By STEVEN GOODE and JODIE MOZDZER | The Hartford Courant
January 28, 2009
On a day that had no shortage of drama — Mayor Eddie A. Perez turning himself in to state police and holding a press conference to say he committed no crime, with bewildered citizens trying to make sense of it all — three members of the city council took advantage of the upheaval to begin an attempt to oust one of Perez's most loyal supporters from his leadership position on the council.
Democratic council members Pedro Segarra, Kenneth Kennedy and Matthew Ritter called fora special meeting Thursday to discuss stripping Democratic council President Calixto Torres of his leadership role.
The move came just hours after Perez's arrest on bribery charges related to work done by a city contractor at the mayor's Bloomfield Avenue home.
Perez's arrest drew mixed reactions in the city neighborhood that played a key role in the case. At the Bairrada Bakery & Pastry Shop on Park Street, owner Tony Couceiro and customer Vitor Lopes debated whether Perez was out of line to use city contractor Carlos Costa — who won a multimillion dollar contract to remake Park Street — to do work on his home.
Couceiro said the line between right and wrong is blurred when politicians get favors from friends.
"I could see myself getting into the same kind of mess," Couceiro said.
Lopes was less sympathetic.
"He didn't pay that money until it was investigated," he said of Perez. "That means something's wrong."
It was that appearance of wrongdoing that prompted the Democratic council members to seek a change in the leadership of the council to reflect what they say will be a more bipartisan vision going forward.
"The current leadership may not represent the new dynamic the council seeks," Ritter said. "[Torres] is close to the current administration."
Ritter said the council wants to reassure the public that it takes the charges against Perez seriously, regardless of the outcome of Thursday's meeting and possible vote on Torres' fate as council president.
"If we fail, at least we know where people stand," Ritter said. "This is part of what needs to be done."
The city council has been a body in flux recently. The panel that Perez once could count on to echo his wishes has changed, with new members elected in 2007 and a Democratic majority that has become increasingly splintered.
Segarra, Ritter and Kennedy all have shown a willingness lately to buck the council leadership. And Working Family Party members Luis Cotto and Minority Leader Larry Deutsch have further fragmented Perez's hold over the council.
The other board members are Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson and Democrats Jim Boucher and Majority Leader rJo Winch.
Six votes would be needed Thursday to remove Torres from the council presidency. An informal poll of several council members Tuesday made it clear, however, that his ouster isn't certain.
"I'm not going to vote on anything that changes the bus driver without changing the direction the bus is going in," said Cotto, who said he wanted to sit down with Torres and Segarra to discuss the issue.
"The way it is right now, there are no checks and balances, and we are equally at fault for letting it get like this," Cotto said.
Deutsch, who said he has joined with Segarra on many votes, appeared to be leaning toward removing Torres but stopped short of announcing his intention.
"The president and majority leader have been an obstacle to the consultation and transparency that must take place, and they have opposed the independence of council members," Deutsch said.
Reached at a Democratic Party caucus Tuesday night, Winch said, "As a body of nine, we have to operate in the best interests of the council."
Torres was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
But across the city — on street corners and at bus stops, in bakeries and in quiet corners of city hall — plenty of people were talking about Perez's arrest and what happens next.
Some, like Hector Codiz and Victor Ortiz, backed Perez. The two stood outside a barbershop on Park Street and said they believed Perez was innocent.
"I'll keep my fingers crossed for him," said Codiz, 58, of Hartford.
Codiz said he believed Perez used bad judgment in hiring a city contractor to work on his home, but he didn't think Perez did anything criminal.
"He didn't do nothing wrong," said Ortiz, 59. "He's going to come out clean."
Others didn't see it that way.
"As a mayor, I think he's doing a great job — but any way you look at it, it's robbery," said Mayda Ortiz, a crossing guard outside Parkville School.
To some, Perez's arrest evoked memories of Gov. John Rowland's downfall. Many were upset that political scandal had returned to Hartford.
"Like I said — not again," Hartford resident Amdrilla Erskine, 47, said on her way into city hall Tuesday. "Corruption, corruption, corruption!"
At least one man said he would wait to pass judgment until the case is decided in court.
"Everybody is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law," said Handel Jackman, 72, of Hartford.
Courant Staff Writer Jeffrey B. Cohen contributed to this story.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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