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Perez Cautions Council

By Jeffrey B. Cohen

May 05, 2009

The mayor is the one who negotiates with the city's unions, not the city council.

That's the message Mayor Eddie A. Perez sent to the council in a letter Monday, telling them that council members who meet with union leaders to discuss contract details could be breaking the law. But various members of the council say they don't know what the mayor is talking about.

Instead, they say he's trying to intimidate them as they deliberate on his $547.6 million budget with hefty proposed tax increases.

"I'm not interested in violating any law," said Councilman Pedro Segarra, head of the council's budget committee. "But I'll be damned if I'll have the mayor initiate a blanket gag law that doesn't allow us to have any interaction [with the unions] whatsoever."

Perez's May 4 letter came just a couple of days after an apparently heated exchange between Matt Hennessy, Perez's chief of staff, and members of the city council. According to four members of the council, Hennessy told them at a budget hearing last week that some of the council's resolutions -- specifically one that called for a hiring freeze -- were "advisory," and not binding. Today, Councilman Kenneth Kennedy called Hennessy's comments both "arrogant and dismissive," and Segarra was still reeling.

Perez spokeswoman Sarah Barr said Hennessy's statements Friday were "entirely consistent" with city and state law. "In cases where council attempts to circumvent the civil service process, these resolutions are clearly advisory in nature," Barr said in an e-mail.

But it was Perez's Monday letter that had some on the council scratching their heads today.

In the letter, Perez tells members of the council that they "could potentially be violating" laws that govern collective bargaining by meeting with unions. He also warned them that their meetings -- which council members say haven't happened -- could be in violation of state Freedom of Information laws.

"It has come to my attention that a quorum of the council or one of its committee[s] may have met with union representatives in private to discuss potential contract negotiations," Perez wrote. That, he said, would break state law.

Asked for clarification today, Barr said that "we have heard that council members have been meeting with union leaders."

"If this is not the case, the advice is still warranted and we look forward to sharing with council information on potential union concessions that we receive," Barr said.

Segarra, Kennedy, Councilman Matt Ritter, and Minority Leader Larry Deutsch all said no such meetings have taken place.

Deutsch said he's had some one-on-one talks, but that's it, as far as he's concerned.

"It has nothing to do with negotiations, but it does have to do with fact-finding and discussions," Deutsch said. "I will continue to do exactly that."

Meanwhile, the mayor's own negotiations with the unions have hit more roadblocks.

Last week, Perez sent out letters to five of the city's unions who are participating in the Hartford Public Services Coalition. Together, they've called on Perez to avoid layoffs and to work together for a better budget. He's called on them for concessions. To date, little progress has been made.

In the letters to the unions, Perez says he wants their suggestions on how to save roughly $30.8 million in the budget in writing by 12 p.m. Wednesday. Perez told them that "each suggestion should have an estimated dollar amount of net savings attached to it," among other things.

Today, the unions fired back -- telling Perez that he's asking for too much, too late.

"Your letters are not an invitation to be a partner," the union collaborative called the Hartford Public Services Coalition wrote him in a letter provided to Cityline. "They come to us at least six months too late."

"Had you genuinely wished to hear from us, you would have [contacted us] prior to Feb. 2009," they wrote. "And you would have engaged in more than just the one meeting you requested with us in February 2009."

Below is the mayor's letter to council, followed by one of the various letters he sent to city unions, as well as the union's collective response.

UPDATE: At a budget hearing Tuesday night, Segarra vented at Perez's Monday letter in which he suggested the council was breaking the law by talking with unions.

"I've never been arrested, I don't have a criminal record. Neither does my grandmother or my grandfather," Segarra said. Nor do any of his 11 aunts and uncles or his brothers and sisters. "The reason why no one in my family has criminal records is that we prize, among all things, following the law."

Reprinted with permission of the CityLine blog of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the CityLine at http://blogs.courant.com/cityline/ and the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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