Joe Riccio’s departure as executive director of the Bridgeport Port Authority buoys the importance of strong decision makers in department and agency roles.
Riccio, a good guy who had a mighty run as head of the port authority, signed a separation agreement following revelations he had lobbied state legislation that placed the quasi city agency under the umbrella of the state Department of Transportation. In response to losing home rule the City Council freaked out, dissolving by ordinance the authority it had created in 1993.
The port authority mess was as much about Riccio as anything else. City Hall was looking to get rid of him, and Joe obliged by not telling his commission members what was in the works. Joe took a walk. Governor Jodi Rell vetoed the state legislation and Mayor Bill Finch vetoed the city ordinance. The port authority lives.
Now what? Finding a new executive director (Chief Administrative Officer Andy Nunn is handling duties on an interim basis) that can justify the reason the BPA was created in the first place: marketing and building up the waterfront, maximizing state and federal revenue sources, making the ferry terminal safe, secure and hospitable to thousands of passengers here and on the other side of pond on Long Island.
Do department heads matter? You bet. I worked for two mayors — Tom Bucci and Joe Ganim — and both came into City Hall with completely different perspectives. Bucci had filled key department head positions — public works, parks, economic development, etc — with political operatives that for the most part hadn’t a clue about managing an agency and the people that work for it.
Ganim filled those positions with brain power concerned about getting a job done without political distractions of taking care of this campaign operative or that one. Bridgeport under Bucci was adrift in litter, inaction and constituent complaints. Bucci, honest and decent (full disclosure: he was my brother in-law many years ago) had handcuffed himself governmentally out of political expediency. He was much better in his second term but by then tax increases had burned voters beyond their breaking point. Voters elected Mary Moran who lasted one term.
Ganim’s approach? Govern well and the politics will follow. Example, Ganim’s hiring of John Marsilio as director of Public Facilites, an umbrella agency that oversees sanitation, street paving, plowing and sweeping, parks and the airport. It requires a manager that understands infrastructure, landfills, machinery, landscape, and unionized personnel.
Marsilio hadn’t a city vote to his name, no political godfather, no district leader pumping him up. He had a lot of experience in the private sector. Under Marsilio the city was cleaner, streets swept, plowed and paved, garbage picked up on time and parks vastly improved.
Ganim had 10 straight balanced budgets without a tax increase; a ballpark, arena, new home for Housatonic Community College downtown. You think the city Mayor Bill Finch inherited from John Fabrizi was in trouble financially?
It was worse when Ganim took over in 1991. The city was literally in bankruptcy court with crime soaring and companies leaving, a financial review board scrutinizing the budget. UB law school bailed out for Quinnipiac in New Haven. Joe stopped the bleeding with a lot of help from then Governor Lowell Weicker. The city had turned the corner.
Joe’s successes were overshadowed by his idiotic decisions (mine too) and unfortunately some of his best department heads such as Marsilio were unfairly soiled as a result of the federal government’s investigation into Joe’s mayoralty.
I know a little bit about the Ganim case. Marsilio had nothing to do with it, but Johnny Fabs came in (when Joe resigned) and out of media and public reaction replaced Marsilio. (The good news: Fabs replaced Marsilio with the effective George Estrada who now works for UB.)
Returning to the private sector, Marsilio did something for the city that he had wanted to accomplish when he was director of Public Facilities. Marsilio came up with the idea to seek state legislation to fully tax the garbage-to-energy plant in the city’s West End that processes garbage from a 16-town region.
The Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority had signed a sweetheart 20-year deal with the city that provided Bridgeport payment in lieu of taxes. When the deal ended in 2006 the city was receiving roughly $2 million a year. Marsilio went to Fabrizi, the person who canned him, and said don’t miss this opportunity to tax the garbage plant at its full value. But such a move required legislative action. Marsilio urged Finch, then a state senator, and State Senator Ed Gomes to sponsor legislation.
The city of Bridgeport received this year, as a result of Marsilio’s idea and follow up by Finch and Gomes, a first-year payment of $10 million.
That’s why guys like Marsilio matter.
(check out my daily blog at www.onlyinbridgeport.com)