The next time I hear somebody run his mouth about how people in Hartford don’t care about anything, I’m going to drag him to a City Council meeting. He would then see that even at meetings without a public hearing session, residents are willing to stand — if there are no chairs left, which often is the case– for over an hour to listen to public servants make decisions that will affect them.
Monday night, many residents showed up at City Hall to support designating roughly $50,000 for the Salvation Army’s Marshall House emergency shelter to remain open through the end of June. Because there was no public hearing, they held signs. This agenda item was not debated because its sponsor apparently missed a deadline. Items that were discussed: trees, the impact of war, and whether or not voters were too dumb to know what they were voting for in 2008 when they gave an 80% pay raise to City Council.
The Tree Ordinance passed, which would seem like a no-brainer, but there was actually quite a lot of discussion first. The purpose of the ordinance is to “clean the air, calm traffic, increase property values, reduce storm water run-off, and otherwise enhance the quality of life. The goal of this ordinance is to maintain and grow Hartford’s urban forest, maintain Trees in a healthy condition, protect existing Trees, and mitigate losses and damage to Hartford’s Trees.” You might wonder how anyone can argue that this would be a negative addition, especially given how trees help clean the air in a city with such a high rate of asthma. Brinson tried to make the case that this was an example of too much government interference. He said that it was unreasonable to ask for homeowners to spend $10 to consult with someone about whether or not a tree would be coming down, and then asked if they’d be charging fees for homeowners to mow their lawns. The slippery slope theory is tired. Besides, this made it appear that Brinson had never heard about how homeowners have to apply for permits to install sheds and do work within their homes. He then — and as a lawyer, he should know better — said that people who do not know about this ordinance would be getting in trouble without knowing that they were doing anything wrong. Is ignorance of the law ever, ever a valid excuse?
The most surprising item to pass was an anti-war statement. This too was given discussion. Most who abstained from voting on it said that they did support the sentiments, but felt that this was not something the City Council should be taking action on. The ordinance reads as follows:
Whereas, The economic collapse has exhausted the financial resources at the local, county, state and federal levels of the US; and
Whereas, Since 2001, the US government has spent well over 1 trillion dollars nationally on the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Connecticut nearly 28 billion dollars has gone to war spending and more than $453 million has been taken from the city of Hartford to fund the wars and occupations, and
Whereas, More than 5,700 US troops have been killed, more than 40,000 wounded; and
Whereas, Hundred’s of thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded and the ongoing warfare poses great and unnecessary harm to the nation of Iraq; Afghanistan, and Pakistan and elsewhere in the world; and
Whereas, Billions of tax payer’s money is spent to prop up repressive regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world; and
Whereas, Educational services, medical care, housing, other essential public services, infrastructure repair, and family financing throughout Connecticut, especially in cities such as Hartford, have been diverted from a constructive economy to these wars and occupations; and
Whereas, Budget deficits, largely due to war spending, have been used as a pretext to force concessions from public sector unions from California to Wisconsin to Connecticut; and
Whereas, 2010 census data shows that Hartford has the highest poverty rating in Connecticut at 31.9% (nationally, the poverty rating is 14.3%); and
Whereas, Communities of color in Hartford have been hardest hit. Our city has a population that is 41% Latino and 38% African American/West Indian population. Unemployment for people of color is over 40%, and unemployment for people of color is nearly 20% and when employed, people of color make only 60 cents for every dollar made by white workers; and
Whereas, The above mentioned communities are heavily targeted for military recruitment; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That the city council of Hartford call upon the US government and President Obama to end the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring our war dollars home now; and, be it further
Resolved, That the Court of Common Council shall support informational events regarding the cost of the wars and occupations to our community; and, be it further
Resolved, That the Court of Common Council shall support the right of public sector unions and all other unions to engage in collective bargaining and defend the interests of their members; and, be it further
Resolved, That the Court of Common Council uphold its intention to read the names of the newly deceased soldiers each month (resolution 39, March 10, 2008); and, be it further
Resolved, That the Court of Common Council urges residents to participate in the April 9, 2011 national march in New York City to end the wars and occupations and bring our war dollars home.
While this does have a national focus, it relates to the City of Hartford in that we do still have what’s known as a “poverty draft.” People living in poverty often have few viable options following high school; for many, their only chance at attending college is by having the military pay for their tuition. With such a high percentage of city residents living in poverty, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a disproportionate number of Hartford residents enlist. Besides showing concern over whether or not city residents are dying in actual war zones, this ordinance shows the connection between expensive wars abroad and financial problems at home. The most surprising “yes” vote on this ordinance came from Council President rJo Winch; she served in the armed forces for something like a billion years. Councilperson Kennedy was another yes vote, stating that the war has “drained this country” both economically and in terms of human lives.
Another item passed was the ordinance to place on the ballot a repeal of the council pay raise. If you remember, after not receiving any pay raises in years, voters decided for City Council members to receive a raise in pay that would account for inflation. This was approved by voters in November 2008. Reasons given for this possible repeal? Unclear wording on the ballot, the crashed economy, and politics. The wording on the ballot could have been more clear, but voters are expected to educate themselves on candidates and issues before entering the polling places, not once on site. Some voting for this possible repeal explained that they could not have envisioned where the economy was going when this pay raise was sought after. A simple internet search, however, shows that economic turmoil was beginning to show in 2007. Councilperson Cotto called b.s. on these explanations, saying that the only reason people are backtracking on this matter now is because the body of the City Council is quite different than it was a few years ago. He then told a story to illustrate how low wages will guarantee a kind of ideological homogeneity of politicians– those who are in the upper class and those who are retired. Yet others argued that being on the City Council means being a public servant and that there should be no expectation of financial reimbursement for their time. In the case that you missed the first several announcements within his mere two months as a city councilperson that Corey Brinson was not accepting pay for his service, he reminded everyone once again during last night’s meeting. If this rejection of pay meant Brinson were taking a vow of poverty, as the Jesuit Volunteers who live in Frog Hollow do, it might be something worth talking about every time a camera is on. Instead, this rejection of pay merely demonstrates the economic divide in the city; some residents can afford to turn down legit, paying work, while many take on demeaning, exhausting, and/or illegal work in order to survive.
Ultimately, turning this matter over to the voters — because it is apparently so contentious — is the right thing to do. Yet, one does wonder how well the average Hartford resident is going to be represented when the system blocks those who are in the same economic class as most city residents from participating fully in roles of power.