“Not Going to Cut Down the At Large”

charter revision commission
An agitated Councilman Kennedy, with his back to the Charter Revision Commission mouthed that he was “not going to cut down the at large.” Kennedy, along with Councilwoman Winch, Councilman Deutsch, and Councilman Cotto spent some time in the public seating. Although Kennedy attempted to address the Commission, he was ignored, as he should have been, given that he was not present during the time for public comment at the start of the meeting, along with the fact that during a previous meeting reserved exclusively for public comment, he was one of the four council members to indulge in something like a twenty minute speech, which prevented the true public from participating that evening.
I was raised in a household that believed in efficiency. Being effective and being expedient were not thought of as mutually exclusive traits. So, this meeting was torturous to sit through. A few commissioners seemed wholly unprepared, others indulged in spats, and Richard Wareing, the Chair, did little to intervene or move the meeting along. Admittedly, I am not 100% sure what the Chair’s role is supposed to be, but my impression was that he would enable all voices to have more-or-less equal representation, and that he would mediate. Commissioner Bronin tried to focus the group on a few occasions, with little success, as egos overwhelmed and a succession of individuals had to try to get the last word.

While none of the decisions made have been completely locked in, it seemed counterproductive for the meeting to begin with a total rehashing of what was accomplished at the previous meeting. Commissioner Jasinski, who was apparently absent from that meeting, brought up an issue–hybrid, district, at large elections–that had been basically settled already. This led into an excessive discussion. Jasinski said that he was not sold on the hybrid election system because it would not necessarily turn out the best candidates. After being called out for a comment that could easily be categorized as incendiary, he clarified that he thought district elections could “galvanize” racial divisions. Commissioner McElya, agreeing with Jasinski, put forth a reason that made no logical sense. She said that while there is an increasing Hispanic population in the city’s “North End,” a district system would create more division.
As a city resident, I am wary of this commission. There are several commissioners with clear political aspirations. Commissioner Vargas, who ran for public office this past November, was pushing heavily for campaign finance reform; while I agree with his ideals, a part of me is cautious, as this might be nothing more than a self-serving move.

Before any productive discussion happened, McElya lashed out against the commission. First, she claimed that people were jumping on bandwagons and not really listening. She then monopolized the conversation, as I have seen her do in previous charter revision commission meetings. This was followed with a rude, combative series of statements directed at another Commissioner when the subject of Urania Petit’s election to Registrar of Voters was raised. Perhaps if she spent less time being defensive about third parties and her own involvement in the Working Families Party, others would be more willing to consider her perspective. Like Vargas, her viewpoints seemed informed solely by her own potential political gains. I really dislike having that feeling about things.

What was placed on the actual agenda was “discussion of the size, structure and power of the Court of Common Council.” In short, nothing was decided yet, other than the absolute minimum number of At Large councilmembers would be six. I’m not positive that was even decided. Commissioner Rowtham-Kennedy proposed at the start of this thread of discussion, there would be nine At Large members and six District members. During the discussion, basically every possible number variation was raised, including reducing the At Large to five and bringing the District to something like ten. There was concern that the sitting City Council, who have to vote on the proposed Charter Revision will not support reducing the At Large number, since that is basically firing themselves, so goes the logic. Wareing advised the commission to only be idealistic if they are willing to fight for it. In other words, if the City Council does not approve an At Large number that is less than nine, the commission would have to collect signatures to move forward. The point was made later that there is a great possibility of at least two of the current council members not being as worried about the workforce reduction, so to speak, as they are either not career politicians or have plans to run for a higher office. Councilman Kennedy, who later vowed that the proposal would not pass, was not in the chambers during this part of the discussion.
Later, the commission had to sift through disagreement over what the mandated number reserved for minority parties was. After spending time discussing this in the presence of the several councilmen in the room, Wareing volunteered to draft a letter to send to each councilmember seeking information about how each would respond to the tentative numbers of At Large and District representatives. Rowtham-Kennedy’s other proposal–to stagger the number of At Large candidates and District candidates running in any given election–was barely discussed.

There was back-and-forth over whether there should be one or two representatives in each district. Rowtham-Kennedy’s argument was that the two could keep each other in check, so that there was no “neighborhood bully.” One person made an aside implying that the two would likely be cohorts, rather than checks. Another person was not convinced that there are currently any “bullies” on the City Council, and so such a measure would be unnecessary. Commissioner Brandon voiced her assumption that in a previous meeting, they had agreed on one representative per district.

During the portion reserved for public comment, only two people spoke. Ron Armstrong, who had spoken at previous meetings, reiterated his belief that the current At Large system that Hartford uses is elitist, and this system carried over to the commission. According to the agenda, 2 commissioners live on Girard Avenue, and one each on Bloomfield Avenue, Terry Road, Whitney Street, Oxford Street, Elm Street, Trumbull Street, Gold Street, Douglas Street, Canterbury Street, Linnmoore Street, and Wooster Street. Hyacinth Yennie commented that the “mayor should be mayor” and nothing else, urging the commission to address the license that the mayor currently has to also chair the Board of Education. She suggested that the commission come out to the neighborhoods–all of them–to talk about the charter revision because she believes that a lot of people in Hartford do not know what is going on. Yennie also suggested that because of the economic crisis, district and Board of Education elections should happen on a four-year basis.

The next meeting will be on February 19th at 6pm in City Hall.

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