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Latino And Puerto Rican Panel Ousts Longtime Director

By JON LENDER | Courant Staff Writer

September 20, 2008

Many in the Latino community are upset that the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission has voted to fire the only director it has ever had.

The job status of the agency's 13-year executive director, Fernando Betancourt, was unclear Friday, two days after the meeting at which the commission voted abruptly to dismiss him.

He was still technically employed in his $131,338-a-year post Friday, but was not at the agency's Trinity Street office in Hartford Thursday or Friday.

"He's still on our payroll," said James Tracy, personnel administrator for the General Assembly's Office of Legislative Management, but he added: "It's a personnel matter that I can't really discuss."

Betancourt, for his part, had no comment other than this: "I have already retained attorneys."

Absent an official explanation, one Hartford city councilman, Luis Cotto, suspects city politics may be the root cause for Betancourt's firing.

As word of the dismissal vote spread, a number of prominent community members spoke up for Betancourt on Friday and immediately questions surfaced about whether the commission acted according to proper procedures, and whether it even has the authority to fire him.

"I was caught by surprise," said Hartford city council President Calixto Torres. "I have known Fernando to be a highly competent, ethical, and hardworking administrator a person who is well-liked and well-respected in the broader Hispanic community, not just the Puerto Rican community."

"I don't think this is over," Torres said, because already he has heard much conversation about "due process." That includes questions of whether the commission's vote which reportedly "came out of the blue" without having been listed on the agenda for Wednesday's meeting was conducted properly.

Torres also noted that since the commission was created by the legislature, some are wondering if such a decision is a matter under the authority of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Management, not the commission.

The commission on Friday refused to release any records of its Wednesday vote or give any reason for its action. A spokesman said its official minutes of the Wednesday meeting were still being prepared and were unavailable for release. The commission's chairman, Carlos Alvarez, did not return a call to his business Friday seeking comment.

The panel has 11 members, and reportedly, after a brief dispute, someone made a motion to dismiss Betancourt, and at least five voted for it, while two voted against it.

The commission was created by state legislators in 1995 "to develop and recommend, to the governor and the legislature, policy for the advancement of Connecticut's Latino communities."

The commission, and the staff it oversees, propose legislation concerning education, civil rights, immigration reform, and issues concerning jobs, health care, and judicial reform.

Two University of Connecticut educators gave independent testimonials to Betancourt Friday based on years of working with him on community projects.

"I've always thought that he is very professional," said Julio Morales, a UConn professor emeritus of social work. "I have worked with him on lots of initiatives and projects."

"There are going to be huge numbers of individuals, from different social classes and levels of education, who are supporting him," said UConn social work professor Lirio Negron. "So far, we haven't made any decisions because things are still evolving. ... But, definitely, we are going to do something. ... We are going to organize."

Cotto, of the city council, said Betancourt has "done a wonderful job" and has "surrounded himself with wonderful people. ... Everyone except five people" a reference to Wednesday's commission vote "speaks glowingly about him."

Cotto said that Betancourt may be a victim of a political fight between supporters of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez and his adversary, state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, who waged an unsuccessful primary last year against Perez for the Democratic mayoral nomination. Gonzalez's husband, Ramon Arroyo, is a member of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.

Cotto said some may view Betancourt as somehow aligned with Perez. "It is pathetic'" that a squabble between Perez and Gonzalez supporters could lead to Betancourt's ouster, Cotto said. However, "it is my belief until I read otherwise" that the action was politically motivated, Cotto said.

Cotto said he plans to introduce a resolution at Monday's city council meeting saying that the council "strongly opposes the commissioners' decision to fire Fernando Betancourt," and that the resolution be sent to the governor and top legislative leaders. He said he hoped leaders in other cities with large Latino populations, such as New Britain and New Haven, would do the same.

Torres said he agrees with the sentiment but "I don't know that it's appropriate for the city council to weigh in on this."

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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