When Hartford switched to a strong mayor system
a year ago this week, the idea was that the mayor would now be the boss,
the city's chief executive. Mayor Eddie Perez has done that, and in most
respects it's worked.
That Perez would actually take charge and be a strong mayor came as a surprise
to many. In retrospect, we just weren't used to it. We were used to the old way,
what I called the weak-mayor, weak-manager system, which encouraged and rewarded
Perez hasn't always been collegial or touchy-feely, but that is mostly a question
of style. He's gotten to be a better public speaker. He's governed the way Mayor
John DeStefano governs New Haven or Mayor Timothy Larson governs East Hartford.
Perez ought to be more public about consulting with business and community leaders
and he should broaden his kitchen cabinet of close advisers, but results are
what count. The city is running better.
Perez inserted himself in the Hilton Hotel renovation and changed developers
when he didn't get the deal he wanted. That's classic strong mayor, and it appears
to be working. He's also demanded a role in the stalled Front Street development,
in which the city has heretofore been a wallflower. This will require Perez to
work together and in harmony with the Capital City Economic Development Authority.
The CCEDA folks are battle-hardened after dealing with developer Richard Cohen,
and won't be pushed around.
Hizzoner ran the police chief search, and I don't believe Hartford could have
found a better chief than Pat Harnett. Though the homicide count is still unacceptably
high at 17 for 2004, it's lower than any year in more than a decade.
The naming of John Palmieri as director of development and John Rose Jr. as corporation
counsel were also strong appointments. Hartford used to be the place where developers
couldn't get anyone at city hall to answer the phone. If someone did pick up
the phone, it was to explain why a project couldn't possibly be undertaken.
Palmieri and his folks thankfully take the opposite tack, and projects are getting
So, the internal operation of city government is improved. Perhaps Perez had
to spend much of his first year getting the trains running. But if his four-year
term is to be a success, he has to move to what George Bush the Elder called "the
Perez has any number of initiatives underway. He's promoting homeownership, early
childhood education, more kids going to college, safer streets, name it. What
he needs to articulate is the rationale for these measures. In other words, what
kind of city is Hartford trying to be?
Is Hartford to be a regional financial and medical center? A small-town state
capital? An entertainment center? The Miami of the North?
The strong mayor has to answer this question. He's got to go to the community
to develop a shared vision. If we know where we're going, it's easier to get
Whatever that answer is, Perez also has to start thinking regionally. Hartford
probably can't survive in the long run as a tiny, 18-square-mile plot that contains
most of the region's social problems. The visionary of the 21st century will
be the leader who can forge some kind of working federation in the region. At
the excellent Trinity College symposium on the 150th anniversary of Bushnell
Park in the fall, Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan said the interests of the city and
those of the inner-ring suburbs have never been so closely aligned.
Thus, Hartford fighting with West Hartford over widening a curb cut on Prospect
Avenue for a new middle school was silly and counterproductive on both sides.
Hopefully the dispute is behind us. The ideal situation would be to have some
kids from the West End attend the school, if they want to, and have more West
Hartford children at one of the city's magnet or charter schools.
How does Perez articulate a vision and become more of a regional thinker? He
could use a policy planner on his staff. Perez has effective staff people, make
no mistake. What he doesn't have is someone thinking about a Hartford or regional
He needs one. Indianapolis decided in the late 1970s to build its renewal around
sports. It worked. Portland, Maine, restored its historic waterfront. Hartford
needs to have some kind of focus, something less abstract than a "rising star" to
rally behind and organize around. If Eddie can develop such a vision in the coming
year, both the city and his mayoralty will benefit.
Still, Hartford government has changed for the better. The mayor is in charge
and, as residents are increasingly aware, accountable. That's how it ought to
work. Finally, the buck stops somewhere.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at