Column By John Murray

Commanding Waterbury City Hall for the past 11 years makes Neil O’Leary the longest continuously serving mayor in Waterbury history.

He makes plans and doggedly pursues them, and more often than not, achieves his goal by bending the opposition to his will. With a united Democratic Party (O’Leary has faced no primary opponent), a weakened Republican Party (still suffering from a two-decade hangover after the last GOP mayor was hauled away in handcuffs) and an Independent Party on fumes, Neil O’Leary might be the most powerful mayor the city has seen in the past fifty years.

He’s also very skilled at calling audibles.

Neil O’Leary has won four mayoral elections, and served 11 years inside City Hall.

When powerful Nor’easter Nemo smothered New England in two and a half feet of snow in February 2013, O’Leary sent out a call to interested teenagers to show up at City Hall the following day and he would hire them to shovel snow. When several hundred answered the call, The Shovel Brigade was formed, and it drew state and national attention for innovation during a crisis.

A few years later a mishap at the Waterbury Wastewater Treatment Plant sent millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Naugatuck River on Columbus Day weekend. The event drew a harsh spotlight on the city and the management of the facility. The following Spring, after the rains and floodwaters had washed the debris downstream, O’Leary announced the formation of the Naugatuck River Brigade that would work all summer cleaning industrial debris and garbage from in and around the watershed.

O’Leary seized upon an environmental catastrophe to hire a dozen teenagers to work with Naugatuck River advocate Kevin Zak to draw positive attention to the watershed. The River Brigade is now in its 5th year and has been widely reported about in the statewide media.

And several years ago, when Municipal Stadium was unavailable to host the city’s annual July 4th celebration, O’Leary called another audible and moved the fireworks atop Holy Land USA where half the city could view the show from the comfort of their own backyards.

Some in the community questioned the use of a Christian icon (a massive cross towering over the city) as the launching pad for a patriotic and non-denominational community event

Other residents bemoaned the loss of tradition, the decades-old use of Municipal Stadium to eat hot dogs and cotton candy and watch the colors fill the night sky overhead.

The view of the fireworks shot from one of the highest hills in Waterbury at Holy Land USA.

O’Leary’s audible, however, was such a success that the annual fireworks are now permanently launched from Holy Land. No more massive traffic jams along Watertown Avenue, and at the base of Holy Land, one of the highest hills in the city, an annual food truck extravaganza now draws in thousands to eat great food while watching the show.

The fireworks display this year will Sunday, July 3rd, starting approximately at 9 pm. Designated fireworks viewing areas are in the front parking lots along Union Street. Brass Mill Commons is not a firework viewing area. Alcohol, grills, open flame, and fireworks are not permitted on the property. Organizers request everyone please leave their dogs at home.

With twenty food trucks there is something for everyone on Sunday from 2 pm to 10 pm.

The food truck event is planned in conjunction with the City of Waterbury’s fireworks display. There will be more than twenty food trucks, table vendors, and family-friendly activities, including face painting and henna. Food truck favorites include American Heroes, Chompers, Christiano’s Churro, Low ‘N Slow BBQ, Mac Attack, Paradise Island and Tater Tot Heaven. The Food Truck Extravaganza runs from 2 pm to 10 pm and will be in the Brass Mill Mall parking lot.

While Neil O’Leary has his critics – what elected official doesn’t? – one thing is undeniable; the man is clear thinking in a crisis, calls audibles like Tom Brady in the Super Bowl, and has changed the 4th of July in Waterbury for generations to come.

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