West Haven, Connecticut shown on a map
West Haven, Connecticut, shown on a map. Credit: SevenMaps / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

West Haven’s political scene has long been a conundrum for the small shoreline city. Local operations have been overseen for years by the state’s Municipal Accountability Review Board (MARB). And with the accountability board’s decision last week to elevate its scrutiny of the city’s finances, West Haven is in an unusual position being classified as a Tier IV locality, should Gov. Ned Lamont agree to it. 

Much of the recent media attention has focused on the city’s former state representative, Michael DiMassa, and his alleged misuse of federal COVID-19 funds totaling more than $630,000. But DiMassa’s episode is only one of many that’s led West Haven into its downward spiral.

It’s no secret that the city’s local political dialogue has been highly personalized for years and even its local party committees get entangled in populistic attacks rather than over specific policy approaches. As much as residents and officials point fingers to specific mayors and officials, there’s much more to what has led to West Haven’s downfall. Former Mayor Ed O’Brien and current Mayor Nancy Rossi have been blamed for the city’s politics and financial woes. Prior mayors and city council members have also been blamed.

But this month has proven to be one of the most charged times for the city. Their city council voted no confidence in the mayor and accountability board increased its authority over the city’s government for the first time since the state entity was created in 2017. Other olumnists have written scathing editorials about the situation. Dan Haar, for example, implored Governor Ned Lamont to get in the middle of West Haven’s politics by suggesting gubernatorial power should force Rossi out of city hall.

I would not go as far as Haar, but instead offer that constituents get what they vote for – assuming they show up to vote. Sadly, West Haven’s population may be over 54,000 residents, but only 8,500 participated in last year’s local races. And it was an extremely close election that required a recount as the final difference between Rossi and Republican challenger Barry Lee Cohen was a mere 32 votes.

More West Haven residents should be showing up to vote, and also to volunteer and donate in support of candidates for local office. Since municipal races are every two years in West Haven, candidates and voters should be ready for next year – now more than ever.

For such a small city, West Haven has great potential. Voters and local leaders can turn it around by engaging and advocating for policy reforms. As I have previously written, West Haven is one of the most demographically diverse municipalities in the state. More candidates and more engaged residents are needed to help clean up the local government and issues within the community.

West Haven has enormous promise because of its proximity to I-95 and Metro-North’s modern train station. Its beaches and compact downtown should enough to push West Haven to the top of Connecticut’s municipalities for redevelopment potential. It has everything going toward reforming itself, but residents must be a part of the policymaking.

Having the governor and MARB be a part of the decision-making process is hardly enough. They only add more chefs in West Haven’s already messy kitchen. Some see their involvement as a threat to home rule or local authority for West Haven’s operations. But voters and observers should recognize that residents’ engagement or disengagement leads to the local government that they have.

It’s also a reminder to everyone, even outside of West Haven, that local politics matter and residents can make the most impactful difference.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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