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A Better Balance Of Power For Hartford

City Charter Still Needs A Major Tuneup

Commentary By JOHN B. KENNELLY

December 02, 2007

On Nov. 5, 2002, Hartford voters made an important and intelligent decision to amend the city charter, creating a "strong mayor" form of government. That vote ushered in a new era of more efficient decision-making and better-organized city services.

Unfortunately, not all of the commission's recommendations were presented for voter consideration and some that were adopted are in need of refinement. It's time to establish a new charter revision commission to complete the work of establishing a better government in Hartford. Fortunately, the need for another commission was supported by most of the re-elected and newly elected candidates for mayor and the Court of Common Council during their recent campaigns.

I remain a steadfast proponent of a strong-mayor form of government and would dread the return to the ineffectiveness which too often characterized city decision-making under the old manager/council system. Nevertheless, the goal of checks and balances between the powers of the city council and the mayor has not been achieved.

Additionally, those of us who spent years advocating for change did not envision five-minute council meetings with no debate on the merits of resolutions or proposed ordinances. There need to be changes to the charter to require additional transparency of city hall decision-making, which would allow for a full, public debate by the council. This can be achieved by more comprehensive and frequent reporting by both the mayor and the Internal Audit Commission to the council.

The audit commission now is required to make quarterly reports to the council. These reports should include a fiscal impact assessment of all new city contracts, including transfers of interest of any kind in real property. Such disclosures would have potentially engendered some debate by the council regarding the awarding of license agreements earlier this year.

Next, the powers of the audit commission should be expanded to include independent investigation of claims of fraud, waste and mismanagement. The commission does maintain a fraud hot line and that is to be commended. But, like recent reforms to the police department's citizen complaint board, these fraud calls need to be tracked and resolved expeditiously. Perhaps if the council were given more information regarding the complaints of the city's workers and citizens, it could be more responsive to them.

Also, under the present charter the mayor must provide a report to the council regarding the previous year's financial transactions. There should be two reports per fiscal year, before and after the budget process. These reports should include a fiscal impact study of each transaction. Again, increasing transparency will allow the council to act in a more informed manner and possibly increase its level of oversight of executive decision-making.

An important recommendation of the last charter commission was not presented to the voters in 2002. That was the plan to expand the size of the council, with some members elected at-large and some by district. In 2002, I voted to present this proposal to the voters but was overridden by a council vote.

I still believe that district council representation in conjunction with at-large council members is an important addition to the goal of more accountability in city government. Importantly, this proposal continued to ensure representation of political parties other then the majority party. A balance between district and at-large council members and majority and non-majority parties encourages transparency in government and proper accountability of representatives. Irrespective of my views, Hartford's voters should have an opportunity to have their position on this important issue recorded.

A new charter commission may also wish to investigate and debate the benefits of term limits or public financing of elections as is being established by the General Assembly.

The city charter requires the establishment of a charter revision commission every 10 years. In that we are at the beginning of our strong-mayor experiment, I propose we name a commission now before poor practices, which do not serve the city's residents, become established and accepted.

I would call on the mayor and city council to immediately establish a new charter revision commission and to commit to the presentation of all of its recommendations to the voters of Hartford on a previously established election day. Such a pledge would go far in assuring the citizens that we are all committed to achieving the noble goal of the city charter: "achieving a more perfect state of civil society."

John B. Kennelly is a Hartford attorney and served on the Hartford's Court of Common Council from 2001 to 2004.

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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