With the political career of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez pulling up lame, the jockeying for "favorite" in the 2011 election has begun.
Perez was arraigned on bribery, fabricating evidence and conspiracy to fabricate evidence charges Tuesday at Superior Court in Hartford. Later in the evening, his city council convened a special meeting and unsuccessfully tried to roll Perez's hand-picked council President Calixto Torres. Torres has not been accused of any crime, mind you; he's just guilty of being too close to the mayor. And, by charter, he's next in line to succeed Perez if the mayor steps aside or is removed.
At a packed and emotional council meeting, the vote to remove Torres fell one short of the six needed. Memo to Councilmen Matt Ritter and Kenneth Kennedy: Fellas, if you're gonna stage a coup, make sure you have the votes.
Ritter and Kennedy are widely expected to be competing for mayor in 2011 or sooner. The plan Tuesday was to make Councilman Pedro Segarra council president, which means by charter he would be the one to finish Perez's term.
This is a good time to be speaking about the city charter because a commission that had already been convened to tweak the current document is meeting this week. There will never be a better time to put in place procedures to give more voice and equity to the council. When your mayor is facing corruption charges four years after the city switched to a "strong mayor" government, there's a problem.
Just a hunch, but the days of the mayor also being president of the school board and school building committee are likely a thing of the past. Until recently, the city council has been a compliant bunch, cowed into silence and fearing retribution if they bucked the mayor.
"We do need strong mayor," said I. Charles Mathews, a former deputy mayor in the 1990s, who unsuccessfully challenged Perez in the 2007 election. "We do need a place where the buck can stop. But I think the mistake we made is that we didn't assure that there were enough checks and balances. We put a system together that allows the mayor to not only control city hall, but to control the Democratic Party, the town committee, the department heads ... everything. And then everyone else in the city lost their voice, lost their courage, lost their ability to provide oversight."
Depending on where you stand, Perez's management style either contributed to his current legal problems or became emblematic of them. He often operated in secrecy, circumvented rules and there was even a fictitious personal e-mail account — "Willie Nunez" — to which selected city-related correspondence was routed. His corporation counsel office acted as if it was there to serve the mayor's best interests and not Hartford's. Meanwhile, Perez's administration acted with no regard and great disdain for freedom of information laws.
All this charter revision commission has to do is dissect the Perez management style and put procedures in place that mandate the opposite.
A revised charter should also include definitions of the word transparency — "easily understood, very clear; easily recognized or detected; without guile or concealment" — so there is no misunderstanding.
For now, though, residents and stakeholders must deal with a leadership crisis in the capital city. The mayor is focused on avoiding prison. The nine-member city council delivered what essentially was a vote of no confidence in its president. More arrests are coming. These distractions come in the midst of the most unprecedented financial turmoil in the city's and state's modern history.
And the two contenders who would be mayor have already spit the bit.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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