I think it absolutely does. In 2001 I started from nowhere, got 7,000 votes, came reasonably close. But as an Alderman I gained a lot more knowledge on a lot of the subject matter I’ll be dealing with and perhaps more important is when I ran as an Alderman, I ran on a platform as an Alderman. That’s what I was going to do. You can look at the resolutions that I submitted. I think I submitted more than the rest of the board put together. And what I’ve done is when I got in office is to try and implement some of the things I had on my platform. Now obviously as a minority of a minority there are limitations to how much of this stuff you can get through. But people should understand that as Mayor, my platform will be done.
O: Some of your opponents have called you politically naive, would you take that as an insult or a compliment?
Odle: I take that as a compliment. And there are a lot of suggestions that I need to learn the ‘backroom ways’ and learn how to work with all the powers that be and all that stuff. And my approach is quite different than that. I am laying out what I think the problems are and what I will do. I’ll put it out in the open, with no hidden agenda. Nobody in the backroom.
O: That really does makes you politically naive in this city.
Odle: It does. It does. Is that an effective way to do things politically? It may or may not. But the one thing they are 100% right on if to be successful and be elected, I have to play the backroom politics that they stand on, then I don’t want the job.
O: Independent Party founder Larry De Pillo called this year’s Independent slate “the most democratic ticket in city history”. You were the Republican candidate for mayor in 2001, Karen Mulcahy was the Democratic candidate for mayor in 2005, and Larry De Pillo was the Democratic candidate for mayor in 1999, and an Independent Party candidate for mayor in 2001, 2003 and 2005. That’s a lot of experience. How did all three of you end up on the same ticket?
Odle: After a whole lot of discussion. The discussion did not start out political. It started off with what is it that we want to do? Could we be compatible managing the city? And we had to get over that before we could then move onto if it would make sense for us to get together. And so there were a lot of serious policy discussions along the way. How you deal with unions. How you deal with city hall. How you deal with streets. How you deal with financial issues that face the city. So we spent a lot of time on that over a period of two or three months.
O: Who made the first overture?
Odle: A little hard to say on that. The reason being that Cicero Booker and I got along extremely well on the Board of Alderman. And he’s part of the independent party and the minority leader. Cicero and I had been the closest of allies and we basically worked together on pretty much everything and had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. For a long time it made sense to both of us if we could get on a common ticket. And that was before anything else. It would be great if we could do this. I started talking to Independent Party chairman Mike Telesca to see if there was a way we could make this work. And we explored that. And it kind of got around to looking like well there is a way to make it work.
O: What was the biggest obstacle to getting all three of you onboard the Independent slate?
Odle: It was making sure we could have a coherent agenda that really says this is what we want to do. We had to make sure that all three of us could work together with a common message and keep everybody in the boat. I think that has worked well, understanding that I treat them as significant candidates with the experience that they do have. So this isn’t like I micromanage every aspect of this because I don’t.
O: Larry and Karen are both strong characters with a history of being out front on issues. If you are elected mayor how will you make executive decisions? Will it be the three of you gathered around the mayor’s conference table?
Odle: No, I’m the mayor, but I value the input of these folks. Traditionally you have kind of a kitchen cabine that’s kind of in the background providing advice and counsel. My kitchen cabinet is very much out front. So you want to see who my kitchen cabinet and who my advisors are well, they’re they are.
O: It’d be the Town Clerk and City Clerk?
Odle: And Matty Sevilla, who has been very out front. So Matty Sevilla, my wife (laughs), and Karen and Larry. That’s who my advisors would be. To that extent everybody acknowledges that the decisions are mine to make and I am willing to overrule the rest of my team if necessary. But part of the ability to build a well functioning organization here or anywhere else, is rarely will I arbitrarily overrule my team. What I will do, I will need to make the arguments and I need to bring them along and I need to show the group that I’m working with and this includes my Board, why it is we want to do a certain policy. So I’m not going to sit there and say guys you have to do this. I have to make the arguments and bring them along. And in that respect I probably have the most difficult job of any Mayor in a long time because I have a bunch of people running for the board as well as Larry and Karen that have very strong opinions about a lot of the stuff. So this isn’t that I’m going to say guys we’re going to do this and we’re going to make this policy. Occasionally I will overrule them, but rarely.
O: Have you made any promises to Larry and Karen that voters should know about?
Odle: No, there isn’t anything other than what you see. They are obviously going to be in the administration and they are going to be in that council.
O: What was the thinking in having Larry and Karen run for town and city clerk? Wouldn’t they have had more impact if they were elected to the board of aldermen?
Odle: Well the role of the city clerk and town clerk would be much different because obviously they are part of a policy council. So their role would be different. The idea to put them there was not mine. It was actually Larry’s. The logic was that since we’re obviously making this a team effort then you would see the team on the ballot as they go across....1,2,3.
O: They’d also have fulltime city jobs in City Hall right down the hallway from you as well. So you’d have easy access to them and them to you. So that’s part of it probably as well, just the accessibility to each other.
Odle: Yeah, and I think it will work because the roles will be different than their counterparts in the past, it may be more of a policy-making role. I kind of was talked into this as opposed to initiating it, so it’s something that I eventually came along with. This is one issue where I did take some political soundings to see if this made sense to other more seasoned people than myself. Ultimately it did to all of them. So I said okay.
O: The last two Republicans elected mayor in Waterbury ended up in federal prison. 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. What’s your take on the health of the Grand Old Party in Waterbury?
Odle: It could be better. The Republican leadership at both the city and state level has not done much of anything towards party building in a long time. You think about the number of years we’ve had a Republican mayor and the fact that we had a Republican governor, yet during that time we have had a steady loss of party members. Obviously I tangled with the leadership of the Republican town committee and don’t get along with a fair chunk of those people at all.
O: What was that about? It seemed some of it was out in the open but some of it was the backroom stuff that goes on. People are confused. You announced you were running to be the Republican candidate and you end up as the head of the Independent party slate. And people are scratching their heads and some of the vibes of the Republicans are ‘Dennis didn’t get his way; he’s just being a baby because he went off and he’s in another party.” Many Republicans believe you should have just accepted that you didn’t get the nomination and joined the under ticket as an alderman.
Odle: It really comes down to there were a lot of discussions about how I can advance my political career and what I should be doing and what I could do later. And if I were interested in a political career that might be fine. I’m not. What I want to do is something to help Waterbury and I think it needs it now. And then I will do that and I will step aside. I don’t want to do anything else in politics. I think I can bring a lot to the table to help Waterbury. And that I am by far the best management choice to come in and repair this city. If I thought someone else could do that I would be perfectly happy to back another candidate. And in fact, when it looked like Selim Noujam was going to be running, I was very happy to back him. So this wasn’t an ego trip on my part. It was, “what is it that was needed in Waterbury?” I think I can provide that.
O: That’s business sense.
Odle: Exactly. And you have somebody like Selim who is a very accomplished businessman who knows what the manufacturing people in Waterbury need to succeed and what’s important to the city. He has worked hard on every good cause for the city. I looked at that and was very happy to back Selim and very public about it. I’ve been with the Republican party for a very long time. Going back to the middle of last year my position was: If Selim runs, I’ll back him. If he doesn’t run, I will run. Very simple.
O: Do you think you got a fair shake at getting the Republican nomination?
Odle: I think that it was a bizarre situation and one I have never seen elsewhere.
O: Bizarre, how so?
Odle: I was the first one out of the box to do any campaigning. My approach was go out and talk to voters. What is it they want? What can I offer? And what kind of strength do I have? The approach from the inside of the party was that I needed to wage an all out campaign to win over the Republican Town Committee. My thought was: okay, if I spend my time winning over the Town Committee, what exactly do I have?
O: Maybe the nomination.
Odle: Maybe the nomination. But then I realized maybe I win the nomination, but when I look at the returns from last time Larry had 5,000 votes. Karen had 6,000. Mike 8,000. Tom 2,000. So if I win the Republican nominiation, how many Republican votes am I going to get that I wouldn’t have anyway? Will the people that are backing Tony back me if I won the nomination? What other Republicans have they backed? So I looked at the party loyalty of that group and realized that if I won the nomination what would I actually get?
O: The last two Republican candidates were really pissed off when the election was over. They were recruited and begged to stick their necks out there and then they were left hanging. Both of them were embarrassed by the whole process. They didn’t feel they had much support from the Republican Party.
Odle: Right. And further, if you look at the electoral map.... say I won the Republican nomination then you had an Independent slate made up of Larry and Karen, in whichever order it happened to be. And then Mike. You really fracture the “we need a change vote” of which is huge this time between the two of us. Now with the coalition I’ve put together, I’m the logical change so most of that “we need a change vote” will come to our team.
O: Mayor Jarjura has publicly stated that Republican candidate Tony D’Amelio was being supported by crooks and felons when he referred to Joe and Jeff Santopietro. What influence do you think those two men have on the Republican Party and its nominee?
Odle: I would say Joe, very little, if any. I’m not really sure if there’s any or not because I haven’t seen it. Jeff has a lot.
O: Does that concern you?
Odle: It concerns me in that this is the kind of old Republican thought process and that does concern me. I certainly would not make the comment that the Mayor made.
O: You have called your ticket a tri-partisan slate of Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Where is the common ground that holds the party together?
Odle: The common ground is the platform and how we intend to manage the city. It’s what do we want to do and how do we want to treat people. How do we want to treat the voters? How do we want to treat the employees? That was the essential thing. So the people that were on board could have a look at it and say they were all right with it. As we get outside of the realm of our platform and an issue comes up obviously we will have to go through the discussion process.
O: You have stated that 34% of all tax dollars in Waterbury go to unfunded pensions and retiree medical costs. Despite the unfunded $450 million pension nightmare you have stated the medical costs to retirees is likely an even larger liability to the taxpayers. How would you tackle the problem?
Odle: I think the pension number now is either $466 or $468. The other part of the deficit, which is called other post employment benefits, is almost certainly going to be larger than what our deficit is in the pension plan. This administration is hiding it or ducking it, which is not unusual, Mike Jarjura ducks many problems. We were supposed to have a report out issued on other post employment benefits in February. Notice it’s September and it’s not in sight. So basically his attitude is to push this issue out past the election. And we are in trouble today because of the attitude of politicians in the past has been to push problems out past wherever. I don’t have to deal with it, it doesn’t matter. The comparison I give you is Harry Truman’s “the buck stops here” which is how I intend to handle things versus Sergeant Schultz’s “I know nothing”, which is how I contend the Jarjura administration is handling this.
O: Mayor Jarjura is Schultzy?
Odle: Yeah (laughs). I know nothing. It’s not a problem I have to face. Now, the first thing to do is to quantify this in excruciating detail. What’s driving the cost? How high are our benefits? Then you start comparing. Without the details of what it is we owe, we are completely helpless. We can’t do anything. There’s an old adage in finance, you manage what you measure. We don’t measure it, we don’t manage it. Simple enough. You understand it in detail and then you get for each group what the claims are and how much are we paying in claims each year. What’s the co-pay? How do our plans interact with other plans such as Medicare as an example? Medicare part D, the drugs benefit. What are the incentives for our employers and employees? If they retire are they incented to stay on our insurance forever? A lot of them are. We need to set all the incentives up to save costs all the way through, so if one of our people goes to work for Bridgeport we’ll get them to use Bridgeport’s insurance. The other thing is we have to factor these costs into every single decision we make. As an example, we’ve got fourteen policemen that are essentially being forced to retire early next year because of changes in the contract. When they retire, they’ve got pre-medical for life. Does it make sense for us to move them out? What would we be giving up if we found a way to transition those guys into a different benefit package and keep them? So I’m not 100% sure I can work it out, but boy I’d have the spreadsheet out and trying to figure out how does this really work.
O: Three years ago 100 police officers retired so they could have free medical for the rest of their lives. They were retiring because they didn’t want co-pay. How do you assess the cost of that exodus to Waterbury taxpayers?
Odle: In that case, I would say we absolutely knew. There are a number of things that we didn’t factor into the equation. The biggest thing was the retirement medical. I think we also didn’t factor in if all of these guys retire, will we in fact save money? You’re paying somebody for a job and now your paying the pension. But if you force them to retire earlier will it increase our unfunded pension liability. There’s another thing that this administration hasn’t dealt with. The last five years we’ve had 41 million dollars of negative actuary readjustments. Negative actuary adjustment is I balance my checkbook and I’m 1,000 dollars short. You don’t know why. Only with ours instead of being $1,000 it’s 41 million. This first came up shortly after I was an alderman, we got the actuarially report and we had a negative actuarial adjustment of 10 million dollars. Why is this? This is absolutely a screaming red flag. Coming from a finance background you never ever have an un-explained variant. Because when you have an unexplained variance all you know is you don’t know what’s going on.
O: And how can you manage that?
Odle: You don’t know whether it’s one thing that’s screwing you up, or fifteen. All you know is that your policy is based on garbage. We had another one this year. When I put my resolution and said we need to study this and we need to understand this in great detail. The answer back from the administration is no you don’t. It’s no big deal. Sometimes they’re negative, sometimes they’re positive. So I went back and looked. No, it’s negative. $41 million dollars over five years. So what you’ve got is conceptually the pension deficit is supposed to be funded by the mortgage. So your paying off the mortgage over 30 years so it should come down over time. So if you go back and look at the Oversight Boards plan which was from 2003, it shows debt is not going down, it’s gone up. It’s going the wrong way. Why? Don’t know. Then they said well it’s because we made all these guys retire early. That’s probably part of it, but then you think okay, if it’s because we made people retire early, was that smart?
O: You actually wrote a letter to the editor in the Republican American talking about the dependent children of teachers that shouldn’t be on the city health plan and we’re getting $60,000 or $70,000 a month that they shouldn’t have.
Odle: A couple hundred bucks a month per dependent times 300 dependents.
O: It was a benefit we shouldn’t have been giving, but out it goes.
Odle: There is a policy everywhere in the industry that you have to sign and affirmatively say that you have three dependents, this is their age, oh and by the way my ass will be fired if I lied to you. And at IBM you’re out the door the next day. No questions asked. You lie on that, your gone. So we don’t bother to do this. We got rid of penance and made out the check and said ‘okay how many do we really have?’
O: We were also sending double pension payments to retirees. How do you go about getting that money back?
Odle: That’s in court now. It was absolutely millions of dollars. The point that I made was they said they couldn’t find it because they didn’t have computer systems that would reconcile these payments. The accounting profession is over 100 years old and in that entire time accountants have known how to reconcile various accounts. They’ve done it by hand for decades and decades. It can still be done.
O: You were involved in the process to revamp the Charter. You took this antiquated document and made lots of changes and you streamlined the thing. The mayor touts his greatest accomplishment is bringing better business practice to the city of Waterbury. For years he said bookkeeping was just appalling. He said he didn’t realize how bad it was until he was actually sitting in the mayor’s seat. There was a lack of accountability with money and systems. He said it was so bad that it’s his belief it had to be deliberate. If the books were in chaos it would be easier to move the money around to different areas. Now your saying the process is still antiquated and not up to snuff. You seem to be disagreeing that he’s brought all these practices to modern status.
Odle: Yes I am, which is not to say there isn’t some truth in his statement because the big thing we did by charter is we had a lot of business processes hard wired in the charter. The one that comes to mind is paying the bill. It took 21 separate steps to find in the charter how to pay a bill. It had to go back and forth between departments many times. As a result we paid our bills in 9 months. So what happens if you pay your bills in 9 months? It means you spend too much time and money paying the bill, but more importantly a lot of people won’t do business with you at all. Just don’t want to have anything to do with you because it is not worth the aggravation to them. It screws up their receivables account and they aren’t sure what their cash flow is supposed to be. They can’t trust you. Those that do are going to charge you for it. You have that in accounts payable, you have the same problem in writing a purchase order and you have these problems with all the processes. Horrible. Now when we changed the Charter the accounts payable part is now two or three sentences and it’s Waterbury will adopt a very world-class accounts payable system hopefully looking at the following things for guidance. So you go to the government finance officers association or something and ask them what’s a good accounts payable system. Pick it up. Just go grab one. So from having more efficient business processes we’re in much better shape than we were in several of these areas.
O: He hasn’t finished the process off?
Odle: Not even close.
O: You have a bachelor’s degree in accounting, a master’s degree in business administration, and 20 years of financial experience working at IBM. How can you leverage that experience to tackle the complex financial crisis of an unfunded $466 or 68-million pension fund?
Odle: The first thing that you learn in a financial job is you have to accurately measure what you’re dealing with. In every job I’ve gone into I’ve made sure I could do that first. Because you can’t find solutions until you really know what the problem is. So you have to figure you where you are. The same story as the previous problem. Where am I? What’s causing the problem? What then are the solutions that can attack each aspect of the problem? And normally what you find in a big thing like this is there is not one thing that you do to help it there are ten, fifteen or twenty. Each of which will have a little bit of an impact and move things in the right direction. You then have to look and see if what I expected to happen, happened? Was I right? You have to measure. And the big issues, you’ve got that. On the day-to-day management of the city I would have a big impact too. And what I’m saying is I want to implement what’s in the Charter which is each organization should define what services they are producing for the city. We would put all the costs in the department against those services. We would then look and say how much does it cost to do roads? How much does it cost us to do trees? How much does it cost us to do recreational services? How much does it cost other people to do those? I am really big on studying success. When I look at a part of the city my tendency is to look at who does this best? Go look at them. How many people do you have? How do you manage it? How do you relate to other departments? Then I’ll say okay, are we doing better or worse than that? I’m always willing to copy.
O: Whom would you copy for tackling this pension fund deficit? It seems to be a problem. The state has this problem.
Odle: Greenwich. Greenwich in particular started addressing it ten years ago. They did kind of all the things that I’m talking about. They changed the incentives and the plans somewhat. They did advanced funding of it. All of that stuff. We’re fortunate that we are so far behind that there are examples of people out there that have tackled it. All of our problems people have tackled long before us.
O: Why aren’t we doing that?
Odle: I come back to Woodrow Wilson versus Sergeant Schultz. I know nothing. These are not simple problems and so are you going to upset some people when you start to deal with them? Probably. That’s part of politics getting in the way of doing things in Waterbury. Any policy idea you bring forward no matter how good will annoy some segment of the population. No matter what you bring forward you will lose some votes for doing it. So the traditional wisdom is don’t bring any forward. Don’t do anything. Stay neutral.
We had illegal boarding houses creating a huge danger. They were completely against any zoning law, so I went to war on that. Did I lose votes? Yeah. Yeah I did. The folks that have all the illegal boarding houses are not happy with me because I forced them to obey the law and come up with a legal solution. Once there are rules, we enforce it uniformly. And I’ve come forward with the intent on much stricter zoning enforcement in general. And one of the resolutions I have set forward is an ordinance that would do that. The difference is right now if you are disobeying the zoning laws, I will come and say “John I’d like to stop that” and you’d say “sure sure”. I come back a second and third time and you are still doing the same thing. My philosophy is I come and say “John, I’d like you to quit doing that, by the way it’s 150 dollars a day for violation, so lets talk pretty soon because the meters running.” It completely changes the philosophy of enforcement and completely changes the mindset.
O: So the oversight board was in control of the city finances for five years and now they are gone. What does that mean for the city of Waterbury and how can you transition us into a stable future?
Odle: The oversight board was responsible for a number of improvements in the management of the city. Particularly the budget process, which they controlled extremely closely. But it was far more things than that. Our job is to understand what it was the oversight board did to improve the city, how they were able to make the improvements and perhaps most importantly what we can now do to continue the work the oversight board did. Among the things that the oversight board did is you had a very highly qualified professional that was in city government looking long rage. It was Cicchetti and Bakers. Very good finance guys. You pay them real money. They are real professional. They are looking at the management of the city now and they were looking at all the finance reports and looking out what do we need to do out in time. And you look at city government now and who’s looking at what we need to do out in time? Nobody. There are some things that the oversight board did that we can’t do. We don’t have the arbitration authority. But what we do need to do is be prepared so when we negotiate we have all the information necessary. That’s back to gathering data. The Yankee Institute (think tank) they did a study recently that compared wages, benefits, dollars and the whole bit, private sector versus public sector and city to city and the public sector. Of course Waterbury didn’t participate. We need to participate and understand all of those pay factors of us versus the rest of the world and we need to publish this stuff. So that everybody knows so when someone says they are underpaid and only making 48,000 dollars a year. Well if you were in the private sector you’d be making 25. So we need to get that out so people understand it. We also need to look at morale and what we are doing in recruiting and what it takes to recruit and how many people are leaving and why are they leaving? So we need to understand that whole package before we go in and negotiate with anybody. But if you understand all that and you get the information out then you’ve got a better chance of negotiating a more sensible contract and addressing real problems then if we walk in fat, dumb and happy like we normally do. I’m looking at changing the whole management of the city. The idea that you get this managed by a mayor who is both the chief executive officer and chief ceremonial officer (whatever that is) essentially no body else. We have Joe Geary the lawyer and who else in that office. But we don’t have any management talent in the city to make sure we are managing and implementing new programs to move the city forward. And I intend to bring in a different structure.
O: How would your structure work? What would you do?
Odle: It may well be a couple deputy mayors. But people you would look and say okay this is a guy that I should have running a substantial chunk of the business. And thinking of it as a business because this is someone that has actually that kind of management talent.
O: So that’s not Larry and Karen as the deputy mayors?
Odle: No. I’ve got to bring in somebody that people will say that’s out of the political process. And you don’t bring in somebody with that kind of talent and say I’m going to pay you the average of a teacher in our school system. So if you’re bringing somebody with the background ability, training and all that stuff. To perform these management tasks your going to have to pay them like a manager. You can look at what Stamford does. What Greenwich does as far as their structure and who they have and how they have a policy operation built in to their government. And that will give us much more intelligent policy over time and much better ability to analyze decisions as they come up. Ultimately good management is one of the best bargains you can buy. That’s coming.
O: Your party’s platform states that the mayor’s #1 job should be economic development and you would dedicate one quarter to one third of your time on this one issue. What would you do with that time?
Odle: First of all make sure that we have a coherent marketing program that we’re going to sell and that we have the right people involved. It also involves making sure that we have the right properties to bring to market. So when we look out at the demand we have for a variety of things, what do we have to supply that demand? Example of that is the South End development. You talk to the economic development professionals and they said there’s a tremendous need for industrial flex space. We have none. Naugatuck has none. So we have to get some. How do we do that? So I’ve worked on that kind of thing. I would also be very actively out there at trade shows and talking to people that might be interested and I would be actively selling Waterbury to them. First is developing the market plan. How do we market our programs? What do we need to overcome the objections of potential customers and that includes things like tax incentives, having an efficient permit process so when they come in they are confident that they can get their business up and running in a reasonable period of time.
O: How would you describe what’s been going on with development in the last six years under Mayor Jarjura?
Odle: Actually we’ve had a lot of going out and it’s been Waterbury businesses that have gone out and left the city. There’s an exodus that we have done little or nothing to stop. And you can’t always stop everything, but as an example, McDermott lost six hundred great jobs. That was the poster child for the good paying jobs. Did you see anything about the Waterbury administration holding meetings with state DEP trying to cut these guys a break? Explaining that we’re really screwing them over on some of the environmental issues. Getting the Governor involved and saying we have to bring these guys in and getting the delegation involved saying we’re going to have to fight to keep them. Before I lost to McDermott I would have spent hundreds of hours, I would have gone to every body in the state and the DEP’s office. Give them the love they deserve for providing six hundred good paying jobs and lots and lots of tax revenue. I love these guys. I’d like to keep them. And I would for all of these. We had Lescare. They wanted to expand in Waterbury. They couldn’t find a way to expand. I would have found them a way to expand. I would have been out there looking at buildings with them. I would have got it for them. It would have been my job to make sure that they got the facilities they needed at a reasonable price. It’s my job to help them succeed.
O: Being busines friendly is a Republican mantra. One of the big complaints inside the Waterbury Development Corporation has been dealing with piles of red tape that bog down projects.
Odle: That’s absolutely true, when you have this cumbersome, inefficient, excruciating process in the city, the answer is not to take WDC outside of it, the answer is solving the process. There’s nothing in our Charter that says ‘you will torture everybody that needs a purchase rack’. That is not a requirement. The answer is set up the best practice going. That’s what we are supposed to be doing. That’s what the Charter says we’re supposed to do.
O: In 2001 your vision of Waterbury’s future involved robotic companies and high tech industry attracted to Waterbury for its affordable housing, it’s excellent school system and it’s lively downtown entertainment district. Do you still have that vision?
Odle: Pretty much. I still absolutely intend to work on the entertainment district part of it. And the reason that I had back then and the reason I still have that is if we are going to turn around downtown, we have to turn it around because people are coming downtown. And you get people to come downtown two ways. One is you get jobs downtown. Second, you get things people want to go to. You have to do both. And I intend to do both.
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?
Odle: It comes down to why are people not coming to Downtown Waterbury. The answer right now is a couple things. Three probably. One is the perception that it’s just a mess. The blight and beautification thing is a big part of our problem. If it looks like crap people from the burbs are not likely to come down. Second is the perception of safety, which I contend we are getting a bad rap on. I think that we can market and say downtown Waterbury isn’t a problem, so we have to get out and kind of explain why that isn’t a problem. Which is absolutely marketing. And third is you have to have the activities that people want to come in for. So one of the things that I’m working on now is a brownfield redevelopment project that would bring in a bunch of recreational services that are in a big demand in the surrounding areas. Like ice hockey, soccer, and those kinds of things. Right now you have people in the burbs going down and doing ridiculous things to get ice time. What if they could come into Waterbury? Bringing their kids into Waterbury three days a week? They aren’t far from downtown and aren’t far from the mall. So they get used to coming into Waterbury all the time. Then once you have them coming in as a matter of course then selling them to go to the mall or go to the downtown restaurants to get all these things is not going to be that much of a stretch. So you can do things like that.
O: Your campaign literature says you promise to be a full time mayor and not a real estate developer. That is an obvious dig at Mayor Jarjura’s real estate transactions around the city. The mayor says he’s just investing in the city he loves, what’s wrong with that?
Odle: A number of things. One is going back to my statement about that my number one job would be economic development. I have to know everything that’s going on. I have to know all of the folks that are potential customers that are coming into Waterbury for our space. To come in as employers and I have to know the developers that are here locally to take care of these guys. My job has to be to match these guys up and make them successful. And the minute that I use any of that information from either side for my own purpose then nobody is going to trust me ever again. No developer in his or her right mind would trust the mayor because he is out investing for his own book. This thing of putting a plaza out on East Main. Then a month later Oh Look A Water Park Is Going In Across The Street. Imagine That!!!! Back to Gomer Pile, “Shazam!” A Water Park! Who Would Thought?
O: Gomer and Schultzy. I’m really starting to get an image here. Let’s move on. You’ve stated that one of your goals is to take the economic development function away from the Waterbury Development Corporation and return it to the mayor’s office. Why?
Odle: The buck stops here. I would be responsible for it. I would manage it. It has not been effective under the WDC and for that matter what we’ve had in that organization has not been the type of people to do economic development. Yeah you have people that are used to running construction projects. That’s great. But that’s not the reason they were created at first.
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?
Odle: I think it very possibly has merit. And my feeling is we do need to have a dress code. But we need to be careful about setting up thousands of rules on every aspect of everything like having the wrong color hair tie. That strikes me as kind of a bizarre thing. Additionally, we need to periodically look at our policies and see exactly what it is that they are accomplishing. So if we are having more suspensions then we have kids in 9th grade, let’s look at those suspensions and see why we’re giving them and what the impact of doing that is. I think it’s fairly easy to over control and not focus on the bigger picture. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the kids were right on target.
O: The students interviewed Superintendent of Schools David Snead who told them he loved the dress code and it was here to stay. Kids want a dress code, but a more realistic one. They want to be part of the discussion. If you were elected mayor would you hold a Youth Summit to address the students concerns?
Odle: Absolutely. I think this is a kind of similar to what I’m doing on the senior end. When I started to notice lack of facilities, I went out there to see what there were and what people thought of it. What seniors themselves thought was need. We should take that approach in all aspects of managing the city. Brainstorming. This goes to the customers of the city and also goes to the employees of the city. How often do we ask the employees what can be done to do a better job in your area? What do you like or not like about the job? It’s important to have good morale in the city as well as be cost effective. Which I don’t think we pay attention to either one. But not asking the customers, trying to develop a solution without asking the customers is the ultimate in folly.
O: You’ve been very specific on several ideas to improve the school system, including neighborhood schools holding principals accountable for their buildings and creating a magnet school focused on health care and manufacturing? What is your #1 priority?
Odle: Hmmmm....I guess the number one priority would be working with the principals to make sure they had the tools to be able to do their job. And helping them to be effective in making sure that they are doing what they can. I think the difference between a school with an inspired and effective principal and one that is not is huge. But if you are putting responsibility there you also have to work at giving them the tools because you can’t hold them accountable for something they can’t control.
O: What could you give them?
Odle: Certainly give them a lot more control over maintenance. I think you have to work at giving them more control over staffing and certainly have to give them more control over discipline. And you have to back them up on it.
O: I sent my daughter to a private school for many years and had to transport her to and from the school. That was my responsibility. Why does Waterbury pay to transport students to private Catholic Schools? Do you think that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars?
Odle: I do think that is a good use of taxpayer dollars. I think that if we had to absorb all of those Catholic school kids into the Waterbury school system we’d have a very impressive financial hit to the city. What we’ve got are the parents of those kids paying full taxes to the city and we’re basically providing a small portion of the services that they are paying for to help them accomplish their educational needs. I would move further in that direction in helping parents have more educational choices. And doing what we can to help them.
O: You have floated some innovative ideas about restructuring the Board of Aldermen. You’d assign support staff to help aldermen with research and constituent issues and you’d institute a training program for aldermen. Why?
Odle:: I think our Board of Aldermen is not effective. I think we’re doing almost no constituent service. The Board of Aldermen is not an equal branch of government here. The Charter says it is, but there has been essentially no policy ideas from the Board of Aldermen. The only ideas that the board deals with are those handed down from the Mayor and we basically rubber-stamp it. And I think we would be far better served if we had aldermen out working in the neighborhoods that they are responsible for and bringing back issues. I don’t think you could have the blight that we’ve had over time if we had an alderman assigned to that neighborhood. After the first 100 calls they get about a certain issue, they’d be beating down the doors of the department heads responsible and that’s part of the training program. How do we solve these problems? What is it that you do?
O: Two years ago, Tom Tremagglio who had been an alderman for many years, one of his proposals was to get support staff for the Aldermen. He said it was appalling that he’d get these huge proposals ten minutes before the meeting and you’re supposed to vote on them. He said aldermen are just overwhelmed. Congressmen have support staffs, state reps, state senators and the governor, everybody has a staff. You think it would be a good thing to empower the aldermen?
Odle: I think it would be a good thing. And it comes back to how I’m managing my ticket. I think it would be far better for the city. It comes back to, would I have more discussions, would I have more ideas coming in, would I have to sell more to people? Yeah I would. I’m not afraid of that.
O: You’ve been on two charter revision commissions and have stated that if you were elected you would form a new commission to focus on aldermen by district. Six years ago you told me you weren’t inclined to use your political capital on pursuing alderman by district. What’s changed your mind?
Odle: Mugged by reality. My experience as an alderman, I see what is done and I see how hard it is to give constituent service and how hard it is to research and how hard it is to advance policy ideas in the set up that we have. And I just believe we have to do a much much better job and we have to have it so people know who they are supposed to pick up and call. I absolutely have a different position than I did before I became an alderman.
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 Dennis Odle?
Odle: I’ll bring the city professional management. I’ll be a full time Mayor and I won’t have conflicts of interest.