When Hartford's charter was adopted in 2002, it wisely created an automatic review process every decade so that residents could make whatever changes were deemed necessary.
A decade has passed. The 11-member charter revision commission has begun its work, and thus far has three main areas of focus:
•Council Elections. Under the current charter, the nine members of the city council are elected at large. Some would like to that changed to election from geographical districts.
Proponents of district elections, such as Mayor Pedro Segarra, believe district election "ensures equitable coverage of all neighborhoods" and encourages expertise in local issues, he said in written testimony.
That may be so, but we believe the stronger argument favors the current at-large system. Hartford is a small city; it is not a Jacksonville or Los Angeles. A council member from the West End can find out what's going on in adjacent Asylum Hill without too much trouble.
A traditional criticism of district-based councils is that they encourage intracity squabbles at the expense of the citywide issues. Whose district gets the next senior center is vastly less important than how the entire city reduces crime and improves its job numbers, grand list and school tests scores.
Plus, there is already district representation, in the town committee and legislative districts.
Finally, there is the succession question. If the mayor leaves office, he or she is succeeded by the council president. (Mr. Segarra became mayor this way, succeeding Eddie Perez in 2010.) Though it's hard to get a grasp on every local issue, a council member becoming mayor would be better served with a citywide perspective.
These has also been some talk of expanding the council to anywhere from 15 to 30 members. The city can't afford it, period.
•School Board Composition. At present the mayor appoints five of the nine members of the board of education and the remaining four are elected. These is some sentiment to make the board seats all appointed, all elected, or a majority elected.
Here again, we think the drafters of the charter got it right a decade ago. Hartford schools and families endured decades of decline with fully elected school boards. This is a one-party town. There was no accountability. If scores declined, the board was in no danger of being voted out of office.
With the mayor able to appoint a board majority, the mayor is now responsible for school achievement. The buck stops somewhere. Residents still get to vote for four board members. We think this is a balance that serves the best interests of the city's children.
•Registrars of Voters. Making this office more professional cannot happen soon enough, although it is not clear if it can be done by charter or if a change in state law is necessary.
The city's first problem is that it has too many registrars, due to a quirk in state law. The law says the candidates for registrar of voters who garner the highest and second-highest number of votes win the posts. But if a major-party candidate — Democrat or Republican — is not among the top two finishers, that candidate must also be named a registrar.
That happened in Hartford in 2008, when the Working Families Party candidate outpolled the Republican. So both of them and the Democrat all became registrars. Registrars make $80,000; with staff and benefits each costs the city about $200,000 a year.
Now guess what. The registrars say they don't have enough money to run the fall election and need another $115,000.
This is why people get frustrated with government. In the computer age, towns get by with one nonpartisan registrar; Hartford certainly doesn't need three.
One way around it might be to make the job appointive, or make it a civil service job in the town clerk's office, perhaps with part-time registrars from the political parties. The charter commission needs to pick a solution and put it forward.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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