Critics See Political Patronage In Parking Contract
February 3, 2007
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
Despite interest from the city's own parking authority, the administration of Mayor Eddie A. Perez recently awarded a potentially lucrative contract to manage a city-owned parking lot to a longtime political power broker in the city's North End.
The agreement - signed by Perez without the knowledge of the city council or a formal bidding process - transfers the management of a 3-acre surface parking lot downtown to a company run by former state Rep. Abraham L. Giles.
The agreement was signed in November 2006 despite a request months earlier by the Hartford Parking Authority to discuss taking over management of the lot.
According to critics of the mayor, the contract appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to lock up political support. Giles, political insiders say, controls key votes on the city's Democratic town committee and exerts strong influence in the predominantly black 5th House District, a constituency Perez needs as he seeks re-election this year.
Former state Sen. Frank Barrows, who is running against Perez in the 2007 election, said the contract represents everything that is "wrong with politics in this city."
"That's Hartford for you," said Barrows. "My old saying is that you can buy someone's soul if you buy them a chicken dinner, and that is one chicken dinner right there."
Parking in downtown Hartford has long been a rich source of political patronage. In the late 1990s, the state went so far as to stop funding any new parking garages until the city changed its laws, removing the city manager as the highest parking power and establishing a parking authority.
The authority was created in 1998 with the express charge of cleaning up Hartford's parking mess and stopping back-door political deals.
But critics say the contract with Giles marks a return to the old ways.
"I think this is an unveiled, cold-blooded attempt by the mayor to use the city resources as his personal piggybank to grant favors to people for political support," said I. Charles Mathews, former deputy mayor and another Perez challenger.
The mayor sharply disagreed.
When the city purchased the 3-acre parcel for $2.2 million in June 2006, the intent was to market it to private developers along with another lot known as 12-B, Perez said. The two lots sit across from one another on Trumbull Street.
Perez said he did not want to lock the city into a long-term, inflexible lease, and instead opted for a short-term license agreement, which provides fewer protections to a tenant and - because it can be canceled on short notice - enables the city to quickly react to a developer's interest.
"We do it to be able to use the site, but not have a permanent relationship with anybody," said Perez.
He said he was unaware the parking authority was interested in the site and that politics had nothing to do with the decision to award the contact to Giles.
"He is a qualified minority vendor and we have been satisfied with his service," the mayor said.
When asked about the arrangement, Giles said, "You know the story. You know you do," before saying he needed to go and hung up the phone.
According to a copy of the contract obtained by The Courant, the deal was signed Nov. 1, 2006, by Perez, Giles and Carl Nasto, a city attorney. The deal extends through June 2008, but can also be revoked without cause at any time, requiring the city to give only 30 days' notice.
It requires that Giles' company, G&G Enterprises Inc., pay the city $1,000 monthly rent in exchange for operating the 225-space lot at the corner of Main and Trumbull streets and cover all maintenance and utility costs. The contract does not require Giles to give the city a percentage of the proceeds. He currently charges $4 a day for parking, or $75 a month.
Unlike many contracts and leases entered by the city, there is no official process at city hall for handling the type of contract given to Giles, city officials said. In this case, sources in city hall said, the mayor's staff instructed the corporation counsel's office to write up an agreement giving the parking lot to Giles. A bidding process is not required with license agreements, Perez said.
Politics and parking lots have often been tangled in Hartford, and this is not the first time Giles has been at the center of the knot.
In 1993, Giles managed a downtown lot commonly called 12-B, paying $22,000 a month in rent. But Giles found himself the subject of controversy when he was evicted from the parking lot, the result of what some then described as a political dispute with Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry.
With Perry out of office in 1994, Giles was again asked to manage the 12-B lot, this time paying $15,000 in rent per month. The same year he was given a no-bid contract to run the city's G. Fox building garage.
The latest agreement - with a $1,000-per-month rent that is lower than that of many two-bedroom apartments in the city - is not a good one for the city from a financial perspective and prompts questions about how it was awarded, political insiders say.
"No matter who got the contract, the contract on its face appears to be less than beneficial to the city of Hartford," said John B. Kennelly, a member of Hartford's Democratic town committee. "To have the contract go to a recognized political operative in the city of Hartford unfortunately casts significant questions as to the bid process and the awarding of contracts by city hall."
The agreement, moreover, was signed despite a request by the city's parking authority in August 2006 to discuss taking control of the lot. By ordinance, the authority is supposed to have the power to control all the city's parking.
In an e-mail exchange obtained by The Courant, the city's parking authority asked in August 2006 - three months before the contract with Giles was signed - to meet with officials about taking over the lot.
In the e-mail exchange, the previous manager of the then privately owned parking lot - Stathis Manousos of Central Parking Systems Inc. - alerted the parking authority's executive director, James Kopencey, that the city had purchased the property at 1214-1218 Main St.
Manousos said the city had told him a new "agent will be taking over parking operations" for the lot. He asked Kopencey if the authority was going to be "in control of this location."
Kopencey immediately wrote an e-mail to John F. Palmieri, the city's director of development services, and Bhupen N. Patel, then the director of public works, asking what the city planned for the lot.
Kopency said he "would be interested in discussing the management of the lot if it will continue to be used for parking." He copied the email to Lee Erdmann, the city's chief operating officer, who answers directly to Perez.
Palmieri e-mailed back the next morning saying he had not been aware the city officially closed on the property, and that the city's corporation counsel's office was handling the transaction. Palmieri wrote that he believed that if the city owned the property, any "parking arrangement with a lot operator" would need city council approval.
Palmieri then suggested Kopencey discuss the lot management with Erdmann, to which Erdmann responded, "happy to discuss."
The e-mail conversation ended with Kopencey asking Erdmann if he would be willing to host a meeting to discuss the authority's managing the lot.
And that's when the discussions ended.
When asked about the e-mail exchange, Kopencey said he remembered it, but that he had assumed the city had found different use for the property.
"Lee had agreed to host a meeting about this," Kopencey said. "To the best of my recollection, that meeting never happened. Frankly I dismissed further consideration of the lot, figuring the city had another purpose for it, since no one got back to me."
Erdmann said Friday he "vaguely" remembered having discussions about the parking lot, but that no such meeting ever took place with the parking authority.
"I probably just forgot about it, and no one followed up with me to say `Lee, we need this meeting,'" Erdmann said. "I'm sure I was part of that discussion, but I do not remember ever having discussed this with the mayor. I do not remember ever bringing it up to the mayor, and I wasn't aware that there were discussions about farming this out to Abe Giles and his group. That is news to me."
Council President John Bazzano said license agreements such as the one given to Giles do not need to come before the council for approval, but that he wishes they were vetted anyway in order to avoid this type of controversy.
"Technically a license agreement does not have to come before us," Bazzano said. "But, having said that, I'd like them to come before us, to make sure all our i's are dotted and t's are crossed."
"In this case, we are dealing with political figures in an election year, so everything is amplified and put under a microscope," Bazzano said. "If you go through the process, go through the steps, then there are no eyebrows being raised."
State Rep. Art Feltman, also a candidate for mayor, said it seems clear that Perez is abusing city assets, contorting rules meant to protect the public's interest and "wasting tax money for political purposes." He called on the city council and the city's internal auditor to investigate the matter.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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