Hartford Mayor Looks To Reshape His Administration
By JENNA CARLESSO
June 30, 2013
HARTFORD —— When Jared Kupiec resigned as Mayor Pedro Segarra's chief of staff on June 3, he was the fourth high-ranking city official to leave in the past year.
Kupiec's exit was the latest in a string of departures that included the fire chief and chief operating officer. Key leadership positions in the human resources and information technology offices also haven't been filled.
But, far from being concerned, Segarra said he sees the openings as an opportunity to recalibrate and rebuild his administration, and to improve communication — something considered lacking in areas of city government.
"It's time for me to evaluate what's working and what can be improved," Segarra said. "We are going to look carefully at all aspects of city government and push ourselves to work more efficiently and effectively to address the burdens our taxpayers face."
It's been a difficult year for Segarra. Last winter, his collaboration with the city council began to dissolve. The legislative body, which once approved most appointments and initiatives put forth by the mayor, began to rebuff his ideas. Members said they weren't getting enough information beforehand, and they hadn't been approached for their own thoughts and opinions.
At the same time, Kupiec — considered the mayor's liaison to state and local politicians — didn't develop relationships with councilors and was often at odds with the city's former chief operating officer, David Panagore, observers said.
Segarra and other city leaders are now working to repair some of the damaged relationships.
"Obviously, there will still be disagreements," said Juan Figueroa, a former state representative who is serving as the mayor's interim chief of staff, "but, ultimately, it's finding out what can be done and compromising so we can service the residents of this city."
While Segarra's relationships with some council members began to unravel earlier this year, rapport with others was never established to begin with, observers said.
"We weren't speaking to each other, we were speaking at each other," Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, a Democrat, recalled. "The mayor and the council's relationship really got off course."
Kupiec, 30, worked as a deputy campaign manager for former gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont before being hired by Segarra in 2010.
"He didn't come into the job with a host of local relationships," Shawn Wooden, the council president, said of Kupiec. "I'd like to see dramatic improvements between the chief of staff and council in terms of communication and the timeliness of what's communicated. We want to know what's happening with major initiatives, what's happening with city departments."
Kupiec did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Council members, who are charged with approving several key mayoral appointments, said they haven't been asked to provide input on candidates for the open positions and were notified of the mayor's selections only a short time before the public became aware of them.
"I don't think the mayor has been very inclusive with some of the decisions he's made," Kennedy said, "and he hasn't taken the council into account when proposing major budget or policy initiatives."
Councilors in April indicated that they would not approve Segarra's top choices for chief operating officer and corporation counsel — Saundra Kee Borges and Figueroa, respectively. Council members said at the time that they weren't consulted about the appointments and didn't like the direction the administration was going in. The mayor later withdrew his nominations.
Kee Borges, a former city manager, has been Hartford's corporation counsel since 2010. Figueroa worked previously as president of Connecticut's Universal Health Care Foundation and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"You can't keep a big appointment a secret because someone might disagree with you," Kennedy said. "I just saw some arrogance that basically conveyed: We're the government, we can do what we want."
Relationships within the administration were strained as well. Panagore, the former chief operating officer, said that he and the chief of staff both reported directly to the mayor. And although one is a political appointment and the other is not, the city charter isn't clear about which one has authority over the other. Some responsibilities overlap, he said.
"If the charter allows the opportunity for competition, you may wind up in instances where that gets exploited," Panagore said. "The question is, how much authority does the mayor give the chief operating officer vs. the chief of staff? So long as the positions remain the way they are, it creates conditions that the mayor always has to resolve. I can't say it's worked out really well."
The lack of communication reached a boiling point during the last budget cycle, when council members made deep cuts to Segarra's proposed spending plan and quietly threatened to override the mayor after he rejected some of those reductions. They even hired an outside attorney to provide an opinion on whether the mayor can disprove their budget amendments. The attorney said he cannot.
Ultimately, both sides agreed on a budget for 2013-14.
The actions of some departed city leaders have also tainted the administration. Documents showing that Kupiec charged a $707 New Year's Eve dinner — attended by the mayor and Kee Borges, among others — to his city-issued credit card touched off a media frenzy and left many questioning the administration's judgment. Kupiec and Segarra eventually reimbursed the city for the dinner.
In 2011, Eric Jackson, who headed Metro Hartford Information Services, the city's information technology office, resigned amid allegations that he had sexually harassed at least one city employee.
Michael McGarry, chairman of the city's Republican town committee, said the focus should be on the city's tax structure, job creation and finding new sources of revenue, not on scandals.
Things like the New Year's Eve dinner "have helped lead to a massive turnover in personnel, which could hurt us because they're going to have to start from scratch," he said.
In the four weeks since he started work with the city, Figueroa, the interim chief of staff, has met with each city council member individually and attended the panel's meetings.
"We need to increase, and be consistent with, communication and engaging the council," he said. "We have to create a sense of common purpose between the mayor's office and the council."
As a former Hartford state representative, Figueroa already has forged many relationships with state and local officials, including council members. Bringing him into city hall signals that the mayor wants to improve relations, Figueroa said.
"The council and the mayor were both elected to govern and get things done," he said. "You can't do that if you're not talking to each other."
Figueroa cautioned, however, that both sides must work to improve the relationship.
"It's a two-way street," he said. "We in the administration need to go out of our way to include the council and communicate with them, and the council needs to do the same thing."
Albert Ilg, a part-time city employee assisting in the administrative transition, said one goal is to bring council members into the loop when candidates are being considered for major city positions.
"I think they have to be involved before a final decision is made by the mayor," Ilg, a former Windsor town manager, said. "They have to approve the appointments. [Segarra] needs to get their thinking."
The city is looking to hire a recruiting firm to assist in the search for several high-ranking positions. It intends to launch a request for proposals by the end of the month and hire a firm by the end of July, Ilg said.
Segarra said he is aiming to fill the chief operating officer and chief of staff positions by the end of October. Ilg said he hopes to have a new human resources director by the end of September. The head of Metro Hartford Information Services will be chosen later in the year.
There is no estimate yet for when a new fire chief might be appointed, Segarra said. Chief Edward Casares Jr. retired on June 15. Panagore resigned in September 2012, and former Human Resources Director Valda Washington, who had been in the position for a year, left in March.
Segarra said he is dedicated to improving his relationships with the city council and shaping the roles of chief operating officer and chief of staff so there's not as much overlap in responsibility.
The mayor said the administration will more quickly address constituent concerns, something that city council members noted as needing improvement. Wooden said that some residents and neighborhood groups felt there was a lack of outreach from Kupiec.
"When people call with questions or concerns about departments, they're going to get answered," Segarra said.
The new chief of staff should come into the job with strong local and state ties, Wooden said, as well as government experience.
"If a chief of staff is going to serve the mayor well, he or she has got to be a proxy to the mayor and have connections with the state legislative delegation, community-based organizations, the business chamber," Wooden said. "We're hoping for a better relationship between the mayor and the council, and the chief of staff is a good linchpin to making that happen."
The next chief operating officer should have "significant" management experience and "know how to get bureaucracies to move," he added.
McGarry said the city should hire a COO who can sell the city.
"Rebuilding our tax base should be the No. 1 priority," he said. "We should look at retired CEOs with some governmental experience who have contacts all over the country. We don't need a bureaucrat who knows how to move pencils around."
John Kennelly, a former city councilman, said the new administrative appointees should be committed to exploring "new, big ideas for the city," and be able to highlight the good work being done.
"They need to be proactive in communicating things like just how significant a drop in gun violence there's been," he said. "That has a huge impact on quality of life, and you don't hear about it."
But as Segarra redefines roles and works to repair relationships, council members said, he must remember that change starts at the top.
"I hope the recalibration is coming from the top," Wooden said. "The mayor has to lead by setting the right example."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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