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Segarra's 1st Year: High Marks For Advocacy, Low On Execution

Jenna Carlesso

June 22, 2011

HARTFORD When Pedro Segarra first stepped into the mayor's office, the city was reeling from the resignation of his predecessor, Eddie Perez, who was convicted last June of felony corruption charges.

Segarra moved quickly to restore trust in city government.

A year later, while most people acknowledge that Segarra is a strong advocate for the city, he's drawn criticism on some fronts for failing to take bold steps to alleviate major problems, such as rising crime and blighted buildings.

"I think the strongest thing Pedro Segarra has brought to Hartford is a sense that he is honest, trustworthy and sincere in his love of the city and his desire for it to be better," said state Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford.

PHOTOS: Pedro Segarra's First Year In Office

"But it's not sufficient just to bring back confidence and trust. I'd like to see the mayor be more aggressive," he continued.

Fonfara recalled the years that followed former Gov. John G. Rowland's resignation in 2004 amid a corruption scandal. The lieutenant governor, M. Jodi Rell, took over.

"When Jodi Rell replaced John Rowland she did a really good job of bringing back confidence in government, and she got high marks for that," Fonfara said, "but in the end, I think many people felt that her interest in using the power of the governor's office was not what it needed to be.

"I'm hoping Pedro will not follow that path and that he will leverage the power of his office."

Edwin Vargas, a longtime city resident who is opposing Segarra in the upcoming mayoral election, was more blunt. He said city hall "continues to be run by the bureaucracy."

"There are a lot of problems not being addressed," said Vargas, who like Segarra is a Democrat. "It's business as usual. There's been no major overhaul at city hall."

Vargas said the mayor, though visible at events and activities around the city, should be more of a hands-on manager.

"He hasn't really taken off the jacket, rolled up his sleeves and gotten down into the nitty-gritty of running government," he said. "You need to make sure bureaucracy is serving the people paying taxes, not hoping the city will run itself as you go around doing public relations."

Segarra dismisses charges that he's merely a figurehead trying to boost morale.

During an interview at city hall Tuesday, he noted that his first budget, adopted last month, does not require layoffs yet reduces the city's tax rate.

He pointed to accomplishments that include organizing a citywide cleanup of the parks, leading a campaign to rip down two famously blighted buildings one has been razed and championing efforts to install an outdoor skating rink at Bushnell Park that attracted thousands to the city during the holidays.

"The first year was a lot of work in restoring trust and transparency, dealing with finances and developing a new way of doing business," Segarra said. "Now, going forward, we're looking to implement a lot of the ideas we've come up with to make the city greener, to promote employment and continue the trend of improving our education system."

Segarra was sworn in as the city's 66th mayor on June 25, the same day Perez resigned. Perez had been convicted of five corruption-related charges, including bribery and extortion, a week earlier. He was sentenced in September to three years in prison, but is free on bail pending an appeal.

Under the city's charter, Segarra, as council president, became mayor.

"I think a lot of people were very nervous about the future of the city. I wanted to make sure that didn't become the final blow," he said, referring to Perez's conviction. "Part of the mayor's job is to bring optimism, and I think I impart that optimism on a lot of people I meet."

State Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents the city's Frog Hollow and Parkville neighborhoods, said Segarra is a "more open, honest" leader.

"I really like the system now and how he's working," Gonzalez said. "He listens. He's well-qualified and prepared and he knows what is good for this city."

R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, CEO of MetroHartford Alliance, pointed to Segarra's willingness to support legislation, passed this spring, that links future Hartford property assessments to increases or decreases in the city's tax rate. He also noted Segarra's efforts to connect with residents and the business community.

"I think Pedro has made a real strong effort to reach out," Griebel said. "He's a different person than [Perez]. He has a different style."

Segarra described that style as more inclusive soliciting recommendations and listening to others.

"I'm criticized for not being stronger, but sometimes you're stronger for listening to other people," he said. "I have a certain style that I think people will come to see is a more effective way to get things done than to bully."

Crime has become a recent concern, especially about the rising number of homicides 17 so far this year, well ahead of last year's pace.

Asked what he would say to residents who are scared to leave their homes at night, Segarra replied: "We don't have a monopoly on crime.

"We've had homicides where Hartford residents have been victims in other towns. Suburban towns have crimes. We need to involve state and regional efforts in dealing with crime. It's part of city living, but people also live in cities because of the benefits of transportation, arts, culture, museums and parks."

Segarra noted that his 2011-12 budget calls for hiring more police and firefighters.

"I think we can do better and we're trying to do better," he said. "We need to make sure future police officers are well-trained, receptive and engaged."

Serafin Mendez, a professor at Central Connecticut State University, said he had high hopes when Segarra became mayor. But the city resident, who counts both Segarra and Perez as friends, is disappointed.

"He has unfortunately not reacted quickly to a wide array of problems we have in the city," Mendez said. "He has the best intentions, but he has never been trained as a politician and as such he has failed to be able to navigate the political turmoil of the city.

"He has become frozen by the status quo."

Mendez said city leaders need to "make a better effort" to control crime and clean up neighborhoods.

"I love the inner city, but I don't want to deal with the crime, the drug issues and children being killed," he said. "People trust Pedro. They know he's doing things from his heart. But he needs to move beyond his heart and make some bold decisions."

Segarra, looking ahead for the next several months, said he would continue his efforts addressing crime and unemployment.

He said if he's re-elected in November, his priorities would include resolving quality-of-life issues like blight and litter, expanding the city's economy and strengthening educational reform efforts.

"I have dedicated a substantial amount of my year to resolving problems that I had when I came into office. It's not like I had a clean slate," Segarra said.

"But I'm getting to a point where I have a canvas on which I can start doing my own piece of art."

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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