June 19, 2006
By DANIEL E. GOREN, Courant Staff Writer
It's not really her job, but Janet Wallans has been taking notes, in Braille, ever since Hartford stopped sending staff to keep official minutes for the city's Commission on Disability Issues.
She's not alone. Along with members of several other volunteer commissions in the city, Wallans, who is visually impaired, said the clerical and administrative help the city once supplied has dwindled to almost nothing over the years.
"The help we get has been reduced constantly," said Wallans, who chairs the disabilities commission.
Now the problem could get even worse.
In an effort to eliminate what Mayor Eddie A. Perez describes as "non-essential mandates" in Hartford's municipal code, he wants to remove a requirement forcing the city to supply staff to three city commissions - the Permanent Commission on the Status of Hartford Women, the Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues and the Commission on Disability Issues.
Any move that involves further reduction to the help those commissions receive would be devastating, volunteers on all three commissions say. The commissions rely heavily on city staff to take minutes at meetings, write and send official correspondence and navigate city hall's often labyrinthine structure, they said.
And while most said they believe Perez has good intentions, many question targeting the commissions that protect some of the city's most vulnerable populations. The annual savings in staffing and supplies would total about $25,000 a year.
"I can't sit here and say they are trying to [hurt] us and that they don't like queer people," said Regina Dyton, a member of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues Commission. "But it definitely sends the message that these populations aren't as important. And when it comes with working with the public, perception is at least as important as fact. Every politician knows that."
Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff, said Perez is not singling out any one community of people, especially those whose causes he has championed in the past.
And the changes - recommended by the city's finance department - do not necessarily mean cuts, he said.
Instead, the mayor wants "flexibility" during budget time to debate how much money the commissions deserve. As it stands now, Hennessy said, even having a mandate is not ensuring that the commissions receive proper staffing.
Some of the commissions may deserve more money, not less, Hennessy said. He also said the city plans to take a broader look at what sort of help it is required to provide to a number of other commissions.
"This properly belongs in the budget debate," Hennessy said. "If the council does not appropriate funds, then no one gets any support ...We should be talking about the work that many of these commissions do."
But Councilwoman Elizabeth Horton Sheff said the only way to ensure that the city provide staff to the commissions is to require it. By allowing the choice, the city is leaving the commissions to fend for themselves, she said.
"These are volunteers who come to help us, and we are going to take away their clerical support?" Horton Sheff said. "I am vehemently against changing those ordinances."
The three commissions, which make recommendations to the mayor, are charged with eliminating bigotry and discrimination against the city's women; disabled persons; and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. They also work to remove barriers that prevent those populations from having a better, healthier life.
For example, the women's commission was instrumental in starting a mobile mammography screening program in Hartford to help women identify the early stages of breast cancer. The disabilities commission aims to ensure that new construction projects in the city are wheelchair accessible.
And the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues Commission recently held a public forum at city hall to discuss the safety and education of sexual and gender minority students in Hartford's public schools.
All three commissions fall under the auspices of the city's Office of Human Relations, which in the past has supplied a liaison to each commission to help it do its work. But cutbacks to the city's budget have hobbled the office's ability to provide that help.
"We have an extremely good working relationship with the mayor. So I don't think this is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-lesbian or anti-disability," said Ann Z. Leventhal, the chairwoman of the women's commission. "But it would be terrible for us to lose our staff."
The mayor submitted the suggested ordinance changes to the city council last week. The council will hold a public hearing on the matter in its chambers tonight at 7.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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