A Proposed Ban on Campaign Contributions from Contractors with Business in Hartford Remains in Limbo
By Jon Campbell
March 08, 2011
The Hartford City Council is pushing forward with a proposal that would ban campaign contributions from contractors who have business deals with the city. The measure was proposed more than two years ago by Councilman Luis Cotto, partly in response to the corruption scandal of former Mayor Eddie Perez, and has been repeatedly delayed since.
Questions about the measure's legality are the latest hurdle to be cleared after the city's legal oracle, Corporation Counsel Saundra Kee Borges, determined that the measure wouldn't run afoul of the courts.
The measure was supposed to be up for a vote at the council's meeting on Feb. 28, but Kee Borges said the law will, again, need some tweaking. The changes are mostly minor the effective date, for example, will be pushed back to the start of the new fiscal year in July but they still require the measure to go through a new approval process at the committee level.
Another more substantial wrinkle is the uncertainy about who will be expected to enforce the measure. The original proposal called for the city's ethics commission to oversee the new rules, but the ethics commission can only enforce laws contained in the ethics code, a specific portion of the city's municipal law. The other option is to have the rules enforced by the city's Contract Compliance Commission, which Cotto called problematic, since that office is directly overseen by Mayor Pedro Segarra. The mayor himself would be subject to the restrictions, so having his office oversee compliance might present a conflict. Cotto said he and his staff will make the changes and the ordinance should be back for a vote by the end of March.
The current measure, which applies to businesses with contracts exceeding $25,000, has sharper teeth than the last draft that came before the council.
Previously, elected officials who received an impermissible contribution only had to return the money, but now they'll be subject to a fine of $99 for every day of noncompliance. Contractors, too, face harsher penalties under this version of the law; if caught, they'll be barred from doing any work for the city for three years.
The law has a 30-day grace period in which, if a violation is uncovered, the money can be returned with no consequences, a nod to the complications involved in monitoring hundreds of contractors for compliance.
Cotto said he was OK with the latest delay, and while he didn't think his measure had unanimous support, he didn't think it was being deliberately slowed.
No one's been dragging their feet. I think there are others on the council who would rather not see it passed, Cotto said, speaking after the meeting. Cotto said he believes the delays are due to legal and procedural issues, not an attempt to kill it off.
Nearly all of the city councilmembers who spoke on the record in the days following the council meeting, said they supported the measure, at least in broad terms.
I do support it in principle, Council President rJo Winch said. I think it's very important.
Winch, a Democrat, said she thought the restrictions would help improve public trust in government, though she said the question of who would enforce the law is one that will need to be answered before it has her full support.
Councilman Corey Brinson, the council's only Republican, said he did not plan to support the measure.
People have the right to vote, not only in the booth, but with their pockets. If folks who do business with the city want to support candidates because they're favorable to their industry, that's democracy in action, Brinson said in an interview after the meeting.
Brinson was appointed earlier this year to fill the remaining term of his aunt, Veronica Airey-Wilson, who resigned amid a scandal in which she admitted to accepting free remodeling work from a city contractor.
Democratic Councilman Kenneth Kennedy also supported the law and said he would likely vote in favor of it when it comes back. But Kennedy said he worried the restrictions might inadvertently give an advantage to those already in office by hampering the ability of challengers to raise the money they need.
The unintended consequence is that you're going to lock in the incumbents the challengers are going to be the ones who aren't going to be able to raise the funds, Kennedy says.
Kennedy says the advantages of incumbency name recognition and a generally higher profile mean they'll be able to raise money regardless of the laws in place. He suggested public financing could help to offset that potential disadvantage, but noted that the city was not in a position to afford such a system.
Kennedy also said he didn't believe the influence of contractors at city hall was currently a serious problem. While he acknowledged that the previous administration was for sale, he didn't think the kind of cronyism that led to Perez's downfall was a problem under Segarra.
Councilmen Larry Deutsch of the Working Families party and Democrat Robert Painter both said they supported the law without qualification. Remaining councilmembers and Segarra did not return calls seeking comment.