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Hartford Council Flexing Its Muscle

Stan Simpson

August 23, 2008

Until now, the knock on Hartford's city council was that it was a compliant bunch, a virtual rubber stamp in a strong-mayor government, a group paralyzed in its deference to Eddie Perez.

That's fixing to change.

The recent standoff between the council and Perez about the reopening of two branch libraries is obviously about politics, personality conflicts with library leaders and power struggles over whose voice should have the most influence in making public policy. But this issue is more about the nine-member council's finally finding its voice, asserting its independence and signaling that it's much more willing to challenge the mayor and risk his wrath.

For the past six years, the council has been the skinny kid at the beach getting sand kicked in its face by its chief executive, who is fortified with charter powers to call the shots. Last year's election, however, added three new faces to the council. Young Matt Ritter, the scion of a prominent political family and destined to one day run for mayor, and Larry Deutsch and Luis Cotto, two progressive-minded third-party candidates.

The three political rookies have changed the dynamic of the council at a time when Perez's future is in doubt because he's the target of a grand jury investigation into corruption. Also, a new charter revision commission is expected to consider giving the council more clout in decision-making.

A unanimous council resolution Aug. 11 to spend $200,000 to reopen the library branches was a defiant act because it rebuffed Perez's position that the library already had the resources it needed to reopen the branches. The council action, which Perez insists is non-binding, came after it previously pushed for an immigration bill that Perez begrudgingly supported.

Now, some council members are calling for a special meeting to review the library matter.

"Some council members are starting to think a little more independently, calling an issue as they see it and not necessarily agreeing with the position of the administration," said veteran Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, who has had a turbulent relationship with Perez. "I think this is actually what you have to have when you have a strong-mayor form of government. You have to have a counterbalance to balance out the strong authority of the mayor."

Cotto said council members are reassessing their roles as public servants.

"Basically, what it comes down to is that the mayor has been used to a certain response by his council, led by the majority, which of course is his own party," Cotto said. "And so you get this perception that there's a rubber stamp. ... I would say that the council is specifically weighing what it is to be a council member in this day and age of a strong mayor."

While the council has become more emboldened, Perez has let them know he's not pleased. "I did want you to know that I am concerned about the tone and tenor of recent city council meetings," Perez wrote in an Aug. 19 letter to council President Calixto Torres that took issue with the procedures used to adopt the library resolution. "The meetings have begun to take on the characteristics of the city council meetings of the '80s and '90s that did so much to harm the ability of city government to function."

Add one more major concern to the plate of Eddie Perez in what has been a tumultuous year of budget cuts, street violence and a criminal investigation into his administration.

A city council that the strong mayor was hoping would always have his back is starting to flex its own muscle.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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