February 3, 2007
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer
The last act of a political soap opera involving a nasty battle between the city of Hartford and the state seemed to have played out Thursday afternoon.
It was the last act - until Thursday night.
Just hours after the state's attorney general said the city could not build a school on a controversial patch of land in Hartford, state legislators Thursday night discovered an obscure bill that - if approved - would allow the school on the site.
Legislators on Friday blocked the bill.
Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who early this week defied the state and ordered groundbreaking on the parcel, late Friday denied any knowledge of the legislation.
The bill would have lifted restrictions the state Department of Transportation put on the land when the department gave it to the city - restrictions that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on Thursday said prohibited building a school on it.
The deed states that the city can use the parcel at Farmington Avenue and Broad Street only for a park, a public safety complex or economic development. The bill discovered by legislative leaders Thursday night would have allowed any "municipal purposes."
The city wanted to build the Pathways to Technology Magnet School on the 2.4-acre triangular parcel, which slopes steeply down to I-84.
The city claims the school, an element in a school desegregation plan, constitutes "economic development." Blumenthal's opinion - sought by the governor and supported by Hartford legislators - is that a school does not represent economic development.
Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the bill to change the deed's language came from the DOT about two weeks ago. "At the time, the controversy over this site was below the radar screen," he said.
The DOT Friday distanced itself from the bill. "The department has no intention of trying to move any bill forward on that particular Hartford property," said spokesman Judd Everhart.
Perez's chief of staff, Matthew J. Hennessy, said he didn't know anything about the bill. But between legislative sessions, he said, discussions about finding a way to build the school on the parcel were held by officials of the city, DOT, state Office of Policy and Management and the attorney general's office.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell, in a letter to Blumenthal early this week, opposed use of the land for a school and asked for a legal opinion on the restrictions. The issue quickly evolved into a political soap opera in which Perez ordered excavation to begin and accused the governor of not supporting school desegregation.
The melodrama seemed to have played out Thursday when Blumenthal issued his legal opinion, and Perez held a rally on the property and essentially challenged the state to find another site.
Then the controversy flared again after discovery of the bill. And the mayor's office continued to blame the governor for derailing the project.
"Nobody in state government has opposed this school going forward at this corner until this week when the governor sent that letter. OPM was helping," Hennessy said. "They directed DOT to get this done."
The majority of Hartford legislators oppose putting the school on the site, and last year blocked a similar bill that would have removed the deed restrictions, DeFronzo said. When the delegation learned Thursday night that the bill was on the Transportation Committee's agenda for Friday, several asked to have it removed, DeFronzo said.
"We would defer to the local delegation on the issue," DeFronzo said.
State Rep. Arthur Feltman, D-Hartford, who is running for mayor, questioned the quiet way in which the bill was packaged. Its nondescript name - "An Act Concerning Certain Real Estate Conveyances" - gave no hint to its purpose, he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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