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Segarra Can Restore City Hall Competence

Laurence D. Cohen

August 30, 2010

Pedro Segarra appears to have settled in as mayor of Hartford, with a careful blend of forcefulness and humility.

Before super-ego sets in and the new mayor declares himself Emperor for Life and school board chairman and head of Planning and Zoning, and Parks Commissioner, he might do everyone a favor by lobbying for an end to ‘strong mayor’ government in Hartford.

It would be easy enough to point to the corrupt and mediocre performance of Mayor Eddie Perez as reason enough to question whether the switch from manager-council government was a good idea — but changes in management structure should be based on more than the performance of one sad case.

Theoretically, the move from manager-council to strong mayor was appropriate and not unexpected. City manager government, in its earliest days at least, suggested a population comfortable with the way things are, comfortable with each other — and in search of a competent manager to make sure the streets get plowed and potholes get filled. The old mantra from the city-manager types: there’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole.

The city manager style of government, often introduced in a nonpartisan environment in bedroom suburbs, was thought not to be the perfect plan for a city, filled as it is with partisan bickering, patronage, and warring factions of socioeconomic protagonists.

Trouble began in Hartford as early as 1991, when another mildly atrocious mayor, Carrie Saxon Perry, and a ‘new’ City Council, forced out the incumbent city manager, so that they could pick someone just perfect for their God-awful vision for the city.

Mayor Mike Peters, in his rough-hewn, friendly, way, managed to build coalitions that allowed him to proceed as if he were a strong mayor, but the gritty partisanship of urban politics eventually led the city to Mayor Eddie and a ‘strong mayor’ system.

What is it about Hartford, which no one would mistake for a bedroom suburb, that might make it an interesting urban experiment for a renewed city manager style of governance?

In part, the answer is a negative. The population is sufficiently undereducated, unsophisticated, disinterested and besieged as to suggest that ‘participatory democracy’ is a dream, not a reality.

Even among the huddled upper-middle-class in the city’s West End, there is rarely interest in the nitty-gritty of actually running for city office and campaigning among the Great Unwashed.

This is not a suburban kind of placid acceptance of the way things are, but it suggests a body politic much in need of a competent manager who can steer city services in the right direction, whether or not the ‘political’ leadership is coherent or even competent.

In truth, Harford is already a creature of state subsidy, suburban subsidy, and non-profit benevolent tyranny. Hartford is a welfare client of folks more wealthy and sophisticated and well-connected than the average man or woman elected to serve in the city.

TV Anchor Dennis House wrote an essay in Hartford Magazine earlier this year in which he suggested that Mayor Segarra “will have to serve as ambassador for the city, as well as head cheerleader.”

That’s exactly the point of returning to a city manager style of government. Mayors who are cheerleading and performing external diplomacy don’t have the time, and perhaps the inclination, to make sure that the City Hall lawn gets mowed.

If Mayor Segarra performs admirably as emergency mayor, and at the same time, slowly moves the city back towards a professional management style of governance, he would be remembered as the best politician that the city has seen in decades.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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