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Crowd Grieves and Complains at City Council Public Hearing, But Poverty Still Remains

Ken Krayske

August 14, 2008

Sitting through the public hearing at the Court of Common Council Monday night, August 11 at Hartford City Hall was painful.

A massive crowd stuffed themselves like sardines into council chambers.

Person after person paraded to the microphone to air an angry laundry list of the failures of self-governance.

The problems in Hartford seem intractable, so embedded and deeply ingrained that this kind of public venting and self-expression – more than 50 speakers at a pre-council meeting hearing – may be the only way to hang onto some semblance of city pride.

Council President Cal Torres, though, had trouble maintaining order, and some rowdy, inconsiderate speakers didn’t play responsibly, which added to the chaotic feel of it.

And it made me wonder if Council President Calixto Torres can’t run a public hearing, how do we expect him to lead a council with any backbone to challenge a power-hungry Mayor.

These are hard times. People complained about having to choose between eating and paying for electricity. Others explained the fear they have walking the streets after 11 shootings in 24 hours. Still more complained about the closures of the library branches and linked the lack of services to the explosive violent outbreak. A few derided the concept of a curfew as collective punishment on youth. Someone else praised it.

Some heaped criticism on Council and the Mayor’s office for being impotent. Still more talked about the council’s plan for illegal alien registration. Nor did speakers let council forget the problems Mayor Eddie Perez and company are causing for retirees, who have to pay $500 or so a month for health care benefits now.

And then there was the woman who charted the fall of the city, complete with a visual aid, presenting her view that God had forsaken Hartford.

I left after about 30 or so of the speakers because I had heard enough.

It wasn’t just Republican candidate for Registrar of Voters Kevin Brookman daring Torres to not cut him off.

Torres did an uneven job of enforcing the three-minute comment rule, and high and mighty Brookman was going to take his four minutes, everyone else waiting to speak be damned.

While Brookman had pointed comments about corruption, they were lost in his selfish time grab. Rev. Henry Brown took more than the allotted three minutes, too.

“I am outraged,” Brown said. “Our children’s lives are at stake every day. We have to adopt children no matter where they come from. Every child in Hartford is my son, my daughter. I have had enough of young people dying in this city. We all are to blame. If kids are out there on the street, it is our fault.”

And I listened to former Republican Mayoral candidate and Brookman’s partner in conservativism Stan MacAuley empathize with council members.

“Political will is necessary from council. I’m not throwing stones,” MacAuley said, acknowledging that the council had it hard. “These are the accumulation of problems. If we do not take a serious look, they will get worse.”

Then MacAuley tailed off into la-la land, invoking the deus ex machina of the state’s attorney’s office to give the city an enema. If MacAuley’s sought after medical procedure to clean municipal corruption means that Cal Torres becomes mayor, I’m not sure it’s so great an idea.

My patience meter ran out when Council member Dr. Larry Deutsch seized a pause in the meeting to offer good news: The seven-year-old boy shot over the weekend was no longer on life support and the child was awake and asking for food.

In my mind flashed the pictures of Takira Gaston, the young woman shot in the face in the summer of 2001. I saw the front page of the Hartford Courant, showing the images of the little girl with the swollen face, laying in a hospital bed.

The words of a Bob Marley song crossed my mind – “Hit with a stray bullet, just because of the system.” These problems have been here forever. It’s like the writers at a television station can’t come up with a new show, so they recycle the plot lines of an old show.

And Hartford has seen this program before. The problem is not the men and women in elected positions.

Although it looked for a while as if the warring sides in the library battle may prove that blanket declaration wrong. City Councilor rJo Winch and Mayor Perez in one corner refused to back down against Gerry Sullivan and the Hartford Public Library board of directors in the other corner, and children in Asylum Hill and Blue Hills were caught in the crossfire, although an agreement to re-open the libraries was hopefully reached Monday night.

Is preventing a child from reading any less damaging to that young psyche than worrying about stray ordinance?

The disease is poverty, and all of the problems people spoke about are mere symptoms of the disease. “Poverty is not natural,” Nelson Mandela said. “It is man made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Right now, talking, as we have been doing for years about Takira Gastons and gunshots and drug wars just won’t cut it. Our society judges how many jails it will need to build based on third grade literacy rates.

Yet we are paralyzed to improve the third grade literacy rates, through measures like massive reductions in class sizes or bettering pre-natal and post-natal care for expectant, impoverished mothers.

Instead, we as a society content ourselves with regular handwringing, displays of which can be seen on the Courant online message boards or at City Council public hearings.

People like Brookman wondered where the money was to fund certain programs. I am lucky enough to have a regular platform, so I wasn’t about to grab the microphone and say – duh, look at the Iraq War, look at the gap between rich and poor in this country – the money is available, our priorities are to sacrifice the poor.

So I left City Council chambers, wandered off into a good August night, wondering how we can marshal the angry energy into action that will forever eradicate the disparity between rich and poor. How do we generate that political will to impose taxes on the rich? To fight the gun lobby? To end the war on drugs? To reach universal literacy?

I am not sure, but I know it wasn’t the bickering over crumbs that I saw at the City Council public hearing Monday night.

Reprinted with permission of the The Hartford News.
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