By Josh LaBella
City Clerk Debbie Collins announced Monday that she was throwing her hat in the ring for the mayoral race this year, and forming an exploratory committee. In a press release she called herself and her team a “diamond in the rough.”
The announcement ends weeks of speculation as to her plans. Her decision all but assures a primary in September between incumbent Mayor Nancy Rossi and Collins. Former Mayor Edward M. O’Brien is leaning toward an independent run, avoiding a three-way primary.
Collins, who has Rick Fontana and Brent Coscia co-managing her campaign, said she had served in the city government under four administrations during her 19-year tenure, and believes she can bring people together. She said she has a lot of friends “on both sides” and has a different vision for West Haven.
When asked about her vision, Collins said she had parts of it put together and would be unveiling a plan soon.
“Right now I don’t really want to put too much out there because I don’t want anybody stealing my ideas,” said Collins. “I do have a different plan. Let’s put it that way.”
Collins said she wants to serve as mayor for a few years, not make it a career. When questioned about her leadership style, she referenced the way she ran her office, saying it was one of the better in the city.
“I bring a lot of people together,” said Collins. “People come into my office and say it’s a great office. It’s friendly office. If we can’t help you, we try to get the answers. You have to remember, the public is paying our salary and we have to treat them much better than we have been.”
In terms of economic development, Collins said she had a few good ideas and is working on others. She brought up the train station and also said she wanted to get better answers about the Haven.
“If we can get a couple of clear answers on that it would be helpful,” said Collins. “I mean I don’t think anybody can give a clear plan on what’s going on [with the Haven] because I don’t think most people in West Haven know what’s going on.”
Collins said the current and previous administrations are at fault for the lack of understanding the community has vis-à-vis the Haven project. The Haven Group, LLC has been working on the plan since it was announced in October 2014.
Former Mayor Ed O’Brien, who has also formed and exploratory committee and said he is leaning toward running, said the $200 million project had nondisclosure agreements preventing his administration from sharing details with the public. So, any misunderstanding concerning the transparency of the project is misguided.
“The developers spent $200 million on the city of West Haven,” said O’Brien. “They wanted to keep things quiet and they were going through negotiations. During my administration they had to assemble 57 individual pieces of property. Because they were negotiating we had to keep a lot of that information quiet. Legally we could not talk about it.”
According to Collins, she wants to work hand-in-hand with the Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB) to figure out city finances. She also said she wanted to see who they would recommend for finance director; saying if elected she would most likely replace current Finance Director Frank Cieplinski.
“Frank doesn’t seem to have the experience,” said Collins. “I think that’s important working in a municipality like ours. You need to have that experience.”
Mayor Rossi, who has expected Collins to announce, defended her new Finance Director, saying Cieplinski has been a “breath of fresh air” for the city. She said it is unfortunate that Collins wants to replace him given that she has only just met him and called it “hypocritical” that Collins criticized his lack of municipal experience.
“She backed Ed O’Brien and he had a Finance Director that hardly had any municipal experience,” said Rossi. “He took care of one school in Orange that he was the business agent for. Let me tell you, because I am an accountant. Yes there is a learning curve. But if you know how to budget, and you understand an audit and you understand all of the stuff – the municipal experience will come.”
Collins said being transparent was an important issue for her and that the current administration has not lived up to its campaign promise of transparency. When asked about the town hall meetings the mayor had held, she called them a reelection ploy.
Rossi took issue with that characterization, saying she has had a number of events, starting early in her term, for the public as a part of her administrations effort to be transparent. She questioned why Collins had not hosted her own meetings.
“If it’s an election thing then why doesn’t she do it? Why doesn’t everyone do it?” said Rossi. “She can do it to. She can have a town hall meeting. She can go and answer questions. The problem will be, she will have a really tough time answering a lot of those questions.”
Collins said as mayor she could bring people together. She also said she has friends at the local and state level as well as in the MARB.
“I think I bring a lot to the table,” said Collins. “I think that I’ll be able to get a lot of helpful information from my friends that are working in bigger cities that have a lot of the same financial problems we have. I have different resources.”