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June 24, 2024

Hartford Mayor Arulampalam relying on corporate execs to fill key roles

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam said his administration can better serve the city through the ‘mixing and melding of experiences and ideas.’

When newly elected Hartford Mayor Arunan Arulampalam took office on Jan. 1, one of the first things he wanted to focus on was to make city government more business friendly.

Six months later, his efforts to make that a reality include hiring business people for key roles in his administration.

Jeff Auker

Most recently, that included naming Infosys executive Jeff Auker as the city’s new director of Development Services. Auker has led the tech giant’s emerging technology and innovation hub in the city since 2018. He also has served since February 2019 as chairman of the not-for-profit ReadyCT, which promotes the connection between school and the workforce for students statewide, and as a member of Gov. Ned Lamont’s Workforce Council.

Auker is just the latest example, and an expert in public policy and government administration says he sees pros and cons in a mayor adding business executives to his team.

In addition to Auker, Arulampalam’s other business-sector hires include:

Olusegun “Shay” Ajayi

• Olusegun “Shay” Ajayi, an executive with Hartford HealthCare, who was named the city’s chief operating officer, and

James Woulfe

• James Woulfe, an assistant vice president at the Travelers Institute, the public policy and education division for insurance giant Travelers Cos., who was named to succeed Yahaira Escribano as the mayor’s chief of staff.

Arulampalam also chose business leaders as three of his five appointees to the city Board of Education, including:

  • Ruth Fortune, a private client services attorney at law firm Wiggin and Dana LLP.
  • Jennifer Hockenhull, director of finance at the Adult Congenital Heart Association, who also previously served as the city’s chief financial officer and director of management, budget and grants, and
  • Stephen Wilson, a project manager at technology company Cyient.

“The goal of this administration has been to try to connect all the communities together to build a stronger and more vibrant Hartford,” Arulampalam said, adding that doing that requires bringing “every idea to the table.”

He said his administration is a mix of backgrounds and ideas that includes members with “extensive experience in government” — such as Corporation Counsel Jonathan Harding, who served as associate general counsel for Lamont — as well as those with experience in the nonprofit sector and in business.

Arulampalam said that a number of people on his staff “have really significant experience in the corporate sector, and many of them took significant pay cuts to work for the city because they believed in the vision.”

Different perspectives

Auker agrees, saying he was attracted to the passion he sees in the mayor’s administration.

“Helping people working on something that would unlock the potential of the city and the passion of the people serving it, … that’s the piece that excites me,” he said. “It’s going to be hard, but the challenges will make that effort worthwhile.”

Auker also said there is a benefit to bringing in people with a business perspective.

“Where the advantages come is, when you’re a businessman you’re a customer or a client of cities and the state,” he said.

Having that perspective will prove valuable in helping the city deal with business customers, he said.

The administration also will benefit from its business members’ experience in management, and their ability to both understand and articulate priorities, Auker said.

“It’s a matter of understanding your people, what their strengths are, equipping them and then getting out of the way so they can go do what they know needs to be done,” he said.

Arulampalam said he already sees the benefits.

“We have really broad-ranging discussions internally, and there are new ideas every day,” he said. “I think that the mixing and melding of experiences and ideas just leads to a better product in the end. I think we’re able to better serve our city because of it.”

Auker has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown University in Rhode Island, but said his experience building a workforce division at Infosys that included working closely with city officials, along with his work with ReadyCT and the Workforce Council, have combined to give him valuable insights that will help in his new role.

“Most importantly, it got me really deep into the role that businesses play in the community, the benefit that they bring,” he said.

Auker said his areas of focus will include supporting economic development to increase the grand list by making Hartford “the easiest city in the state to do business with.”

That effort has already included the mayor appointing Don Chapman as director of the newly created Office of the Business One-Stop, intended to help small businesses navigate city bureaucracy.

Auker also said that while the insurance and financial services sectors are the “heart and soul of the city,” he believes Hartford has an opportunity to attract advanced manufacturing companies and emerging industries, like the “quantum corridor,” which is a statewide effort to develop companies involved in quantum computing.

‘A big deal’

While the mayor maintains a positive outlook on hiring business executives, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential challenges.

For one, executives accustomed to the privacy of the corporate world may need time to adjust to the public transparency of government. Public initiatives also tend to move more methodically than in the corporate environment, which could lead to frustration with the process.

Muhammad Alkadry

“A business person in a public agency is not automatically a good thing, and it’s not automatically a bad thing,” said Muhammad Alkadry, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

On the positive side, he said, is that business executives who are willing to give up the financial benefits of the private sector are those who “want to give back to their community through public service.”

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

However, the attraction of better financial benefits in the private sector could be too hard to ignore for long.

Alkadry agreed with Auker that business execs “understand how the private sector works, so they know what arguments to make to the private sector. People who always work in the public sector don’t know the private sector as well.”

On the negative side, he said, business people may have a difficult time getting acclimated to the vastly different environment in which very public criticism comes from a variety of sources.

“In the public sector, they’re running the city and getting essentially what looks like abuse from the media, the public, the elected officials,” he said. “It’s a different environment that they have to operate in.”

In addition, accountability means something different in the private sector vs. the public sector, he said.

“As people in the public sphere, we hold them to a different standard,” Alkadry said.

Arulampalam said he did his best to prepare his business hires for what to expect.

“Well, I think they all came into the job knowing that I was pretty clear about the upsides and downsides of the role,” the mayor said. “I think they all came in pretty clear-eyed about it. And I think if you talk to them, they’re all having a really good time and feel really validated by the kind of difference they are making in the city.”

Alkadry noted that, regardless of their backgrounds, it’s the results that matter for government officials.

Arulampalam believes he’s made good hiring choices.

“We’ve been able to recruit really talented people to City Hall,” he said. “I think that’s a testament to the team, and I think it’s a testament to the vision we’ve laid out.”

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