December, a month of celebrations; that is if you don’t count the possible end of the world which some doomsayers have attributed to the Mayan Calendar. Personally, I don’t believe it.
But it did prompt me to consider, just on the off chance, one celebration which took place here in New London.
On December 3, 2012, the city council, in a break from tradition, returned Michael Passero to a second term as City Council President.
One of the difficulties associated with working with those we have elected to represent us is that frequently we forget that they are people too with their own interests, principles and beliefs and what could be an alliance of well-intentioned residents working together for the good of the community becomes a contentious crowd of haranguers.
With that thought in mind, City Council President Michael Passero and I sat down for a series of interviews.
Q. What prompted you to run for City Council?
A. It was a bit serendipitous. In the summer of 2009, Peg Curtin asked me if I was interested in running and I told her I was not. About a week later, she asked me again and I tried to impress upon her that I really had no ambition to run for office. About a week later she called a third time, she told me that the last interviews for candidates was that evening and insisted that there was no harm in just meeting with the selection committee. Peg is a very persistent person, so I relented and went to the interview. I had a conflict and could not attend the Democratic Party Caucus the night they nominated candidates. I really didn’t even know that I was under consideration, except that I had gone for the interview. At any rate, I learned about my nomination later that night.
Q. What has disappointed you about holding public office?
A. I haven’t had any great disappointments. I didn’t go into it with any illusions. It’s actually not as bad as I thought it be. I’ve actually enjoyed it, for the most part.
Q. What is your greatest concern about the future of New London?
A. In the near term, money, revenue. The problems with the property tax system of financing government are exasperated in New London. We are really shoveling you-know-what against the tide. In the long term, I think we will be prosperous if we can bring development to the City, which I am confident we can. So, I think we just have to get through the next few years.
Q. What do you think is New London's greatest promise for the future?
A. I think New London has a lot going for it and many advantages that no other nearby town has. But if I had to pick one asset as holding the “greatest,” promise for the future, I would say the harbor. It’s what made the City great and it can make the City great again. It is a spectacular natural asset. Of course, the City’s many great assets are working together to give the City a very promising future, including its rich history, the art’s community, the transportation hub and the educational institutions.
Q. There is a feeling among many people that this administration has used the concept of "fear" to promote its goals whatever they may be. Do you have any opinions on this?
A. Yes. I am detecting a pattern of eliminating organizations, or the leadership of organizations, if they were not perceived to be political allies during the mayoral campaign or enthusiastic supporters of the new administration. This is probably not unique with this administration, and I suppose it’s just human nature, but it’s not good for a healthy democracy.
Q. Although many scholars from various disciplines have dismissed the popular end of the world theory on 12/12/12 supposedly based on the Mayan calendar, let’s assume it may be true. What would be your plans for December 12?
A. To be on my sailboat, Born To Run. Wherever I end up after the end of the world, I want to be sure to be with my boat.
Q. With the number of families and children who live in East New London, why can't we get a playscape in Riverside Park?
A. A playscape can and should be put in Riverside Park. When the City put in the other playscapes recently, Riverside was supposed to get one but it was taken off the list because the powers-to-be planned to sell the park to the federal government. Since that didn’t happen, thank God, I think we should put the most super-duper deluxe playscape there; the best in the City. You’ll have to bring your kids to Riverside Park if you want them to enjoy the most spectacular playscape in the City.
Q. Given the recent confusion/conflict regarding the city charter, why did you vote against another charter revision?
A. I don’t necessarily accept the premise of your question as correct. I know others have felt “conflict and confusion” over the Charter. I haven’t. The U. S. Constitution is approaching 250 years old and people continually disagree over its meaning and the courts are continually interpreting it. You can re-write the Charter every year and there will still be ambiguities, unintended consequences, and questions that will arise. I do not favor a Charter revision so soon after the last. I would prefer to wait and develop more experience under the current Charter. Today’s hullabaloo is often tomorrow’s ho-hum. I also would like the State Legislature to permit a municipality to create Charter Revision Commissions with restricted powers to only consider certain issues. If that could happen, I would be more willing. As the law stands now, the only option is to open up the entire Charter for revision and I believe it’s too soon after the last revision.
Q. What is your favorite snack food?
A. Cookies and milk
Q. Looking back over your first year as Council President, what would you change and why?
A. I would change the Council’s relationship with the Mayor. The Mayor entered office with a plan to establish the authority of his office. To do that he felt the need to challenge the authority of the Council. The conflict was inevitable. I disagree with his strategy and believe it was counterproductive for the City. The only way we move forward is by cooperating, sharing information and building consensus.
Q. What do you consider your greatest success as Council President?
A. Establishing the authority of the City Council under the new Charter. Our new government will only work if there is a strong Council that can act as a check on the power of an elected Mayor. I believe the Council has established itself as an effective institution.
Q. You and Councilor Nolan have both come under fire from people charging that your positions as city employees make you ineligible as council members and/or that you cannot be objective regarding certain city matters such as the budget, etc. How would you answer them?
A. People mistakenly believe that we are voting on our own salaries when we approve the budget. We are not. Neither Councilor Nolan nor I have any influence over our pay or conditions of employment when we vote on the budget. The terms and conditions of our employment are determined in collective bargaining. It's a separate process from the budget process and, in fact, the budget is legally required to fund the cost of all expenses associated with a legally adopted collective bargaining agreement. In other words, those costs are fixed and not part of the budget debate. Neither of us played any role in Council approval of the bargaining agreements that we work under. We stand no greater chance of encountering a personal conflict of interest that other people who run for office in their home town. Your typical person with business interests in the city (many of whom have served on Council over the years) have a greater chance of encountering a conflict of interest. It’s not the risk of a conflict that should disqualify a person; it’s how that person handles a conflict when one arises. No one, to my knowledge, has identified a situation where either Nolan or myself faced a specific personal conflict of interest. Significantly, State statute protects public employees' right to participate in the political process and serve in elected office.
Q. The current administration has promised transparency in municipal matters. Do you think they have done as much in that area as they could/promised?
A. I am disappointed in the lack of transparency.
Q. What makes you laugh?
A. I love Saturday Night Live type comedy skits. Remember the one with Dan Akroyd doing Julia Childs? I still hurt myself laughing when I see that clip. Anyway, that type of shtick always gets me.
Q. How would you like to be remembered?
A. No need. I’m not planning on going anywhere.
Q. The Day paper, formerly The New London Day, changed its name due to the fact that it is a regional newspaper and wanted their name to reflect that. Yet many people, including myself, think that The Day continues to focus its attention, a good deal of it negative, on our city. What are your feelings on that?
A. I think The Day does a good job. I also like that it has managed to hang on against tough odds. Many other communities have lost their paper. The negative news we create ourselves; I’m not going to blame the paper for reporting it.
Q. What shocks or offends you?
A. People who actually think that they are better than other human beings.
Q. How has your life been different than what you imagined when you were 21?
A. Not much is different. My “life” really hasn’t changed much, only my careers and economic circumstances. I’ve found careers that I enjoy, which was always a goal and I’m reasonably comfortable. I never aspired to be rich (of course, if I had, then I would be rich right now). When I was 21, like now, I also spent a lot of time dreaming about sailing and sailboats. I can’t say I “imagined” having the wonderful sailing life that I have, but I did “hope” to. If anything, all aspects of my life are better than I imagined it could be when I was 21.
Q. What one thing have you not done that you really want to do?
A. Argue a case before the U. S. Supreme Court.
Q. Upon being elected City Council President, you made some committee re-assignments-Councilor Macrino to Finance, Councilor Hyslop to Administration while you took over Public Works. What do you hope to accomplish by those re-assignments?
A. The changes were made to key committee chairs and, to a lesser degree, committee membership, to improve the effectiveness of Council committees and better reflect the individual goals of Councilors. I also see it as a way to reinvigorate our efforts. For me, personally, the work Chairing Finance was intense and it was never my primary interest when I got elected. I got the Finance committee last year because no one else would do it. I’m glad Councilor Macrino stepped up. I look forward to pursuing interests I have that fall under Public Works. Of course, I remain on Finance and the first priority of the Council is to manage the City’s budget.
Q. The recent budget process was contentious, at best, with much of that made public. How do you think that affected the citizens’ trust in their elected leaders? Many people think that the budget process was marked by duplicity and prompted by political machinations from the new administration. Please share your thoughts on this.
A. We were not required to let the process play out on live TV, but I believe that it was our responsibility to give as many people as possible the opportunity to watch the process. Government should be as open as possible. If it’s a messy process, then most likely it’s a healthy democratic debate.
Q. How does the number of non-profits in New London affect local taxpayers?
A. We are blessed with a large number of non-profits. They help the taxpayers in many ways. First, they are a significant part of our local economy, employing people and generating revenue that is rolled back into our local economy. The non-profits also perform many functions formerly done by government. For example, the City hasn’t provided social services in nearly 10 years; the non-profits have stepped up to fill that void.
Q. Other than your boat, where is your favorite place in New London?
A. I love to be along the river, really anywhere along the river. The Pequot Avenue neighborhood near the College has a special spot in my heart because that’s where I played as a child.
Q. Your name has already been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate in the next election.
What are your thoughts on being the mayor of this city other than "It's too early?"
A. It would be a great honor to lead the City that I have committed my life to.