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Balancing Act

The newly formed Charter Revision Commission is considering whether to limit the powers of the mayor

Daniel D'Ambrosio

January 20, 2009

It wasn't exactly the Continental Congress, but the meeting last week of Hartford's Charter Revision Commission had a John Adamsy feel to it nonetheless. Leading the discussion of the balance of power between the strong mayor and the City Council and other weighty issues was Commission Chairman Richard Wareing.

Wareing, a Harvard-trained lawyer, sat on the last Charter Revision Commission that made the switch to strong mayor. Beginning in 2003, incumbent Mayor Eddie Perez became the first under the new charter to wield the power to appoint commissions and hire and fire city department heads. Perez also chairs the Board of Education.

Hartford voters approved the move to a strong mayor because they were tired of years of bickering and inaction by the City Council, where power formerly lay. But now, the concern is that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of the mayor.

Commission member Marcia Bok Anderson said she has heard a lot of discussion in the community about the balance of power. The City Council has been accused in public hearings of rolling over for the mayor. In some circles, the hope is that the Charter Revision Commission will knock Perez down a peg or two.

But Commission member Mathew Jasinski said he didn't see any evidence of a lack of fortitude on the part of the City Council.

"There are plenty of council people at odds with the mayor," said Jasinski. "It's not clear to me the current system has put a bunch of yes men on the council. Quite the contrary."

Wareing too is reluctant to blame the charter for making the mayor too strong.

"I'm partial to [the current] charter because I helped draft it," said Wareing in an interview with the Advocate. "The mayor is conducting himself more or less like everybody thought he would as a strong executive, asserting his prerogatives under the charter, making decisions."

The complaints people have about Perez, said Wareing, are rooted in politics and personalities, not the charter.

"They don't like the mayor, there's a remedy for that, it's called an election," Wareing said. "We just had one and he won. There's another election in two and a half years."

If the Charter Revision Commission decides it does want to limit the power of the mayor it has several options, according to Wareing, including banning him or her from serving as chairman of the Board of Education; or making him share appointments to various commissions with the Council. Right now, the mayor makes all of the appointments to commissions such as Planning and Zoning.

Wareing and his fellow commissioners could also enlarge the City Council or change the way its members are elected. Currently, candidates must run city-wide. Under district representation they would need to garner only the support of their neighborhoods. That could result in a City Council that better reflects the city.

"There are at least four councilmen that live in the West End," said Wareing. "The West End is what percentage of the city? Not 40 percent."

Whatever the Charter Revision Commission proposes will be subject first to the approval of the City Council, and ultimately the approval of Hartford voters. The council could hold a special election, but Wareing said turnout would almost certainly be dismal, so he'll be aiming for the November ballot and the Board of Education election.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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