Sunday, October 14, 2007
October 2007 - Waterbury Mayoral Candidate Michael Jarjura Q&A
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.