The city council moves ever closer to hiring an attorney separate from the corporation counsel's office
March 31, 2009
The possibility of a trial for Mayor Eddie Perez on corruption charges in October has given new urgency to the city council's ongoing effort to hire an attorney to look after their interests. President Calixto Torres has been tasked with signing a letter of engagement with an outside law firm by the next council meeting on April 6.
At least three council members (the three who are attorneys: Ken Kennedy, Pedro Segarra and Matt Ritter) have lost faith in Corporation Counsel John Rose's ability to effectively advise the council on legal matters, although each has their own reasons. As the city's lawyer, Rose is supposed to represent both the mayor and the council.
But for Ritter, the involvement of Rose's office in the ongoing grand jury investigation into the mayor's conduct creates a conflict of interest that makes it impossible for Rose to fulfill his obligations to the council.
"We need answers to our basic questions about the investigation," said Ritter. "I can't call [Rose] and say 'I need X, Y and Z,' because they've been involved in the investigation."
Ritter said there are an "endless" number of legal issues to be worked out surrounding the investigation, but a basic one affecting the council's ability to put together a budget is the amount of money that has been spent representing city employees who have been called before the grand jury.
"I would like to know, what is that legal bill?" said Ritter. "The last time it was reported 12 months ago it was over $100,000. These are the types of questions that mean you can't put together a budget if you don't know the answers."
Segarra, who chairs the council's Operations and Management & Budget Committee, sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to Lee Erdmann, Hartford's chief operating officer, on March 26, asking for the cost of "all attorneys and or related services such as fees for services of process, investigations, etc." related to the investigation.
Segarra also has a problem, however, with Rose personally, citing his refusal to provide individual members of the council with legal opinions. Rose will only respond to requests coming from council committees.
But when it comes to objecting to John Rose personally, nobody matches Councilman Ken Kennedy, who submitted the resolution to engage outside legal counsel.
"John [Rose] has become the mayor's lawyer as opposed to representing the entire city of Hartford," said Kennedy. "We've lost faith in opinions rendered by corporation counsel."
And just to make his displeasure clear, Kennedy says the money to pay for a separate attorney for the city council should come from Rose's budget.
"He's the one who started this problem, it should come from him," said Kennedy.
Kennedy withdrew his resolution to hire legal counsel at the March 23 city council meeting, but only because Torres is working on signing up a firm. Otherwise Kennedy says his resolution will be back on the table.
"We're giving Cal two weeks to get it done," said Kennedy.
The leading candidate to take on the legal representation of the city council is said to be Day Pitney LLC on Trumbull Street. Partner Allan B. Taylor chaired the charter revision commission in 2002 that moved to a strong mayor form of government in Hartford.
While the council appears to be moving ahead with its plans to retain an attorney, both Torres and Majority Leader rJo Winch voted against the ordinance that authorized the action on March 9.
Winch said hiring an attorney for the city council doesn't even make her list of priorities.
"People interested in getting into details about what's going on with the mayor should seek a private attorney, for me that's not what I want the council to do," said Winch. "When city residents are unemployed and our kids' education is not getting funded all those things are way more important to rJo than finding corporation counsel to represent the city council with the mayor."
Councilman Luis Cotto is also lukewarm to the notion of hiring a lawyer for the city council. Cotto defends Rose, whom he says has dealt fairly with him. And unlike Segarra, Cotto doesn't have a problem with Rose's requirement that requests for legal opinions come from committees only.
"I'm on record saying I will not vote for ousting [John Rose] because quite honestly whether we like him or not, he's given us parameters of when he'll give us an opinion," said Cotto. "If someone gives parameters and they don't follow them, then you have grounds for something. Personally, I've followed those parameters in requesting opinions and they've [done what I asked]."
Yet as chairman of the council's Parks and Recreation Committee, Cotto admits he's been waiting for two months to get an opinion from Rose concerning an equestrian facility proposed for Keney Park by a local nonprofit group. The question is whether the facility would conform to the uses for the park intended by the original donors of the land some 100 years ago.
Asked whether two months is a long time to take for a legal opinion, especially when the council has been postponing a decision on the equestrian facility for months, Cotto said he was willing to wait.