An interview with Hamden Mayor Curt Leng
By Ayah Galal
Curt Leng has been the mayor of Hamden for two and a half years. He was first elected in a special election in May 2015, then ran six months later. Now, he's running for a third term. HQ Press sat down with Mayor Leng to discuss where he stands on certain issues as well as what he hopes to accomplish if re-elected.
What made you want to become mayor in the first place and why are you deciding to go up for re-election?
I’ve been involved with the town actually for 20 years now. I got involved when I was 20 years old and I ran for council as a 20 year old just coming out of high school, in college traveling back and forth from UConn. I didn’t win my first election that I ran as an independent candidate. And then two years later ran as a Democratic candidate and fortunately I’ve been winning ever since.
I got involved to begin with because actually in high school I had to do ten hours of work on a political campaign. So I went to the local person that was about a mile from my house and found that I really enjoyed it and I enjoyed digging into the issues that people were working on, both the neighborhood and debating them and the pros and the cons and really digging into it.
I learned quickly that you can get involved and you can and people will listen to you and people will you know appreciate the work that you do and you can actually get stuff done even when you're not in office yet as long as you take that step and kind of open your mouth and get involved. And ever since then I've been on that track.
I like working to help people. I find this is one of the one jobs...that you can help somebody every single day. You know a call comes in--hey here’s a problem that I have-- you can’t solve everything, there’s no question about that. But usually, several times a day, you’re able to help folks and I think that here at the local level, it’s kind of where the rubber hits the road. There’s things we can actually directly do pretty quickly to help people out.
So you’ve been in Hamden your whole life, correct?
I’m 43, I’ve lived here my whole life, except for when I was at school and my family has been here for a hundred years.
What are some of the initiatives you’ve been able to accomplish in the past two years that you are proud of?
A couple that I’m most proud of have been returning our police to walking beats and bicycle patrols--really focusing on community policing. We hadn’t had walking beats in probably forty years and we have our first walking beat that started two years ago and now we have two regular walking beats and we have 10 different bicycle patrols that go out in all different neighborhoods on the canal, on the shopping area.
Town finances is not necessarily an initiative but it's one that we really focus on a lot and we've been able to strengthen the town's finances quite a bit. Our bond rating has been upheld. We had the first budget without a tax increase in ten years this past year, so that took a lot of work and spent a lot of time with our delegation making sure that our our state funding is fingers crossed still coming through.
So finances would be number two and number three probably it's not exactly a specific initiative but I think that there's a community pride I feel is coming back and I think it's coming from the ability to communicate more with local government with with I think it's partly the mayor's office and I think it's partly the police department I think it's partly council members having more interaction with people. And also having a lot more events that people get to go to.
Obviously this doesn't come easily. What are some of the challenges you faced along the way?
I think every day is like pushing a boulder up a hill. Well, it goes back to finances probably is the main challenge because if the town's finances aren’t good then it's kind of the foundation in which everything else is built off of so if the finances are not doing well and if you're not making sure that the pension is doing better than it was--we have pension reform that's like three quarters of the way through we have to see that through the end--making sure that your spending is not out of control so that you can keep balancing budgets and keeping the taxes down, you know holding the line of taxes at least. Then you can't do things like expand bicycle patrols and invest in sidewalks and streets. We’ve done a lot of infrastructure improvement.
In fact in the two and a half years years I've been mayor...we’ve paved thirty five miles of road in two and a half years.Fifty-six roads happening right now in the 2017 season and we’ve done probably about a mile of sidewalk so a lot it's a lot of of infrastructure improvement. Even though we've got a lot of roads, I certainly know that we have a lot more to do.
Where would you say the relationship stands now between the town of Hamden and Quinnipiac?
Much improved. You know much, much stronger. I’ve been able to have regular communications with President Lahey. We meet, we talk, we text. Sometimes we’re both busy people and sometimes that ends up being the way that we can connect on certain things. So we have a regular communication now and that’s really nine tenths of the whole game, because if you're communicating then you can say “hey I have a problem with this and this” or “hey can you help me out with this or this” and going both ways. I think its been a much better situation for everybody because nobody really wants bickering and fighting and and Quinnipiac is a great asset for the town globally. There's problems with off campus housing sometimes yeah and it's going to happen with any college in any town USA. Starting last year there was much better communication between our police and the campus security.
How do you facilitate balancing the needs of Quinnipiac students versus the needs of other residents in Hamden?
It's tough. There's no be easy black and white you know clear cut type of an answer on this one. You know, encouraging the university to build more housing where it's fit and where people that will live in the units makes sense and you know there's another two hundred or so beds that are going to be built up on York Hill which is good. That'll get a certain number of people in and the truth is that it's not all of the people off campus at all. It's a small fraction that make it bad.
There's many times that I talk with residents and I have someone say actually I students next door and they're really nice and they came over and chatted and said hey if we have a little party or something on the weekend if it gets too loud would you be able to let me know...people learn how to live in a neighborhood and have a common courtesy for each other.
So it's a balance of trying to figure out how you can have rules that are appropriate and legal that kind of incentivize locations that make more sense for student development period. So it's a matter of trying to plan these things out and the more that you work I think with the neighbors, university, town, students together which we haven't perfected yet; I think you'll get better and better each year. Because other towns there’s always problems but other towns seem to have perfected it better than we have.
And I talked with folks from Fairfield University as an example and Sacred Heart and it seems like they had very very similar problems thirty years ago or twenty five years ago and you don't hear much about it at all now so you know trying to follow those models I think is something that we need to spend more time on.
So is there anything you think maybe Quinnipiac can or should be doing differently or students in general?
I think it's all of us have to really make a concerted effort to do a more formalized town gown committee commission and really commit to having faculty, students, government, residents participate in a positive way so it's not just an airing of grievances. You know probably quarterly, I would think. And we've got kind of a framework of it and it’s something that I'd like to try to accomplish over the next over the next term if I'm still here.
I went to your event Monday night and you had mentioned SeeClickFix. What are the people in the town of and then concerned about?
Traffic is definitely up there without question...we've been doing some traffic calming work so it's physical improvements to roads. Beyond that, we've kicked up enforcement a lot. The enforcement this year compared to last year is we did about 500 enforcement actions in the summer of 2016 and summer of 2017 there was 1388, so almost tripled the number of enforcements and we're in a bunch more locations with selective enforcement stopping and watching, people go through a light, speed trap, all those type of things.
Graffiti and dumping issues occur in any municipality. If you're fast with them, then they don't become a problem if you're not, they do. So SeeClickFix can be a good tool for that.
Any place that you can kind of get information flow back from residents and from the government to the residents even if it's not completely productive you know, it's good. Because the more information flow, the better because people seem to get most frustrated when they don't know what's happening.
What do you think sets you apart from Salman Hamid and why do you think people should vote for you instead of him?
Record of accomplishment that they can actually look at and say okay has this person accomplished what he said he was going to and do I think that it's a good amount of progress that I want to see this direction continue and see what happens with another couple of years of his team together.
And then I'll probably say that experience. I've been involved in in government and I understand municipal finances and I have been involved with the many local and state laws that really do bind a lot of the things that we do some good and some constricting. And without knowing these things and having a pretty fluid comfortable handle on them, it would be really really enormously difficult to accomplish things.
And keeping things positive. I think right now there’s a positive vibe about the town and I think it's important not only for people's opinions and you know just being happy and proud of your hometown but it also has a value to it outside of Hamden in that if word gets out more I think as it is now that Hamden is a pretty good place to be for a variety of reasons then families are gonna want to invest here, and buy a house and business are going to want to come here and set up shop and it's good for our local economy and there's nothing bad about it. So you know, trying to keep promoting that you know the track that we're on. I think we're headed in the right direction is probably the simplest way to answer that.