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Report Slams Hartford's Anti-Blight Initiative

Managers 'In Dire Need Of Professional Leadership Training'

By JENNA CARLESSO

August 31, 2012

HARTFORD A preliminary internal review of a city anti-blight initiative found that city managers involved in the effort designed to "engender a new level of accountability" failed to properly supervise their employees and are "in dire need of professional leadership training."

The report also says that bills for at least $27,571 worth of city work done to clean up blighted private properties as part of the livable and sustainable neighborhoods initiative (LSNI) contain so many discrepancies that none of them should be sent out.

The report was completed by the chief operating officer and corporation counsel's offices. A final version is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

It points to a breakdown in communication and coordination among the initiative's four team captains and other city departments, including housing, health and human services, public works and license and inspection. The breakdown led to numerous discrepancies in the paperwork for the private property cleanups, the report states.

"City departments outside of LSNI continue to exhibit fiefdom-like cultures that create difficulties in coordinating city response to constituent concerns," the report says.

Mayor Pedro Segarra, Corporation Counsel Saundra Kee Borges and David Panagore, the chief operating officer, did not return multiple calls seeking comment Friday.

The initiative was designed to be "a blight strike force" to "pinpoint targets in vulnerable areas and complete designated projects within two years," Segarra wrote in The Courant in June 2011. The city hired four team captains to coordinate blight cleanup in four districts the north, south, west and central areas.

The public works department cleaned 37 properties whose owners were in violation of the city's blight ordinances and had failed to correct the problems when notified. But the city's license and inspection department, which was responsible for tallying up the work and billing the owners, had records for only 13 of the properties cleaned.

According to the report, it became apparent to initiative employees in March and April that the public works and license and inspection departments "were not willing to take on the responsibility of generating invoices for the work performed by LSNI clean city crews," according to the report.

The city is owed at least $27.571.86 for work performed on the 13 properties, but by early August it still hadn't billed the property owners. It was unclear Friday if any bills have been sent.

The report also recommends further investigation into the license and inspection department.

'No One Answers'

When the neighborhoods initiative was being developed, the city's housing division director, Yasha Escalera, and program manager, Julianne Lugo, notified city officials about various programs run by the division that could help property owners pay for necessary repairs. The suggestion was designed to create incentives for the property owners to comply with the city's anti-blight ordinance, according to the report.

City officials later developed a "preliminary anti-blight ordinance letter," which advised owners of blighted properties that the city had programs and information available to help them.

But attorneys from the corporation counsel's office researched the housing division's programs and found that the programs "did not functionally exist beyond the planning stages," the report says. Housing officials disputed those claims and assured that the programs were funded, it says.

After the preliminary letters began to circulate, the report says, "LSNI repeatedly received complaints from property owners stating that when they try to contact the housing division to find out about the funding opportunities, no one answers the phone or returns their calls."

"Of note is that of the 175 property owners [that] have received preliminary notices to date, LSNI has not been able to confirm whether any property owner has received funding," according to the report. "One property was pushed through the process by LSNI members but the housing division delayed the paperwork to the point that the property owner reneged after months of waiting for financial assistance."

The report says that city managers in several departments, including health and human services, housing,and license and inspection, didn't provide the proper oversight to employees involved in the initiative.

"Since the inception of the LSNI program, the housing division has repeatedly failed to coordinate its efforts due to lack of 'buy-in' from Director Yasha Escalera," the report says.

Escalera could not be reached for comment Friday.

Raul Pino, the health and human services director, said Friday that he could not comment because he had not seen the report.

The report also concluded: "There is still a need for improving coordination between all departments in order to streamline city responses and outcomes."

Positive Outcomes

While the report focused on many problems, it also revealed some of the program's successes.

The city's ability to follow through on complaints has helped demonstrate that it is serious about enforcing blight ordinances, it says.

"LSNI's influence has reached property owners who, although [they] have not been directly targeted by LSNI have felt pressure to begin work on their properties because they have become aware that the city is serious about enforcement," according to the report. "Nothing has produced more results than the ability of LSNI team members to follow a complaint" from the beginning to resolution.

City officials have not said whether the initiative would be restructured or continue operating as is. Its supervisor, Jonas Maciunas, has been reassigned to the development services' complete street program, city officials have said.

Panagore took over as head of the initiative, but has since resigned from his job as chief operating officer, effective Sept. 14.

The report recommends that employees involved in the initiative undergo training.

"The COO's office has discussed procedures that will ensure accountability throughout the city's departments," the report says. "These procedures must be implemented and training must begin immediately."

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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