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To Subpoena, Or Not

Daniel D’Ambrosio

October 06, 2009

The dispute between the Perez Administration and the city council — or more specifically between Mayor Eddie Perez and Councilman Pedro Segarra — over whether the council can subpoena city staff and records appears to be over without a court fight. Whether anything is resolved is another matter.

In August, Segarra and Perez were firing letters back and forth concerning the subpoena issue, which boiled over when city department heads failed to show up when requested at meetings of the Operations, Management and Budget Committee Segarra chairs, and other meetings. Segarra also complained that the financial reports he needed to track the fiscal state of the city were perpetually late or not forthcoming at all.

Perez responded with a letter saying Chief Operating Officer David Panagore would make sure staff were at council meetings when requested. But at the same time, he vetoed a council resolution to give itself subpoena power over city finance department heads, calling the resolution “illegal.”

Corporation Counsel John Rose issued an opinion backing Perez’s position that the city council has no subpoena power. The council responded by asking its own attorney, Alan B. Taylor of Day Pitney to weigh in. Not surprisingly, Taylor came down on the side of the council having subpoena power.

“Where is it that we get the power of subpoena?” said Segarra in an interview last week. “We get it from the charter. Our attorney says we do have it.”

But the issue resurfaced late last month when Perez vetoed another resolution by the council to give Segarra’s committee subpoena power. An effort to override Perez’s veto fell one vote short of the seven votes needed. Segarra said the resolution was intended to make perfectly clear what already exists in the charter — sort of a legislative exclamation point.

“An overwhelming majority of council people feel we do have power of subpoena,” he said. “The mayor’s veto was improper. It’s not his purview to dictate to council what powers we have and don’t have. If [the council] feels at any point in time that we do need to issue subpoenas we will issue them.”

Perez spokeswoman Sarah Barr struck a conciliatory tone in an e-mail to the Advocate last week, saying that while there is obviously a difference of opinion between “some members” of the city council and the mayor over the issue of subpoena power, the mayor has gone on record to say information requested by the council will be made available in a “timely manner” whenever possible.

“The only time a request may not be honored is if it involves confidential information not included in the public record, or if it is unreasonable on its face,” said Barr.

For example, she said, it’s perfectly reasonable for a council member to ask to see all city contracts, but it’s unreasonable to expect city staff to spend time away from their assigned duties to photocopy thousands of pages of those contracts.

“Council members should have access to public documents, but if copies are required, their staff should be expected to do the work,” said Barr.

Barr cited Councilman Luis Cotto’s characterization in a council meeting of the subpoena fight as simply “growing pains” of the move to a strong mayor form of government undertaken in 2002. But she said Segarra’s threat to issue subpoenas if necessary should not be taken lightly.

“It would be a sad day, indeed, if council attempted to issue a subpoena, and we do not anticipate ever getting to that point,” wrote Barr

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