The city council and Eddie Perez continue to spar over what it means to be a strong mayor
May 18, 2010
Even as Mayor Eddie Perez spends his days in Hartford’s Superior Court, on trial for corruption with perhaps five weeks to go, the struggle to sort out his powers as the city’s first strong mayor beginning in 2004 continues.
Several months ago, the mayor and the city council tussled over transparency in the administration, with Councilman Pedro Segarra and others complaining they couldn’t get department heads to attend the council’s committee meetings to answer questions and provide data.
Segarra, now president of the city council, threatened to issue subpoenas to force the administration to give him the budget information he was looking for. The council even went so far as to hire its own attorney — Alan Taylor of Day Pitney LLC — because Corporation Counsel John Rose issued opinion after opinion that ran contrary to what the council saw as its own best interest.
In the subpoena debate, Rose said the council had no such power. Taylor disagreed, but the issue became moot after Segarra and Perez came to an understanding that resulted in better cooperation on the budget, and seemed to calm the council’s concerns over Perez’s tendency to either ignore them or run roughshod over them.
The latest issue, however, which has the city council turning to its attorney for advice is another budgetary matter. The council has asked Taylor for a legal opinion concerning whether or not it has the power to eliminate positions from the proposed 2010-2011 budget submitted by Perez a few weeks ago. Under the charter, the council oversees the budget, but the administration hires and fires, and runs the city departments.
The position of the administration is that the council can raise or lower the overall amount of money allocated to each department, but cannot eliminate individual positions in the budget.
“The Charter empowers the Council to increase or decrease items of expenditure in the budget submission which does not include specific positions,” was how Sarah Barr, Perez’s director of communications, put it in an e-mail.
And once again, Corporation Counsel John Rose issued an opinion backing the administration’s position that the council could not look at individual positions within the budget, but could only set an overall dollar amount to be allocated to each department.
“I disagree with that,” says Councilman Ken Kennedy. “I believe council can eliminate line items. That goes with our budgetary authority.”
If Taylor ends up agreeing with Kennedy and advises the city council they do indeed have line-item authority under the charter, what then? If Rose is of one opinion and Taylor is of another, who wins?
“We can always go to court,” says Kennedy. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
The council wants to establish its authority to cut positions from the budget because it wants to cut expenses to eliminate the proposed 5 percent increase in property taxes in the mayor’s budget.
Kennedy points out the proposed increase is actually closer to 9 percent. Hartford homeowners are already picking up the tab for cutting in half a 15 percent property tax surcharge on corporations. Corporate bosses hate the surcharge. This year’s reduction will be 3.5 percent, which will be tacked onto homeowners’ tax bills instead. Add that to the 5 percent increase in the mayor’s budget, and you’re at a property tax increase of 8.5 percent.
“The administration never wants to talk about that,” says Kennedy. “There’s going to be a tax increase regardless.”
This year’s debate on the council’s budgetary powers had its genesis in a similar debate last year, according to Councilman Matt Ritter, Back then, Councilman Luis Cotto tried to eliminate a number of vacant positions that were not being filled because of last year’s budget shortfall.
“What we were saying is ‘Look, we don’t know if we’ll ever need these positions filled,’” says Ritter.
But Perez vetoed Cotto’s resolutions, saying they were illegal, and Rose issued an opinion backing the mayor up.
Ritter stressed the council does not want the power to eliminate positions for personal vendettas or to fire someone the council doesn’t like, a concern reinforced by Cotto last week, even though he was the one who sparked the debate on eliminating positions from the budget.
“I don’t want to be part of a body that can seek to get back at people through the budget process,” says Cotto.
Not to worry, says Ritter.
“We’re not going to go after individuals, I could not agree more with Luis,” he says. “This is not to be used as a weapon against individual people.”
What it will be used for is to make sure tax dollars are spent in the most effective way possible, according to Ritter. He gives the hypothetical example of the mayor deciding to create a new co-director position in a department, which would pay $185,000 annually — hypothetically.
The way things currently stand, if the council disagreed with the mayor’s decision to create a new highly paid position in his administration, the only response it would have available would be to lower that department’s allocation of funds by $185,000. But there’s nothing that says the mayor couldn’t still hire the highly paid co-director he wanted. He could simply make cuts elsewhere in the department to save the $185,000 the council cut from the overall budget.
If, on the other hand, the council could target that new co-director position, and eliminate it from the budget before it’s ever filled, it could achieve its real goal of limiting the ranks of management in the interest of efficient government.
Councilman Larry Deutsch, one of the most outspoken critics of the Perez administration, insists the power the council is looking for is not to micromanage the city’s budget. Rather it is to establish a better balance of power between the city council and the mayor under this relatively new form of “strong mayor” government that gives the mayor the exclusive right to hire and fire, among other things.
“The mayor just has too darn much power as written in the charter,” says Deutsch.