Harkins finds positive results from a 'gentlemanly' manner

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Mayor John A. Harkins, here with his wife Jody at the June 1 Main Street Festival, says being mayor is about Stratford, not about him.  Greg Reilly photo

Mayor John A. Harkins, here with his wife Jody at the June 1 Main Street Festival, says being mayor is about Stratford, not about him. Greg Reilly photo

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series on Mayor Harkins’s governing style and some results of that style.

Three and one-half years into his term as mayor, John A. Harkins displays a leadership style that is more about managing processes in government than it is about bringing attention to himself. This style is an apparent contrast from what he calls the “grandstanding and chest pumping” of his predecessors, yet some critics wonder if the relative low profile means a lack of openness.

Harkins told The Star last week that when he ran for mayor four years ago Stratford was hurting from people grandstanding and giving the impression that governing was about them. “I don’t like that,” Harkins said. “You represent people, not yourself.”

The former state representative said, “When I was in Hartford Stratford was laughingstock for political fighting and infighting. It was embarrassing. It was hurting the community, and people were not taking us seriously. I ran to change that.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity here in Stratford. This is a great place to live and conduct business. We were letting all that go by the wayside because of small-minded individuals.”

Now, as Harkins begins a run for re-election he said, “I am about getting it done and being effective, and that’s all that matters to me. (Is) the town better than when I got here? Did I make positive changes? I can say yes, and people have noticed.”

Harkins points to a record of accomplishment and improvement, such as an agreement with Bridgeport on Sikorsky Memorial Airport and gaining approval to bond unfunded pension obligations, both of which came with unanimous consent of the Town Council.

“Look at the votes,” Harkins said, when told that some question his leadership.

Cooperating with the council

The process of submitting budgets, plans and proposals to the Town Council for approval does not necessarily require that the mayor stands out in front and explains the details of the item or the rationale compared to alternative ideas, in the view of Mayor Harkins.

“People need to be participate in their government and know what is going on, and most people do,” he said. “And people feel like they elect councilmen to represent their concerns. People expect that they will be represented.”

“People are invited” to town meetings, Harkins explained. “We get a lot of questions from email, and we have an open door policy.”

Rather than being out in front of the public necessarily on every issue, Harkins works directly with council members. “I talk with both parties to try to get them on the same page. Everyone in town is my constituent.”

“We do inform the council people and make sure they have information,” Harkins said.

Harkins said that small numbers of townspeople have come out to oppose his proposals, with few exceptions. “I’m not going to create issues and get people all riled up,” said Harkins. “That’s not the way.”

“How come people are not arguing?” Harkins asks. “We work in a gentleman-like fashion. Four years ago it was a lot different than it is now.

“When politics becomes personal, it becomes destructive,” Harkins added. “We haven’t done that here, and I refuse to do it.”

“I am respectful of others,” the mayor said. “I am respectful of the council and what they need to do. They support me and I support them. We don’t always agree, but we work in a civil and gentlemanly manner, and that’s what it is all about.”

“This council works well together,” said the mayor. “They’ve taken on the hard issues with me and moved the town forward. That is important.”

Old issues and the Grand List

One of the difficult issues cited by Harkins was Sikorsky airport, which he said had been lingering for over five decades. Bridgeport’s “Mayor Finch and I, we took an old issue and turned it up side down and ended up getting everything we wanted out of that deal and then some. And we got a unanimous vote of Town Council.”

Benefits to Stratford, according to the agreement, include locking in current runway lengths; 40 acres will be conveyed to Stratford, including wetlands and marsh acreage, providing a buffer zone for residents of Lordship; and some industrial waste from the Raymark property being removed.

“Why wasn’t that done (before)?” the mayor asked rhetorically. “I wonder why that never happened.”

Because of leadership, he said. “No one came out with a plan that made sense. And I had a good partner in Finch.

“We have a lot of old issues — Army Engine Plant, pensions,” Harkins said. He said people have been complaining for years about the pension contracts that are in place. “We’re taking care of it,” he said. “We closed it, and we funded it. How come no one else did that?” the mayor asked, again implying that his leadership accomplished what others did not.

The mayor has talked about the importance of increasing the number and size of businesses in Stratford, so that the tax burden may be spread among more and larger companies, potentially reducing the burden on homeowners. The 2012 Grand List of taxable property in Stratford grew by $10.4 million, 0.2%, which adds approximately $360,000 in tax revenue. As some suggest that this is a very small increase, Harkins asserts that the fact that the Grand List went up and not down was important. “The fact that we have new businesses coming in is important.”

“Ten milliion dollars is not bad considering the state of the economy, and the region is not competitive,” Harkins said. He mentioned energy costs as one factor that puts a strain on businesses in Connecticut. “People want to move out, and I can’t help that.”

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