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Who Wants to be a City Councilperson?

By Kerri Provost

October 06, 2011

While some folks get themselves all worked up over Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, the average person can have the most impact in local politics; local politics also have the most immediate impact on us. If garbage is not removed on your street, you do not take the matter President Obama; you call 311 or complain to the City Council. Maybe you push for better funding of the Department of Public Works, or better management of it. And unlike top level national politicians, you actually have a good chance of being able to arrange a meeting with someone on City Council and sometimes the Mayor. At minimum, you can sign up and wait for a chance to air grievances at a Monday evening City Council meeting. In a city where so few people bother to vote, each person’s vote actually has a lot more weight to it than it would in a national election.

With all this in mind, another forum/debate for City Council candidates was endured on Wednesday evening. All candidates whose names will appear on the November ballot were invited to participate; those actually participating included: Kyle Anderson, Alex Aponte, Corey Brinson, Kevin Brookman, Luis Cotto, Joel Cruz, Raul DeJesus, Larry Deutsch, Cynthia Jennings, Ken Kennedy, David MacDonald, Sweets Wilson, rJo Winch, and Shawn Wooden. Republicans Gerry Pleasant and Michael Fryar were invited but did not attend. Ironically, Luis Cotto, a member of the Working Families Party, acknowledged and explained Fryar’s absence, stating that the candidate is working toward his Ph.D and could not get out of a midterm exam Wednesday evening; no Republicans mentioned their absent colleagues.

With fourteen candidates and roughly two hours, the audience could only get a small taste for what each person had to offer.

The best response to anything was when a misinformed resident accused the current City Council of voting for their own enormous raises. A yelling match ensued, as the resident refused to allow candidates to respond as they were entitled to by the event’s format. When Cotto, Deutsch, Kennedy, and Winch finally had the opportunity to respond, all explained, coherently and consistently, that the pay raise was put forth to the voters; Hartford residents were the ones who voted to increase their salaries. This was a strong showing that demonstrated the ability for at least some Democrats and Working Families Party members to work cooperatively.

The majority of the evening, however, was not spent with questions posed by the audience. The first group of candidates was thrown a softball question, as they were asked about what type of relationship should exist between City Council and the Mayor. No candidates responded in a way that differentiated themselves from others. Aponte said it should be a “cooperative” and “amicable, close working relationship” in which “honest disagreement is encouraged and accepted.” Jennings said that a professional relationship with the mayor is important, but the “Council represents the people of the City of Hartford.” Wilson — an endorsed Republican — stated that “it is our duty to support the mayor and his initiatives,” but echoed what others said about working for the common good. Wooden added nothing new, saying “we need a spirit of collaboration.”

Because of the format, not all candidates could respond to all questions.

Going again with a general, abstract question, a second group of candidates was asked what they viewed as the two most important issues for the City Council. Kennedy argued that taxation and the budget are major issues, adding that they are “going to have to rebuild the Department of Public Works,” and investigate the “drivers” of the deficit, which he named as “healthcare and pension costs.” Brinson devoted most of his allocated time to talking about himself, naming jobs and “hope” almost as afterthoughts. Cotto also went with the taxation and jobs response, expanding his answers to describe how “we need to be advocates at the State level before we slash things” and named the minimum wage and “ban the box” initiatives as ways to address the unemployment issue.

The next group was asked what role the City Council should play in the education of children. To answer this somewhat broad question, Anderson said “I think that the Achievement Gap should be addressed through the Council,” but he did not elaborate on how he thought this could happen. Brookman said we need to “look at how our money is spent on education,” as the “Council has a lot of influence over that.” Deutsch said that he has shown his “concern in the past” and that he attends Board of Education meetings.

Although this was not a race for the Board of Education, the next group was asked for their opinion on the education reforms in Hartford. Winch, Cruz, and MacDonald all said that there have been improvements but that there is a need for more changes to be made. Winch called for residency requirements to be addressed since so few people working in the school system actually live in Hartford. She added that we “pay a lot of money to not educate our children.” Of the status quo, Winch commented, “I think the system is broke.”MacDonald, who is currently serving as Chair of the Board of Education, said he is “proud of the success we have had so far,” and then rattled off Superintendent Kishimoto’s goals, but seemed to have nothing to say about how this all ties in with the City Council. Cruz said this issue matters to him personally because his daughter attends Classical Magnet School. DeJesus, who had to leave the forum early, said that parents could be engaged more and that it is necessary that the reality of living day-to-day, as many in our community do, be acknowledged and addressed.

Two groups were asked fairly similar questions about the budget, something that is a concern of City Council. Kennedy went back to saying that “we need to look at what drives our debt,” but did claim that “our Grand List is growing.” Jennings said we need to reach out for federal dollars as part of being “proactive about bringing new programs to our city”; the programs she named are related to prisoner reentry. Brookman acknowledged that the City relationship with the Governor has been stronger in the last year, but was “terrible” for most of the ten years previously. “We’ve gotta look at a top-heavy government,” Brookman said, naming “take-home cars” as an example of where budget cuts could be made. The next group was asked how they would prioritize services, i.e. which items would be lost first due to budget cuts. Cotto stated that the “last thing residents want us to do” is to cut services. He then noted a place where the City could gain income — letting the Hartford Parking Authority take control of towing. DeJesus, seeming to build off of what Brookman argued previously, said that cuts should be made at the top first; he added that the City Council should look into whether or not “money is going where it’s supposed to be doing.”

Wilson started strong, calling for the need to cut back on services that might be duplicated, but when she took this to the next reasonable step, some in the audience took offense. She dared to mention the elephant in Hartford’s room: all of the churches that contribute nothing in the way of taxes. Though she said that she attends a church and loves it, this space, like many others around the city, is underutilized. She did not suggest that churches start to pay up; rather, she called for them to be more accountable by hosting other services, like literacy programs.

The City’s financial situation, Anderson said, should not be “so dire that we are thinking of cutting services.”

Participants were asked once again to name which factor they viewed as most important to quality of life. “For a place like Hartford, we have a lot of issues,” Wooden said, naming crime, noise, zoning violations, and the tax burden among them. He insisted that “we need to increase police presence on the street,” not by hiring more police, but by taking sworn officers off of desk duty. Cruz, who lost one of his best friends to gun violence, agreed that there needs to be a larger police presence. He observed how the media treats Hartford’s violence victims as “numbers, not people.” MacDonald, agreeing that there should be more of a police presence, said that the laws on the books need to be enforced; he also wants to see an improved relationship between the police and residents.

Brinson did not answer the question. Instead, he admonished voters for wanting a decrease in taxes while maintaining services. Though Aponte later made a similar comment, he did not take aim at residents or adopt a harsh tone. Toward the end of Brinson’s rant, he once again boasted about how he refused to take a salary for his work on City Council. During this spiel, which he has given a number of times before, one incumbent was seen lip-synching along. The purpose of making sacrifices or doing the right thing is not so that person can brag about it at every opportunity.

The forum returned to more questions about economic development. One group was asked about the role of City Council in economic development. “We’re limited to being cheerleaders,” Aponte said. Here, Deutsch set himself apart, disagreeing: “I think there’s plenty that City Council can do.” Deutsch said that we have to be careful when we talk about getting into partnerships with businesses, noting how some that received tax breaks have left town before fulfilling their end of the bargain. He added that there needs to be enforcement of local hiring. Winch echoed this sentiment when she said, “we need to hire Hartford.”

As for impediments to economic development, Wilson picked up where Winch left off. She talked about how many of the people who work in Hartford do not live here. She said, “if you don’t live here, then maybe you shouldn’t work here because you don’t have good things to say about the city.” Wilson is a licensed drug and alcohol counselor; she is also a certified domestic violence counselor. Brookman described the mill rate as a barrier, though some residents think he may have overstated this. His solution is to have Hartford’s mill rate match that of surrounding towns. Would this theory work in action? Speaking of action, that is what Deutsch claims “distinguishes the Working Families Party” from the rest.

When asked about what issues face small business owners, Cotto, Wooden, Anderson, and Winch all agreed that taxes play some role. Cotto added that the “cookie cutter plazas” that feature laundromats and Dunkin Donuts don’t help the city; he said we should support locally-owned businesses. Anderson wants the City Council to promote various programs that would benefit small businesses, like training programs. Winch saw “unemployed customers” as a roadblock to small business success.

A question about how Hartford could incorporate smart growth principles was mostly a wash, as the buzzwords were not explained at all. Of Brinson, Jennings, and Aponte, only the latter showed any knowledge of the concept at all. Aponte noted that “we have One City One Plan and the iQuilt, which are vehicles for smart growth.”

The last prepared question asked “whose problem is poverty.” MacDonald, Cruz, and Kennedy all managed that softball just fine, with each stating the obvious — poverty affects us all. “Poverty affects our surrounding areas as well,” MacDonald claimed, so these suburbs, he said, should work with Hartford on it. He viewed education as a way to “break cycle” and called for more adult education in the city.

Many of the audience questions were incoherent, irrelevant to the duties of City Council, or rambling, with questions ranging from what could be done about special education students not receiving services they are entitled to, to something about recycling, to getting younger people to live in Hartford to one that nobody seemed to understand nor attempt to answer.

Less campaign literature was handed out this time. The Working Families Party had flyers including all of the four endorsed candidates. Wilson and Brinson, both endorsed Republicans, had separate promotional materials; MacDonald and DeJesus, endorsed Democrats, also did not share their advertisements with the other endorsed candidates from their party. Petitioning candidate Winch’s campaign literature describes her as an “Independent representative.”

The City Council Candidates Forum, held at the Hartford Public Library, was arranged by the Hartford Votes/Hartford Vota Coalition. November 8th is Election Day. To be eligible to vote in this election, voter registration forms should be postmarked by October 25th or completed in person no later than November 1, 2011.

Some previous articles about this campaign season:

Council Primary Candidates Forum

Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

Five Questions with the [Mayoral] Candidates

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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