Lawyer Hired By Hartford Council Says Mayor Can't Reject Their Budget Cuts
By JENNA CARLESSO
May 30, 2013
HARTFORD —— Mayor Pedro Segarra does not have the authority to reject or amend the city council's cuts to his proposed budget, an independent lawyer hired by the council wrote in an opinion issued Thursday.
Steven Mednick of New Haven was asked earlier this week to provide an opinion on whether Segarra has the power to reject cuts made to his $543.9 million budget. The council last week cut $8.6 million from Segarra's proposed budget, including reductions of $2 million to the police department and $1 million to the fire department.
The mayor responded by rejecting more than half of those cuts, opting for $3.9 million in reductions instead of $8.6 million.
Mednick wrote in a judgment submitted to the council Thursday that the mayor can disapprove any "new items of expenditure" and may reduce any "increased items of expenditure," but that there is no reference in the city charter to "the mayor's ability to otherwise modify, resurrect or restore" items that are reduced or stricken by the council.
The council's actions last week fall within the categories of reduced or stricken items, Mednick said.
"What is more, while the mayor purports to disapprove, he is actually disapproving, in part, and modifying, in part, by proposing an alteration to the amount of reduction proposed by the council," he wrote. "There are no words in the charter which give the mayor the ability to propose such modifications as a counterweight to the council authority to decrease or strike items of expenditure.
"There is no authority for the proposition that a mayor may disapprove (or modify) items reduced or stricken by the council."
Mednick added that the council "acted clearly within the parameters of its authority" and concluded: "If the drafters of the charter wanted to confer upon the mayor the authority to 'disapprove' an item or items of expenditure 'reduced' or 'stricken' by the council, they could have done so."
Segarra said Thursday that despite the opinion, he still hopes to work with the council to reach a budget agreement.
"I have received the outside opinion and forwarded it to [the city's] corporation counsel," he said in a prepared statement. "Per the charter, they have jurisdiction over this matter and they will render a formal response. The outside opinion does not change my willingness to continue to work with council to craft a consensus budget that doesn't compromise public safety or cause major disruption to essential city services."
Saundra Kee Borges, the city's corporation counsel, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Council members raised concerns last week about whether Segarra has the legal authority to reject their cuts. The city charter states, "The mayor may reduce or disapprove any item or items of expenditure in any proposed appropriation."
In an internal memo sent to council members last week, Jonathan Beamon, a senior assistant corporation counsel, provided a different view from Mednick's, saying: "The mayor appears to retain the power to reduce or disapprove of items in a proposed appropriation. The council would need seven affirmative votes to override the mayor's reduction or disapproval of the item or items."
Some councilors said Thursday they want to work with the mayor on the budget cuts.
Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, a Democrat, said reaching a consensus with Segarra would ensure the budget gets approved on time. The deadline to adopt the plan is Friday.
"What I don't want to have happen is for us not to pass a budget," Kennedy said, noting that if no new budget is adopted, the spending plan for the current fiscal year would remain in place — plus contractual increases, which could drive up the tax rate. "This could go back and forth, and the best thing at this time is to try to reach an agreement."
Kennedy said he would probably agree to a reduction of $5 million to $6 million from Segarra's original budget proposal.
Council President Shawn Wooden, another Democrat, said he also hopes to reach a deal with the mayor. Mednick's judgment should dictate how future budget negotiations play out, he said.
"It is a solid legal opinion from one of the most knowledgeable people in the state about Hartford's charter and its history that sets the stage going forward for future mayors and councils in understating the proper scope of authority," he said.
The council will meet Friday at noon to address the budget. Wooden said he is confident that a new plan will be adopted.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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