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Charter Reform 101

City council members have a list of problems they'd like to see addressed with a new charter

Daniel D'Ambrosio

October 02, 2008

In about 20 days, Hartford will have a newly appointed charter reform commission, raring to go about the business of revising the document the town charter that guides the way this city is governed. The changes that could be coming include the city council having its own lawyer instead of sharing one with the mayor, and a revamped board of education.

Once the charter revision commission is empaneled by the city council with anywhere from five to 15 people, it will likely complete its work in six months to a year. They have to finish in 16 months, according to state law.

The City Council can accept or reject the changes the commission proposes; the accepted proposals go on the ballot for a vote by the people.

The last time we had such a commission, in 2003, it led to the strong mayor form of government that put Mayor Eddie Perez firmly in the driver's seat. That change, in turn, virtually guaranteed the city council would be forming this new commission, as people began to wonder if the mayor had been granted too much power. To many, the city council looked toothless.

"I think you see coming off this past election in November there's an informal public sentiment basically saying, 'Hey what's happening here, we all agreed on a strong mayor but maybe we've gone too far,'" said Luis Cotto, who was elected to the City Council from the Working Families party.

Cotto said his constituents worried that "you guys are allowing yourselves to be manipulated," and that the city council wasn't taking advantage of the power it does have. As Councilman Matt Ritter is fond of reminding his colleagues, they can override the mayor with seven votes out of nine council members.

Ritter, a Democrat, chaired the committee that proposed the charter reform commission following four public hearings. His personal pet project is to change the way legal advice is dispensed to the mayor and city council. Right now, Corporation Counsel John Rose, who was appointed by Perez, is the lawyer for both parties.

That has led to some high-profile conflicts with Councilman Ken Kennedy over what Kennedy sees as Rose's unwillingness to help the council in a battle with the mayor. Case in point: the infamous blight ordinance the council passed unanimously and the mayor vetoed, without an explanation of why he believed it was illegal.

No explanation was ever forthcoming from Rose, according to Kennedy. Ritter wants to change the charter to give both the council and the mayor their own attorneys.

"If you had corporation counsel as a city council appointment, and the mayor had his own attorney in-house, those two sides would find ways to negotiate and figure out the right answer for the city," said Ritter.

For his part, Cotto has his sights set on changing the make-up of the school board, which currently has four elected members, and five members appointed by the mayor.

Perez named himself chairman of the board. and also appointed Superintendent Steven Adamowski, which means, says Cotto, that someone who disagrees with Perez will probably find himself fighting "not only the superintendent, not only the mayor, but also the chairman who happens to have appointed you."

Cotto wants to change the charter to include more elected school board members.

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