This is a limited series of Q&A’s by Fairfield County Business Journal Bureau Chief Kevin Zimmerman with leaders in various business sectors and industries. It is designed to illustrate how they’re navigating the COVID-19 era, what past experiences they’ve drawn upon, and suggestions they have for those planning for a career in leadership.
Now in his record 10th consecutive term as Danbury mayor, Mark Boughton has seen his share of triumphs and tragedies. The city is routinely rated favorably when it comes to citizen satisfaction, being business-friendly and maintaining a low crime rate. But on March 6 came word of Connecticut’s first coronavirus-positive patient — an employee of Danbury and Norwalk hospitals — resulting in a quickly put together press conference featuring Boughton, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling and Gov. Ned Lamont.
“It’s disruptive, it’s scary,” Boughton said at the time. “But at the end of the day, we are going to be okay. We got this.”
How prepared were you and the city when that first positive case arrived?
“We always expected to have a coronavirus patient early because of our proximity to New York. And then the New Rochelle situation started blowing up pretty quickly. It was just a matter of time before we got one here, because it’s so contagious and infectious.
“But we took the point of view ‘We’re Prepared, Not Scared.’ We knew we had to tackle it head on, to be ahead of it and not always be playing catch-up. Which we’ve done to an extent — we put up the auxiliary hospital and were one of the first to have a drive-through testing center and start antibody testing. That stuff isn’t easy to do quickly.”
Are there any past experiences you’ve drawn upon to deal with the current situation?
“We’ve been through 9/11, the recession of ’07-08, the horrors of Sandy Hook — blizzards, storms, tornados, microbursts — we’ve seen it all. And over time you develop some tried and true strategies, and you have the people and systems in place that you can lean on to get through it.
“I knew what to expect. I knew I would not ask anybody to do something I wouldn’t do myself, and that this isn’t about pointing fingers. There’s a problem, we address it and go from there.”
What is your approach like?
“Be confident, be calm and be compassionate — ‘the three Cs.’ You want people to know that you are somebody they can turn to when there’s a crisis facing the community.
“Trust is a core constant to get the community to agree to get things done. When it comes to social distancing, you want everybody to have the confidence that you wouldn’t be telling them to wear a mask if you didn’t think it was important.
“You build that trust over time, and then you hold that trust very close to you. If you blow it and lose it, you’ll never get it back. Trying to obfuscate about something is never going to work.”
Are there others in Danbury who have demonstrated leadership qualities, gone above the norm, during this time?
“Our emergency management director, Bill Halstead, and our Fire Chief T.J. Wiedl have been terrific. Matt Cassavechia (director of emergency medical services) at the hospital has been incredible. But really it’s matter of being able to rely on everybody else in your organization to do what they say they’re going to do.
“We have 22 department heads working at City Hall who are now working from home. They connected their office to their home phones to take calls, whether they have to do with (the virus) or not. They’ve all risen to the occasion.”
I know one particular challenge you had to face that other municipalities did not was Lisa Morrissey, your director of health, resigning in early April to take the same position in Bridgeport.
“Lisa was a very strong presence, and we will certainly miss her. And no, it was not the optimal time to have that position empty in the middle of a pandemic. But Associate Director Kara Prunty has stepped up, and she’s doing a great job. It just proves that everyone is interchangeable.”
Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Do you share that view?
“It’s a little hard to see this as an ‘opportunity’ to take advantage of, with the catastrophic effects on public health and the economy.
“But it has given people the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to be thoughtful and creative, like getting the tax deferrals and the loan programs set up.
“Even so, there’s going to be a lot of digging needed to get out of this. There are going to be a lot of challenging days ahead over the next year.”
What advice do you have for other leaders, or for those who are preparing for leadership positions?
“I steal from Rudy Giuliani and say, ‘Under-promise and over-prepare.’ And once you give your word, never go back on it. My father (Donald) taught me that when he was mayor and I was still a kid. He’d made a promise to pave a certain road and I didn’t understand — ‘Dad, there’s a better road a few blocks away that could be paved.’
“‘I promised we’d do this road,’ he told me. That always stuck with me. Always keep your word with people, as hard as that can be — and think twice about who you’re making the promise to.”