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Hartford Mayor Perez Wise To Give Up School Duties

Stan Simpson

February 18, 2009

It's not every day that a commander in chief concedes power without a significant struggle or a lost election.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez's surprising decision this week to relinquish his role as chairman of the school board and its school building committee is a major concession. The man arrested a month ago on bribery charges is indicating his power consolidation game is no longer worth it.

However this criminal case turns out for Perez, he is already guilty of violating Hartford's ethics code by having a city contractor do renovations at his home. Perez compounded that violation by getting arrested after allegedly lying about his payment for that work.I was not one of those opposed to the mayor's consolidation of power in 2005. It was there for the taking. Perez grabbed it. Granted, he did so with zeal, annexing the school board, controlling the billion-dollar school construction project and even becoming the de facto head of the Democratic Party.

Before a new strong mayor government in 2004, city residents and stakeholders complained long and loud about a lack of leadership and accountability at city hall. No one, they said, was in charge. Now they had a mayor willing to take the reins of everything it seemed and some were grumbling.

The compliant city council elected with Perez wasn't as ambitious. While quietly griping about having little clout in the new government, council members failed to exercise the autonomy granted them in the charter.

For example, the council approves the budget, which means it can have influence and control spending. It also has the power to approve the hiring of department heads, appointments to boards and commissions, and ordinances.

To buck the mayor, of course, would have meant suffering consequences, being ignored and isolated.

Hence, the group earned the nickname "the bobblehead council." It's only been in the last year that this new, more independent-minded board has been less apt to rubber stamp the mayor's wishes.

A new charter revision commission will present proposed changes in May. Though many constituents are talking about giving the council more power, the dirty little secret of this charter is that the council has plenty of power now, but rarely used it.

"The notion that the council has no power in this document is ridiculous," charter revision commission Chairman Richard Wareing said Tuesday. He was also a member of the previous commission that changed city government from a weak mayorformatto "strong" mayor. It was, Wareing said, the right move.

"I prefer the strong mayor system," he said. "It's a better system when you have one person for executive authority. I do not believe that scrapping strong mayor is the way to go because we now find ourselves with a mayor who has problems."

Fair enough. The commission, however, must now look at whether it wants the mayor to be able to run the school board as well, and even to appoint the majority of the nine-member panel.

Certainly, having city hall and the school board on the same page when it comes to vision and funding is a plus for the budget process. But being both mayor and school board chairman are time-consuming duties, each with enormous responsibilities.

These are unusually trying times in the capital city. There are distractions galore criminally, financially, politically. The mayor lightening his load as he keeps his attention on his job, and his defense, was the right thing to do.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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