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Hartford Council Gives Itself Power To Compel Dept. Heads To Attend Meetings

JEFFREY B. COHEN

August 12, 2009

HARTFORD - For two months, city Councilman Pedro Segarra has asked city department heads to come to his budget meetings to talk about the city's precarious finances.

But the department heads ignored his requests, he said.

So, on Monday, the council voted to give itself the power to compel city employees to attend city meetings and provide budgetary information despite assurances from council President Calixto Torres that Mayor Eddie A. Perez had pledged better cooperation from his department heads.

"I wouldn't do it if there were not such a critically important emergency situation," Segarra said. "I feel like as a council person, as an attorney, as an elected official, that I need to protect now something that I was entrusted with."

It's uncertain, however, whether the council actually has the power to subpoena city employees. According to Corporation Counsel John Rose, it doesn't.

But council members have asked their own attorneys at the Day Pitney law firm for a second opinion.

Monday's vote came after a week of contentious letters between Segarra and Perez, beginning and ending with subpoena threats from the councilman.

Seven of the council's nine members voted on the item. Torres and Democratic Majority Leader rJo Winch abstained, while five others Luis Cotto and Minority Leader Larry Deutsch of the Working Families Party and Democrats Kenneth Kennedy, Matt Ritter and Segarra voted for it.

Torres, hoping to postpone a vote, said he had a conversation with someone at the mayor's office and was given assurances that city employees would start showing up when requested.

"This is a new fiscal year and we're facing tremendous challenges," Torres said. "We cannot be at opposite ends of the spectrum here. We have to come together."

Others, though, were skeptical.

"The administration has made several promises before for cooperation," Kennedy said. "It's always gone back to the same old pattern of we'll give you the information when we feel like it."

Deutsch made the matter one of constitutional importance. "It is indispensable that the council, the press and the public receive full disclosure," Deutsch said. "I consider it simple democracy and freedom of the press."

"If you're not coming to my committee, you're not allowing me to do my job," Cotto said. "And that, to me, is just cause" for termination, he said.

And Ritter said he was ready to fire any city department head who skips out on council meetings where attendance was requested.

"If they can't bring their butts to a Tuesday night budget meeting when we have a $15 million deficit, they should not be paid by city taxpayer dollars," Ritter said.

Perez's spokeswoman issued a statement saying that claims that city staff aren't attending council meetings are "patently false."

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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