Rossi, Cohen spar over COVID money controversy, West Haven's future

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Mayor Nancy Rossi, a Democrat, and her Republican challenger Councilman Barry Lee Cohen, stood for a two-hour debate Wednesday evening. Each claimed they had a plan for economic development, a vision for the city and a commitment to transparency; they both claimed the other did not.

The revelation that Rossi and an independently hired auditing firm also found “suspected” fraud in federal pandemic relief expenditures following a review, and that City Hall was paid a visit by FBI agents, also loomed large over the event.

For much of the night, the candidates pivoted their answers into attacks on their opponents, questioning their records and preparedness for the role of mayor. Here were the biggest sticking points of the debate.

CARES Act investigation

The mayor, a certified public accountant, announced last week that she reviewed federal CARES Act expenditures and found evidence to support her conclusion that funds were improperly diverted. She has repeatedly declined to go into detail, citing investigations.

“I am very pleased I did discover it and found it before even more money could’ve been taken away,” she said Wednesday. “And then I reported it: I went through the right agencies. I won’t be able to disclose right now, but once the investigation is over and decisions are made over whether people are going to be arrested then we’ll be able to investigate it.”

Rossi said she would divulge more information at the conclusion of an investigation, although she will not say who is investigating. She also said there will be a forensic audit — whether it’s paid for by the state’s Office of Policy and Management or by the city.

“We will move forward from this and those people who did this, whoever they are, how many there are, will be punished and (pay) restitution. We are only one of three municipalities under the (Municipal Accountability Review Board) and it’s sad to think people went and took money from us, so yes this does bother me,” she said.

Cohen said it is Rossi’s job to “protect the taxpayer” and she failed. He said she also held onto the information for two weeks. Rossi said that any information she discovered, she reported through the proper channels before making a public announcement.

He criticized Rossi’s “chutzpah” for announcing the information in a video statement instead of announcing what she learned to the public when she learned it.

“I did report it immediately. You’re just angry because I won’t tell you who,” she said. “I came from a confidential world. You talk like you know what went on in City Hall. One day you’ll all know and you can look back and say, ‘I guess she was right.’ ”

Economic development

Prior to Rossi’s announcement about the potential improper use of relief funds, economic development — or a supposed lack thereof — was Cohen’s primary criticism of the mayor during the campaign. He continued those criticisms on Wednesday.

“I can tell you what economic development is not: it’s not apartments, apartments, apartments,” he said.

In recent months, there have been a growing number of private properties sold to developers. Cohen says too many of them are adding housing density to the city without adding retail, and Rossi’s administration is not doing enough to attract businesses to the city. One of the most recent sales — that of the Armstrong Building on Elm Street, which Corporation Counsel Lee Tiernan said would likely be eyed as apartments to fit with a vision of creating a walkable transit-oriented community near the train station per his discussions with the new owners — is “backwards,” Cohen said. Without adding businesses, Cohen said residents of the new apartments will “use city services and stress the schools” while working and spending money elsewhere.

Cohen said he speaks with developers in private who tell him they have felt jilted by the mayor and her administration through a lack of follow-up. He also criticized a 7-Eleven project being built on Sawmill Road as not being the type of diversified business the city needs to attract more commerce, despite professing his love of the convenience store’s signature Slurpee beverage.

Rossi said Cohen, as a councilman, has not presented any potential developers to the City Council, and accused him of using development as a “debate tool” instead of “helping the city.” When Cohen accused her of not having a plan, Rossi rebutted that she does not believe he has one of his own.

“You are talking but not giving your plan, you are not doing that, period. How do we know you have a plan? What is your plan?” she said. “To insult 7-Eleven? And talk about a Slurpee? How dare you.”

Vision for the city

Rossi said her vision for the city’s next two years is to continue developing the shoreline. She said the city is moving forward with plans to raise Beach Street to 11 feet above sea level — roughly four additional feet of elevation for the street.

“It is imperative we continue along that because we have developers now interested in revitalizing that area,” she said.

Rossi said the city will also step up its enforcement of ordinances against illegal dumping through the use of cameras and police in strategic locations.

Cohen accused the mayor of accepting a “handout” in state bonding money from state Rep. Dorinda Borer’s advocacy. Rossi said the $5.2 million in bonding could not have been procured without teamwork, including her making the procurement of the funding a priority for the city in its ask of the state commission.

Cohen also criticized the mayor for not enforcing blight ordinances against the owners of the old Silver’s building, a dilapidated property that sits across from City Hall and adjacent to the downtown green.

“Success breeds success,” he said. That building, he said, is not encouraging success in downtown.

Rossi said her administration is “working on” enforcing ordinances in the area and said there are things in the works she would not disclose.

Transparency

Cohen said that Rossi’s administration is “lagging” on freedom of information requests. Multiple residents have reported submitting requests for information, several to do with CARES Act expenditures, months ago.

“It is concerning it has risen to this level,” he said.

He said the city is “behind the ball” on planning for how to spend its next round of pandemic recovery funds, from the American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Rossi denied that, saying the city has taken advantage of an extended deadline for submitting a plan for the multiyear grant. She said she has also been transparent through holding multiple town halls through her two terms — it was the pandemic that forced her to go virtual, she said, but she intends on the next one being in person.

brian.zahn@hearstmediact.com