One year ago today New London's experiment with a new form of governance began. On Dec. 5, 2011, the city inaugurated Daryl Justin Finizio as the first mayor directly elected by the voters in 90 years. Not only was the system of government new, so was Mr. Finizio, remarkably taking the top elected position just a couple of years after moving to New London.
That it was a turbulent first year for the mayoral form of government should not come as a great surprise. For nearly a century New London operated with a city manager system. The City Council was boss and the city manager took its orders.
As the council this past year adjusted to its new role as one branch of government and no longer the body in charge, and as the mayor sought to establish his executive authority, clashes and disputes were inevitable. There had to be a sorting out of roles, an establishing of precedents.
But the amount of controversy this past year was surprising and much of it unnecessary. It remains a mystery how a candidate who ran such a disciplined, organized campaign to become mayor often displayed such a political tin ear once elected.
On his first full day in office, Mayor Finizio issued several controversial executive orders, urging police to look the other way when confronting casual marijuana use (later rescinded after a prosecutor objected), mandating no disciplinary action against city employees in non-safety related jobs who test positive for pot, and instructing cops not to inquire into people's immigration status.
The merit of any of these orders is debatable, but to immediately burn political capital on such fringe, controversial issues was foolish. Other examples would follow, including announcing at a news conference that the city faced a fiscal crisis and blaming past council actions. True or not, the better course would have been for Mayor Finizio to present that information at a council meeting, discuss the causes, and make the council a partner in solving the problem rather than placing it on the defensive.
Most recently, Mayor Finizio seemed to dump fuel on a budget referendum fire rather than wait for it to burn out. After voters rejected a city budget with a 7.5 percent tax rate increase, the council and mayor trimmed the tax hike to about 5 percent. Opposition to the budget seemed to be fading. Then the mayor, pointing to a legal opinion, announced that any more petitions challenging the budget would be unlawful and the city would not accept them. If you want to guarantee New Londoners do something, tell them they can't. Citizens submitted a petition that remains in legal limbo.
But the public should not judge the mayor on one year in office, and certainly not the new form of government.
To his credit Mayor Finizio has clearly established the office of mayor and its executive authority. He shook up City Hall and put much of his team in place. That is what a leader should do, even when it invites controversy.
Mayor Finizio confronted the city's fiscal problems. Government is smaller and leaner than prior to his election. But the rejection by voters of the budget he campaigned for showed the erosion of the support he had when elected. For him, the good news is that he has three more years to move from contentious mayor to effective leader.
Year two will be critical. His relationship with the council appears to have improved and the controversies are fewer. Managing the city's fiscal problems will remain the biggest challenge. Mayor Finizio needs good news to proclaim - announcing the locating of the Coast Guard museum in New London would be nice, or the start of Fort Trumbull development, or more business activity downtown.
As for fairly assessing mayoral governance, that will require the perspective of 10 or 20 years. One mayor in one year during difficult economic times does not a fair test make.