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Democracy Thwarted

Gridlock on the city council over a vetoed anti-blight ordinance

By Daniel D'Ambrosio

June 05, 2008

It was hot and stuffy in the city council chambers last week, perfect conditions for Councilman Ken Kennedy's exasperated monologue on what he saw as the council's breakdown of democracy and quivering Jell-O-like weakness on an anti-blight ordinance vetoed by Mayor Eddie Perez.

The ordinance, shot down in March, never came back to the council for an override vote. Rebuffing the mayor would require the support of seven of the nine council members, and Kennedy just couldn't believe no effort was being made.

"How could a vetoed ordinance never come back to the council, never be discussed or overridden, a basic requirement of any democratic government?" asked Kennedy. "We're not following the rules."

The anti-blight ordinance has been dogging the council since March 24, when it passed unanimously. Perez vetoed the ordinance two days later — saying its notification provisions were illegal — and offered his own revised ordinance. (The Advocate covered the controversy in the May 15 issue.)

No one could explain why the original ordinance (passed 9-0) never came back for an override vote, as required by the city charter. There was widespread confusion, despite the fact that the charter dates only to 2000, when Perez was installed as Hartford's strong mayor. The charter was widely seen as swinging the balance of power away from the council and to the mayor's office.

"The mayor has the right to veto, I'm not arguing that," said Kennedy. "But we're voting on a new ordinance without resolving the vetoed ordinance. It's still in cyberspace. The vetoed ordinance should have come before this body. It's still not here."

Kennedy tried to bring the ordinance back in April, but quickly got bogged down. He e-mailed City Clerk Dan Carey after Perez's veto, asking him to make sure the ordinance was on the agenda for the April 14 meeting. Carey told Kennedy he would have to make a written request, or ask Council President Calixto Torres to put the vetoed ordinance back on the agenda, according to an e-mail Kennedy sent to city attorney John Rose.

"The Council President informed me that he was requesting a legal opinion from your office on the next steps in the process concerning the vetoed ordinance," Kennedy wrote to Rose. "He stated to me that he received no guidance from you or your office either."

Kennedy also asked Rose to explain why the original anti-blight ordinance vetoed by the mayor was illegal. The six-line answer from Rose dripped contempt.

He wrote: "Ken, you have asked me to provide you a legal opinion. As I have indicated to the council going back at least several years and again as recently as this month, I do not believe that it is my function to provide legal opinions to solitary councilpeople. If the council ... or as I have determined ... a Committee of the Council asks for a legal opinion, then I will oblige unless there is some other pressing legal consideration ... such as pending or threatened litigation ... which might suggest it is not appropriate to do so."

Rose assured the council last week that Perez's veto stood, despite the shenanigans surrounding the lost ordinance.

"The mayor acted in accordance with the charter," said Rose. "The fact that [the ordinance] did not come back, for whatever good reason or bad reason, doesn't change anything."

It was hard for the council to know who to blame for the missing ordinance, since the charter doesn't specify exactly how it was to reappear.

"I don't know to this day who was supposed to put it back on the agenda," said Councilwoman Veronica Airey-Wilson.

Rose made it clear it wasn't him.

"It's someone's fault [the vetoed ordinance] didn't come back, but I'm not taking the blame," he said.

Unable to resolve the confusion on the fate of the original anti-blight ordinance, the council turned its attention to the revised ordinance, which is riddled with grammatical errors that Airey-Wilson said should leave everyone embarrassed.

"I can't believe something with so many misspellings made it through the process," said Airey-Wilson. "It's my understanding every ordinance is supposed to go through corporation counsel."

Not so, said Rose, assuring Airey-Wilson the revised ordinance had not come through his office, which only led to further head-scratching, because, well, shouldn't it have?

While Kennedy held on doggedly to the notion that the democratic process had been subverted, several other council members wanted to forge ahead with the revised anti-blight ordinance, misspellings and all.

"I don't think anybody on this council deliberately doesn't follow the rules," said Majority Leader rJo Winch. "Let's go ahead and get this out and get this done. Ordinances are always amended. We want to clean up Hartford."

Councilman Matt Ritter also argued for voting on Perez's alternate ordinance, while asking Rose at the same time to clear up the veto override mess on the original ordinance.

"We need a legal opinion in writing to explain what happened," said Ritter.

Rose did not return a call from the Advocate for comment on whether or when he would issue an opinion.

And, in the end, the council postponed action on Perez's revised anti-blight ordinance.

In an interview with the Advocate last week, Ritter said the public debate on the veto issue and the testy exchange of e-mails between Kennedy and Rose would never bring the matter to a close. But the upcoming effort to revise the city charter could settle things.

The charter revision process has begun, with the next 60 days devoted to gathering opinions from Hartford residents in a series of public meetings throughout the city. If a charter revision commission is formed, any changes they propose would be voted on by the public in a referendum — probably in November 2009.

Then all could be crystal clear. Or the dysfunction could continue.

"If people disagree this much on it, all you have to do is say if the mayor vetoes an ordinance it will automatically be put back on the agenda by the town clerk," said Ritter.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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