If Mayor Harp were remotely interested in my advice for her first hundred days in office, I would remind her that politics is a game of managing expectations that entails consistently and patiently explaining to the electorate that deeply rooted institutions and structures of governance are often beyond the ability of any one person, even a chief elected official, to control; and that no politician ever takes office in a historical vacuum.
After a well-run campaign that heightened public expectations, New Haven’s first black mayor, John Daniels, was hobbled by several political hot potatoes he inherited from his predecessor Biagio DiLieto. One was a twice-postponed property revaluation that threatened to double or even triple many property-tax bills. Daniels responded to the massive budget deficit created by DiLieto’s postponed revals and tax giveaways to real estate developers, combined with the early 1990s recession, by laying off about 300 city employees. Budget austerity was painfully disappointing for some of Daniels’s strongest supporters, but what else could he have done in a crisis situation? Meanwhile, a federal order to replace old-style public housing projects with scattered-site housing led to Daniels’ good-faith effort to situate public housing in the predominantly white Eastshore neighborhood, an effort met with massive controversy and resistance that further handicapped his administration. And then of course there was the unfortunate reality that Daniels entered the mayor’s office just as America’s crack epidemic was taking off. As New Yorker writer William Finnegan poignantly recounted in chapter one of his book Cold New World, New Haven was hit as hard as any comparably sized city in the country.
[John Daniels’s portrait in City Hall.]
Daniels left much to be desired as a leader and administrator, but in his defense he faced a ‘perfect storm’ of chronic structural impediments, on top of several catastrophic lightning strikes, none of which were of his own making. And it would be foolish to deny that racial prejudice added to the headwind he faced in his two unhappy terms. Needless to say, history is not a great respecter of the norms of political correctness. While Daniels couldn’t wave a magic wand and make all the structural challenges melt away, he probably could have done a better job managing expectations.
Will New Haven’s second African-American and first female mayor find herself crippled by circumstances beyond her control? Will her historic mayoralty, like Daniels’s, become collateral damage of a lousy economy and a fiscally irresponsible, long-serving predecessor? To put it another way: with a full plate of daunting challenges dropped in her lap, how can she best manage expectations for her administration?
Harp needs to walk a fine line between lowering expectations and renouncing accountability altogether. Consider the following: you don’t have to be an accountant, municipal bond trader, or even an East Rock taxpayer to know that the City of New Haven’s finances are a mess. But to hear some people tell it, what is visible on the surface of the Department of Finance’s monthly reports is only the tip of the iceberg. In this telling, which was almost a shibboleth for the Kerekes campaign in 2011, the DeStefano administration covered up its gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars by taking shady deals off the books or otherwise hiding debts and exaggerating assets. Harp and her team won’t know how bad things really are until a thorough financial audit is concluded. That could take months or even years. Maybe we will never know.
That is what some will people around town will tell you, in what you might call a perverse form of managing expectations. But the ‘Mayor Madoff’ conspiracy theory is, in essence, a manifestation of DeStefano Derangement Syndrome. Is it possible that New Haven’s financial picture is actually worse than it appears? Anything is possible, but we already know that the city has the third highest net direct debt per capita debt burden of the country’s 250 largest cities — as computed by the Wall Street Journal according to publicly available data. It is no secret that the city’s bond rating was downgraded by all three different ratings agencies in the last year, because of a $500 million unfunded pension liability and a negative fund balance, with borrowing costs going up accordingly. Is the ‘tip of the iceberg’ not distressing enough?
Imagining DeStefano as a Madoff-like villain who dressed up the City’s precarious finances with smoke-and-mirrors accounting misses the point. Everyone knows where the big-ticket liabilities come from: namely, rising pension and health care costs. (Problems on the revenue side are equally daunting, but that is another discussion.) To suggest that a post-DeStefano forensic audit of New Haven’s financial problems will reveal anything new is to diminish the plenty-depressing reality of what we already know.
During the campaign Harp was ambiguous about whether she would support defined-contribution pension plans for public employees. She indicated openness to a “hybrid” pension plan of some kind, but her wariness to offend public employee unions who supported her campaign heavily raised — and raises — questions about her seriousness and willingness to rectify New Haven’s long-term financial picture. In a profile of Harp just published
by the Wall Street Journal, Harp already seems to be declaring victory on the pension front. Is this willful blindness, or perhaps managing expectations to an absurd extreme? Harp can try to blame DeStefano if, or when, her inability or unwillingness to adopt meaningful reform damages her political standing; but ultimately she will have nobody to blame but herself. Managing expectations is important, but not to the point where you relieve yourself of accountability for anything at all.