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Hybrid Hartford Council Would Shift Power From Mayor

Hartford Courant

May 30, 2009

Hartford's city charter was revised in 2002 to create a strong-mayor form of government. It has since become clear that the intended balance of power between the city council and the mayor tilted too heavily toward the mayor. Changes proposed by the charter revision commission will go a long way toward correcting the imbalance.

The most far-reaching change proposed is to expand the council from nine members elected at-large to a 13-member hybrid model, with five members elected by district and eight members elected at-large.

We agree with the mix but not the expansion.

Having some members elected from districts ensures that every part of the city, particularly neighborhoods that tend to be underrepresented, will be at the table. As important, a district candidate with a local power base will not be as dependent on the mayor's goodwill and fundraising ability to get elected, and thus will tend to be more independent.

The downside is that district candidates might be absorbed in local issues at the expense of the citywide big picture. This sometimes happens under the present system. If it becomes a problem, members will have to learn to negotiate. And with some at-large members on the council, there should be adequate representation of the long view.

So the hybrid council can work without expanding it. Adding four council members, with salary, benefits and an aide for each could add $400,000 to the budget. The city shouldn't be adding a nickel to the budget that isn't absolutely necessary, and this change isn't.

Hartford is a small city. A council made up of five district members and four elected at-large will suffice. Some may argue that this is unfair to members of minority parties; we disagree. With smaller areas to work in, members of minority parties have a better chance of building local support in district elections, and can always run for at-large seats.

Other proposals also refine the balance of power. For example, the new charter would create a five-member ethics commission, but give the mayor only one of the appointments.

Another provision requires that the mayor serve as a nonvoting ex-officio member of the board of education, but not as chairman, as Eddie Perez did. The mayor would retain his authority to appoint five school board members under the proposed new charter, but we would object to the mayor having a vote on the board as well.

The city was right to change to a strong-mayor system. It was probably inevitable that imperfections in the 2002 charter would be discovered in the shakedown period. The charter commission has done yeoman service in identifying the weak spots and recommending improvements.

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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