This is one of the hardest articles I've ever written about public life — because I truly like Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. He is a caring father and husband, a good friend to many and often shows an understanding that has helped many people.
Several years ago, for example, my wife, Marguerite, was in Hartford Hospital with a serious illness. Mayor Eddie stopped by, after hours, with flowers, and stayed for more than a half-hour. There was no political benefit to him (in fact, I had just run against him). It was just a nice gesture.
Until his recent arrests on charges of bribery and extortion, Eddie Perez was a symbol and role model as one who worked his way up from humble beginnings. In the light of current circumstances, however, we must discuss the situation in Hartford and ask if, at this time, Hartford is well served by the Perez administration.
We must ask: How can the city make any progress with the mayor's problems mounting up? Let's review the obvious difficulties:
• The grand list is stagnant. We've built a few garages and warehouses while major corporations leave and businesses close.
• Taxes have gone way up, especially for businesses. A specter of 100 mills for commercial properties is looming.
• Park Street is becoming shoddy again after a $6 million streetscape investment (and facade expenditures). Other commercial strips show vacancies.
• Homeownership is slipping with as many foreclosures as sales. Abandoned homes remind one the Perry years. It's ironic that former Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry was in last week's photo backing the current mayor.
• Although crime is down in some categories, few think our quality of life is improving. Broken windows, litter, dead trees and graffiti set a tone.
The big problem overriding everything else is the city's financial situation. Once something to be proud of, our fund balance is now down to $17 million, less than half the expected 7 percent of the annual budget most towns save. And next year's budget is practically impossible to fathom. Taxes cannot go much higher — we may already have reached the point of diminishing returns — and most city departments are just shells. What goes next, police and fire?
On top of all this, the mayor's staff is dissolving. Chief of Staff Matt Hennessy has stepped down, and experienced hands wonder how Mayor Eddie can operate without Hennessy the Hammer. Chief Operating Officer Lee Erdmann has left with all his knowledge. Clarence Corbin was fired as the director of public works, leaving an undermanned, dysfunctional operation. Another blow was the loss of longtime city clerk Daniel Carey this week.
Dozens of other mid-management employees were pensioned off or laid off in a massive brain drain. Even revenue-generating departments are woefully understaffed. Add to this the ongoing mayor vs. council battle — Mayor Eddie started his term with nine votes on the council; now he has two.
So, if Hartford has any prospects for stability and growth, something has to change and soon. Suggestions have been made that the mayor cannot serve effectively while on trial. Running a $535 million operation from the dock is nearly impossible. No judge would allow cellphones or BlackBerries in the courtroom.
Possibly a fair arrangement could be made allowing the mayor to step aside, a temporary disability-type deal, a leave with full pay, health insurance and with the assurance that he could return if found not guilty.
This whole situation is — since State Statute 7-101A was passed in 2005 in the wake of the Rowland affair — fraught with danger for accused public officials. If the mayor is found guilty, the city can demand that legal fees be repaid to the city and the state's attorney general could even go after pension rights.
All this said, the mayor's bravado of holding rallies after court action is pretty sad. A quiet statement of innocence would have been more fitting and probably more effective. What a burden this man now faces: illness in his family, a collapsing city government and serious legal troubles.
Maybe it is time for the city and its citizens to come first. Maybe it's time for a full-time mayor, as was promised.
One man, whatever his qualifications or experience (Mayor Eddie certainly has both) cannot allow his troubles to negatively affect the lives of 120,000 people. Hartford's difficult circumstances demand the kind of stability provided by a mayor who has the time and energy to lead. We certainly don't have that now.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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