Now, No Doubt Who's In Charge
January 10, 2005
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff
The project, to keep WFSB, Channel 3, from leaving Hartford,
was not simple. But the chain of command was, recalls John Palmieri.
Palmieri, Hartford's director of development services, was working under very
specific instructions from his boss, Mayor Eddie A. Perez: Make Channel 3 your
priority. And Palmieri did, with weekly phone calls to the station president
and regular talks with the mayor to determine what terms were acceptable to the
It doesn't sound all that unusual, until Palmieri considered how it might have
worked before Jan. 1, 2004, before the city switched to a strong mayor form of
government, before Perez stepped up to become the undisputed CEO of the capital
"It's a longer and more tedious process when you don't have a strong mayor," said
Palmieri, who had worked under a weak mayor-strong council system in Charlotte,
N.C., similar to what Hartford had until 2004.
"It was simpler; it was more direct. There weren't many moving parts," Palmieri
said of the WFSB deal. "This was a good example of the way a strong mayor would
make an important project happen."
It's not easy to quantify how things have changed since the charter was rewritten
a year ago this month.
On paper, the change means that Hartford's mayor, long just a figurehead, can
now pick department heads and members of all boards and commissions - and fire
them. It means that, as in most other cities, the mayor is the point man on economic
development, the budget and negotiations with federal and state officials.
But in practice, the job has been Perez's to define.
And he has defined it broadly, by personally involving himself in national and
state affairs as well as the minutiae of neighborhood elections - an approach
the mayor calls hands-on leadership and some see as meddling.
He is suing the Internal Revenue Service over a test the agency is conducting
on the city's poorest residents, saying the test would prevent them from getting
a key tax credit. But he also spent considerable time running a challenge slate
of candidates for the most local of local races - the Democratic town committee
- after deciding that some members of a proposed slate were unacceptable.
"You've got to lead on all levels," Perez said of his governing style.
In the last year, Perez put his imprint on the police department by picking a
police chief from New York and standing up to objections of neighborhood leaders
who favored a local candidate.
He folded the city's semiautonomous economic development commission back under
the purview of city hall, hired Palmieri to oversee all development, and took
the lead on the WFSB deal. He demanded a spot among the decision makers on Adriaen's
Landing and lobbied for a controversial property tax relief plan at the state
Perez's style is non-hesitant and noncollaborative. He is everywhere - cutting
ribbons at press conferences, listening to complaints at neighborhood meetings,
caucusing with state and local leaders - and yet he's not accessible. He's a
mayor who keeps close a small circle of confidantes, and keeps distant those
who question him.
And he can afford to be that way. He is firmly in control of the city council,
having helped to elect all nine of its members. He's the chairman of the city's
school building committee, which awards multimillion dollar contracts for school
construction. Come November, he will be able to appoint a majority of the nine-member
school board. And he is largely in control of the Democratic town committee,
the body that decides who gets elected in Hartford.
The city's internal audit commission, the one agency created to be a balance
to the new strong mayor, also bears Perez's imprint.
At the direction of Perez's ally, council President Hernan La Fontaine, the city
council approved an ordinance that barred two candidates with a reputation for
troubleshooting from sitting on that board. The mayor's appointed city lawyer,
John Rose Jr., issued a legal opinion last month that upheld the ban on one of
A Bully Pulpit
The mayor's style has produced some critics who say he has too much power and
is using it for a bully pulpit. His admirers say he is making the most of what
city voters intended when they approved a new government in 2002.
"Certainly the mayor has stepped up and taken ownership of the city's problems
in a way that's quite visible," said Allan B. Taylor, the chief framer of the
new city charter that did away with the old city government, where power was
diffused among a nine-member city council and an appointed city manager.
"There's no question about the fact that decisions are being made and who's making
them," Taylor said.
The flagging effort to renovate Hartford Public High School, for example, would
not have taken off last year had there not been a decisive leader on the school
building committee and a mayor with solid relationships on the city council,
said Thomas D. Ritter, former House speaker and occasional adviser to Perez.
Perez's many hats allowed him to orchestrate the firing of the project's construction
manager for not coming in on budget, and then get the council to add $20 million
to the cost of the project.
"I don't think Hartford High would be built right now if Eddie Perez was not
[a] strong mayor and chairman of the school building committee," Ritter said.
Ritter also credited Perez - and his authority - for being able to swiftly remove
and replace all members of the parking authority board in time for critical state
development funds to be released.
But even Taylor agrees that the new charter and the strong mayor government is
still a work in progress, defined by the challenges it meets.
The city council's subservience to the mayor, Taylor said, is one wrench in the
Elected at-large, rather than by neighborhood district, the Democratic majority
on the council all ran on a party slate with the Democratic mayor, calling themselves "Team
Perez." Perez also helped fund the campaigns of the council's three so-called
opposition seats, which go to candidates who are not Democrats.
Council members have been loath to question the mayor on many topics and have
been a reliable stamp on all his initiatives. They've treated their chief role
- of confirming the mayor's appointments - lightly. They were not included in
the search for a new police chief, for example, and they interviewed Palmieri
after he'd begun working in Hartford.
Council meetings often last less than an hour, and many decisions are decided
in a closed caucus before the body meets.
"There's been an approach of protecting the power of the executive and trying
to smash out any form of resemblance to the old council-manager government," said
Councilman Kenneth H. Kennedy, an occasional dissenter on the council who the
mayor keeps at a distance.
"The pendulum swung too far in the other direction. That's what we're struggling
with," Kennedy said.
But the council also has evolved. It recently set up a system by which all major
candidates for appointment will be interviewed before they are hired.
Supports Council Reform
Taylor and Kennedy both say electing council members by neighborhood district
is essential in the coming years so that council members are not all beholden
to the city's centralized party apparatus. Perez said he'd have no problem with
that and, in fact, supported the idea when it was first proposed by the charter
Just as important as how city government works from an insider's perspective
is how it works for outsiders, Perez said. Having a single, elected contact person
in Hartford is key for businesses looking to move to the city, he said. Or, in
the case of WFSB, out of the city.
"The last form of government, people didn't understand and couldn't get their
head around," Perez said. "This one they can."
Perez said he has had the confidence to act as a strong mayor because city voters
approved a charter that entrusted him with more power. With the power comes accountability,
Sometimes Perez has been too confident, critics say.
Russell Williams, former head of the NAACP branch in Hartford, is part of a group
that contends the administration is not taking seriously enough a federal judge's
order to modernize the police department and make it more courteous toward minorities.
Williams' group, which represents the plaintiffs of a decades-old police brutality
lawsuit, Cintron v. Vaughn, filed a motion of contempt against the city in federal
court last month. Nicholas Carbone, another plaintiff representative and a former
deputy mayor, said he supported the new strong mayor form of government because
he hoped a stronger mayor would move more quickly to change the police department.
"There is certainly a level of arrogance within this administration," Williams
Defends His Choice
In other police matters, the mayor's strong stance paid off.
Perez stood defiant in the face of the state's police licensing agency, insisting
that his new police chief, Patrick J. Harnett, was eligible to serve despite
not being certified as a police officer in the state. The state board ruled that
Harnett, 61, a veteran of the New York City Police Department, would have to
go through basic training. Harnett, with the backing of the city, sued.
Now the board appears to be backing off. Some residents were angry at the gamble
Perez took. Others say it showed conviction.
"It's very easy to be a popular mayor when the job is kissing babies, going to
baptisms and shaking hands," La Fontaine said, referring to figurehead mayors
of the past.
"What people tend to forget," La Fontaine said, "is that before this administration,
you couldn't count on one hand any initiatives done by any of the previous mayors.
Very, very light stuff."
Perez has been raising money, for example, to increase the city's dismal homeownership
rate by 5 percent. And he set a goal of increasing the number of Hartford students
who attend four-year colleges. Both initiatives are in their early phases.
And so is Perez's strong mayor administration, said former Mayor Michael P. Peters.
The best time to judge it is not now, he said, but at the end of Perez's first
four-year term in 2007.
Voters should ask themselves then whether the schools are better, the streets
are safer and the city more successful, Peters said. If the answer is yes, the
charter makes clear who deserves the credit. If the answer is no, the charter
makes clear who you can blame.
"Power isn't handed to you. You earn power," Peters said. "I don't care what
the charter says."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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