Should the state be in charge of West Haven's finances after investigations revealed the city misspent $900,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds?
More than a few residents are demanding change, but getting that change may not be as difficult as it seems.
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with Jonathan Wharton, associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, about the issue. He's also a longtime Republican organizer.
Mike Hydeck: "So the race for mayor, the past one was very close. And this week, we had the former mayor Ed O'Brien calling for the current mayor, Nancy Rossi, to resign over this financial scandal. But this is not the first time West Haven has had state supervision, right?"
Jonathan Wharton: "Correct. They've had a number of issues even before this whole COVID issue came about. Part of it has been certainly some financial matters, and there are certainly concerns about property rights and mill rates over the years, but they've also lost a lot economically. You know, they've been wanting to find pathways to dealing with economic development to bring in more of a revenue into their coffers. So it's been long overdue and a lot of these projects have actually been delayed, unfortunately."
Mike Hydeck: "And you've said both in opinions, and in an op ed, that this is a place that's ripe for development. It's so close to the highway, this can be a place that can be burgeoning with construction and new projects. But because of this political tug of war, it seems to continue. One of the easiest ways for West Haven to get real change, you also said in an op ed, is actually just showing up either running for office or voting. Do you think the apathy there is one of the root causes of this alleged corruption?"
Jonathan Wharton: "I do. I'm a firm believer in that. If you notice, Mike, the last time there was only 8,000 people who showed up last year in the elections, and the city is, you know, over 54,000 people. And so it does require people to actually go and vote. And, you know, just as a reminder, it's every two years, so it's time to even think in the next few months about who's going to be running next year, because that'll be key, then for mayor and for councils across the board. Everything."
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Mike Hydeck: "So 54,000 people and only eight and change show up. How do you change that narrative? You've been involved in campaigns and trying to get your candidate out there front and center. How do they change that?"
Jonathan Wharton: "Well, it doesn't matter in terms of who runs, right. We see in a place like West Haven where there are multiple candidates who are trying to run for party tickets. And so even last year, we saw multiple camps trying to run for both the Republican and Democratic ticket but the Democratic ticket was very divided, and very splintered. So there have to be pathways of having the candidates working together, and at least addressing what the issues, you know, need to come before voters and themselves."
Mike Hydeck: "So in addition to that $900,000 misspent in COVID relief, as the federal investigation states, state rep. and city employee Michael DiMassa resigned because of a scheme where he's accused of misusing $600,000 in federal funds. Who has been watching this money? Should it have been the current Mayor Rossi? Did this, you know, start under the previous administration? Like, who should have been watching the money here?"
Jonathan Wharton: "Well, that's a that's a difficulty of finding all this, right. This is the reason why the OPM, Office of Policy and Management, actually has been involved in this in the first place, because they are the ones who are investigating at the state level in terms of the concerns surrounding it. Also, we can't forget the federal investigators in the first place who discovered the mismanagement of funds, so there's got to be some kind of oversight. I don't want to ignore also MARB, which is the Municipal Accountability Review Board, that looks over what is going on right now. Because they're in that financial shape where they do need some oversight. Of course, recently, they've just decided to go with a Tier IV level, to have even additional oversight for consideration, which the governor has to ultimately approve within the next 30 days or so."
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Mike Hydeck: "So for a lot of people watching this show, they may have never heard of Tier IV before. It's a political term where oversight is given. Explain what a Tier IV situation is and why West Haven is in that right now?"
Jonathan Wharton: "Well, that's key in terms of oversight, and ability to make decisions, especially fiscal decisions. If that were to happen, and the governor does go ahead and approve it, it would require that the state would be directly involved in financial matters, and specifically in terms of deciding the budget. And so it concerns around that, you know, these decisions will not be made locally and as said, the final approval will come through this specialized board decided by the state. So there's some concerns out there as it relates to home rule or at least local authority decision making, or whether there should be more state involvement for this. Another issue of concern related to Tier IV is that, would this require then, the mill rates to go up or property taxes to be increased as a result of the mismanagement concerns surrounding financial issues related to West Haven?"
Mike Hydeck: "So when you say to your for, let's give a case in point, we're talking about if we need a new roof on a school that's got to go before the state, the town can't decide it, things like that?"
Jonathan Wharton: "Well, it'd be the overall budget. Because every year, you know, a budget has to be decided, it has to be approved. So they will be the ones that have the final say in a lot of those matters. And so actually, this is a time of year right now, where the council is actually setting it out because it's required to be done in time before the fiscal year so it's got to be set up at least sometime in June."
Mike Hydeck: "So it would be the board that would decide it for West Haven. And then would the governor actually has to sign off on Tier IV as well like year in and year out?"
Jonathan Wharton: "No, it'd be the board, at least."