On Wednesday evening, the public was invited to contribute our two cents on the discussion regarding the Hartford Charter Revision. Commissioners include Richard Wareing (Chair), Monique Rowtham-Kennedy (Vice-Chair), Sara Bronin (Secretary), Marcia Bok Anderson, Alex Aponte, Heather Brandon, Yvonne Duncan, Matt Fleury, Mathew Jasinski, Marquita McElya, Julian Pelaez, Jeff Stewart, and Edwin Vargas. The meeting was held in the downtown Hartford Public Library, which despite its recent bad press, has been accommodating to community events; in this case, they are maintaining a web page devoted to providing information about the Revision Commission and its proceedings. It, however, can’t bear to fix the acoustics in the large room where panels are frequently held. As a result, it becomes a challenge to hear speakers (who use microphones) if the heating system is on (check) or if audience members use this kind of function as a social gathering (check). Beyond the poor sound and failure to introduce members of the Charter Revision Commission, this meeting was disappointing because it was not doing what it said it would. Over the course of the two hour meeting, eight people addressed the commission. Of those, four were from City Council, one was the mayor, one was a state senator, one on the Connecticut State Board of Education, and one was an actual member of the public (though he has served on City Council in the past). On one hand, it makes sense to have officials go first, to present their researched ideas. But their expertise should not be permitted to fill the space of two hours in such a disorganized manner. The meeting came to a screeching halt at 8pm when the library closed, which cut off the ability for the public to actually contribute. The meeting will resume on December 18th at 6pm in City Council chambers.
With that said, the positions presented were interesting. Councilmen Ritter, Kennedy, Deutsch, and Cotto presented their viewpoints, along with Mayor Perez, Connecticut State Senator Fonfara, chair of the Connecticut State Board of Education and former City Councilman (1981-1987) Allan B. Taylor, and Mike McGarry, a newspaper columnist and former City Councilman. There was some disagreement over why the City Charter was even up for discussion. According to information provided by Councilman Ritter in the 2008 Charter Reform Public Hearing Summary Report, the City Council “can offer guidance on what items should be considered, but ultimately the commission can decide what areas of the charter it wishes to review.” It appeared that several members of the Council were offering guidance and/or directives for the Commission tonight.
During the summer of 2008, four hearings were held in different locations of the city–Farmington Avenue, Park Street, Main Street, and Coventry Street–so that the public could get an understanding of the charter revision process. Ritter claimed that during these meetings, the possibility of switching to a district electoral system was the most spoken about issue. Right now, Hartford has at large representation, which means that it is possible for three City Councilmembers to live in one district, while other districts may have only one member residing there; this is the case in Hartford, where there are even districts without their own representation. Councilman Cotto said, “If you start on Broad Street (at Maple Avenue) and draw a line due north connecting to Garden Street (until Love Lane), you have a North-South line splitting the city almost exactly in half…no elected official lives east of that line. The poorest sections in the city are the NorthEast and Southeast.” Senator Fonfara concurred, “It’s not by accident that there is no representation of the East side of the city.” These sentiments sound like a glowing endorsement for adopting a district system, but it’s not that simple of a matter. Cotto remarked: “”Hartford is separated by money [...] Are you going to transplant somebody to Center Street” just for representation? To read between the lines here, a person who is already struggling to pay her bills might not find a somewhat low-paying job in Hartford politics to be a smart venture. Is the solution to encourage those with the means to move to other areas of the city simply to fulfill the required representation regulations? Moreover, there was concern that a ward system would hurt minority parties (Republican, Working Families, Green, etc.) in Hartford. Councilman Deutsch, who is a member of the Working Families Party, suggested that people question the assumption that “we have an entrenched two party system” and that a switch to the district system would mean no minority party representation. He seemed positive, saying that we now have a minority party represented in the Registrars of Voters office, as well as on the City Council. He called this assumption of minority party alienation “arrogant.” At the same time, he said that he is “not pessimistic” about at large representatives, just so long as they’re honest. Senator Fonfara, who said he was present as a resident of the city, expressed that Hartford seems to discourage participation with the current nine at-large City Council seats. He thinks District elections will encourage competition.
There was also discussion regarding implementing term limits for and changing the number of people serving on the Council. Perez, in what seemed like an almost-random appearance, suggested that a 9-16 member Council would help to balance citywide district representation. Knowing that three members live in the same district, it’s a curiosity as to how we would decide which ones have to step down. If we did implement term limits, as Cotto advocated, this could help to ease the transition. There was no agreement on what a reasonable number of Councilmembers would be. Taylor suggested no more than 9-11 because of funding, which I overheard audience members urging for during the night; one resident complained about who would be paying for employing more people. Cotto threw into the discussion a reminder that the salaries of 15 councilmembers plus their 15 assistants would mean a lot more money for taxpayers to be spending.
Ritter, who began comments for the evening, said that during last summer’s public hearings, the second most discussed issue was that of the possible restructuring of Corporation Counsel. The discussion on this was often confusing, as people would say council and counsel without providing context of which they were speaking. It seemed to me that ignoring the need for clarification only emphasized how insular Hartford’s politics are, and how there’s not much room for outsiders to join in. By outsiders, I mean people who have not been politically connected for the last three decades. I digress. Councilman Kennedy, on the issue said that “Corporation Counsel is no longer [...] for the City of Hartford.” To paraphrase, he said that there’s a failure to distinguish between the interest of the governmental entity and that of the mayor. In fact, Kennedy claims that Corporation Counsel has actually said that he works for the mayor. An example of how this happens was given in Kennedy’s story about how Mayor Perez vetoed an anti-blight ordinance based on legal advice he received. The implication of this is that Perez received legal advice from Corporation Counsel. Deutsch claimed that “Corporation Counsel right now takes his direction from the executive branch.” Deutsch asserted that Corporation Counsel believes City Council members are not entitled to his written reply. As for what should happen, Kennedy gave some ideas: the City Council should appoint the Corporation Counsel; Corporation Counsel should be serving the whole City Council as a legislative body, rather than the interests of nine individuals. Cotto challenged this item as being part of the agenda, saying that he “”take[s] issue” with Ritter’s report that the average person cared this much about Corporation Counsel. He said “we do have provision in the charter” to get rid of people who aren’t doing their jobs.”
Cotto alluded to what seems to me as the real problem when he said that he could get his work accomplished on City Council “without bumping heads,” which Allan B. Taylor later echoed in his advocacy for nothing: “You should be concerned with a structure that can work, that has checks and balances.” These checks and balances, he said, were provided in the last charter revision. The problem is not with the charter, but with gutlessness. He said:
when they don’t do their jobs, no structure is going to work. [...] City Council has not asserted the authority it’s been given. [...] I think it’s beginning to self-correct. [...] It ought to exercise that authority.
That is not to say that the language of the charter could not be fine-tuned to prevent future troubles, but that an utter lack of will and enforcement is what’s causing real difficulties. It is like the demonization of George W. Bush, who is without a doubt, a Napoleonic, idiotic, smug tool; Lame-Duck President Bush’s power was never challenged by Congress. Mayor Perez, in all of his shady, power-mongering, and possibly criminal behaviors, is likewise not being checked by the City Council as he could and should be. But for Ritter to say that there was no talk during the summer public hearings of getting rid of the strong mayor system, well, that seems suspect to me. While not a direct statement advocating for dissolving the strong mayor system, Sally Taylor, is noted as asking during the June 10, 2008 meeting “if there were cities of similar size and scope to Hartford that have different balances of power” (2008 Charter Reform Public Hearing Summary Report). There were several such comments recorded in the same document which did not outright say that the strong mayor system per se should be changed, but that many of the mayor’s powers be removed. Well, isn’t that just about the same thing? I have not heard anyone contend that Hartford should return to the way it was pre-2002, but there are not droves of residents supporting the mayor’s current nearly-unlimited powers. It seems odd to make a point of saying that there was no talk of getting rid of the “strong mayor” when clearly several people were recorded as at least questioning it in some way. From that same June meeting, Steve Colangelo is noted as saying that “a strong mayor form of government needs a stronger Council” and Mary Laporte “asked if a charter commission could consider changing the charter so as to prevent the Mayor from serving as chair of the Board of Education.” Cotto had suggested that there is a “restructuring of the Board of Education so that the Mayor appoints a minority, not a majority of the members.” On July 24, 2008, John Kennelly is on record as saying that “the mayor should be prevented from serving as school board chair.” Dave Ionno also is on paper as opposed to the Mayor having the power to appoint “himself to the school board.” Ron Armstrong suggested that there be term limits in place for the Mayor. Throughout this document, there are also comments from residents who feel that nothing is wrong with the mayor’s office and its powers, but there’s enough gray area, I think, presented in it to make a person wonder how the commission would be expected to ignore it. Call it losing the strong mayor form of government. Call it removing some of his powers. Whatever. Something is rotten, some people are naming it, and to gloss over this is a huge mistake!
Future meetings are scheduled to occur in City Council Chambers on 12/18, 1/08, 1/22, 2/5, 2/19. 3/5, 3/19, 4/2, 4/16, 4/30, and 5/14 all beginning at 6pm.
The commission is required to hold at least two public hearings before presenting a draft report to the City Council. The Council will then hold a public hearing and afterward will present its findings from that meeting to the commission. The commission takes this information, compiles a final report, and brings it before the City Council, which votes by majority on which of the commission’s recommendations should be “put up for a vote to the electors of the City” (2008 Charter Reform Public Hearing Summary Report). The public has the ability to petition for certain recommendations to be included on the ballot should the City Council not decide to include them, and the public can petition the commission at any time.
**Updated to Add: For background info on this topic, see Urban Compass**