A key member of Mayor Shayne Gallo’s administration and a once-close political ally was abruptly fired from her post this week. Jennifer Fuentes confirmed Tuesday she had been terminated from her post as head of director of the city’s community development office on Monday.
Fuentes’ abrupt departure from the office, which helps direct and administer federal entitlement funds under the Community Development Block Grant program, came as a surprise to most observers. A former labor organizer and Ward 5 alderwoman, Fuentes played a key role in Gallo’s successful 2011 mayoral campaign. In particular, Fuentes served as Gallo’s liaison to the Working Families Party. Though relatively small, the WFP enjoys close ties with organized labor and a corps of volunteers and paid field workers who specialize in going door-to-door to get out the vote. The WFP support helped offset Gallo’s initial disadvantage after much of Kingston’s Democratic Party establishment lined up behind his primary opponent, Hayes Clement. Gallo would go on to win the primary by a seven-vote margin, a victory he ascribed in part to the assistance of Fuentes and the Working Families Party.
“[The WFP] did play a major role in getting him elected,” said Fuentes. “Because we felt he had the right message.”
Key aide in Midtown matters
Fuentes was one of a number of Gallo campaign supporters appointed to key posts in his administration. In addition to administering the entitlement funds, Fuentes also spearheaded Gallo’s Midtown revitalization effort. The multi-faceted plan involved both bricks-and-mortar proposals like a new police station on Broadway and programs to eliminate blight and boost home ownership in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Most recently, Fuentes was assigned to implement a door-to-door survey to gather data in support of the revitalization plan.
Gallo said he also entrusted Fuentes with bringing “accountability and transparency” to the Community Development Office. Fuentes was credited with implementing clearer guidelines for disbursing CDBG funds and correcting past practices which had led to warning letters from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about compliance with program rules. As recently as at an April 1 public hearing, Gallo praised Fuentes, saying “she’s spent the past year undoing nine years of mismanagement” at the office.
On Tuesday, Fuentes declined to discuss the circumstances of her firing except to say that it was sudden and with no apparent succession plan in place. Fuentes cited a desire to maintain a cordial relationship with city hall as she continues to work on civic initiatives, notably Kingston’s summer “Movies Under the Stars” program, with help from the private sector. Fuentes said that despite the sudden termination, she did not regret taking on the Community Development job and was proud of her record at the agency. Fuentes added that she hoped the city and the mayor would move forward “in a positive direction.”
“The mayor is a very passionate guy; at times he says things that he probably shouldn’t,” said Fuentes. “But I certainly hope there’s still room for coordination because I want to remain active in my community.”
Gallo did not return a call seeking comment on the firing. Instead, Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben responded to say, simply, that the city would not comment on personnel matters.
But Alderman Matt Dunn (D-Ward 1) who chairs the council’s Community Development Committee, said Fuentes had hinted at a volatile relationship with her boss. Dunn recalled Fuentes jokingly telling members of the committee that Gallo — who is known in political circles for outbursts of temper — had “fired” her on several occasions.
“I guess this time he followed through,” said Dunn. “Maybe it was just a personality clash, maybe it was something else. But it’s a complete about-face [for Gallo] and I have no idea why.”
Dunn expressed concern that Fuentes’ sudden departure would impact the final phases of approving a plan for distributing some $617,000 in federal entitlement funds.