Office Space Hartford: The Row over the Registrar’s Box
February 12, 2009
The City Hall office where Urania Petit, the Working Families Party (WFP) Registrar of Voters, now works has earned some monikers worthy of a sitcom.
“We call it the box,” Petit said, sitting inside her windowless office, plopped in the middle of the registrar’s larger basement domain.
“The maintenance guys ask me ‘How is the box?’” Petit joked. Some call it the floating office, the Hannibal Lecter room, the hole, the box cutter, the cell.
“There is a competition out there,” Petit said. “If any member of the public would like to give our office a name, stop by.”
Anyone who drops in will see for themselves the absurdity that is the $14,700 box. Despite the surreal surroundings, Petit is forging ahead with her duties. “I love my job,” she said.
On Wednesday, February 18, at 5:30 pm at the Hartford Public Library, Petit is co-sponsoring a community discussion forum on “Why Don’t We Vote” with Hartford 2000 and the Library.
WFP party boss Jon Green will moderate the forum, featuring former city councilor Eugenio Caro, former state rep Evelyn Mantilla, and professors Louise Simmons of UConn, Bilal Sekou of UHart, and Clyde McKee of Trinity.
“I have been trying to build relationships and make contacts,” Petit said of her new responsibilities. And her interaction with Democratic Registrar Olga Vazquez is improving, despite the budget battle over the hiring of deputy registrars of voters and where to put all three registrars and deputies.
“It is good as long as we don’t talk office space,” Petit said. “The minute we talk about office space, there is a little tension. Otherwise, we have a decent working relationship. We have to work together on the canvass. We have a budget proposal due for the sixteenth. We do communicate.”
The sprawling space of the Registrar’s Office in City Hall contains three large rooms. The center room has cubicles and a visitors area. The room to the left contains the desks for Sal Bramante and his Republican staff. The third large room to the right contains cubicles and two offices for the Democratic Registrar and her deputy.
The box was plunked down in the middle of this third space, far from Bramante, who was unavailable for comment. Vazquez disavows any knowledge of how the box got built.
“That box was built prior to me coming into this office,” Vazquez said.
“You are asking the wrong person. I don’t know who built it, designed it, or asked for it to go up. It was there before I came into the office.”
Vazquez refused to discuss any conversations she may have had with party leaders like Mayor Eddie Perez, his chief of staff Matt Hennessey and Democratic Town Committee boss Sean Arena.
Hennessy and the Mayor’s office “gave the go ahead to have it built,” Petit said.
“I talked to Matt,” Petit said. “The first time I met him, he said an office was being built. I said to ‘Stop it. I don’t want it.’ He said it was already up. I said ‘Put a window, put a door, expand it. This is not working.’ He said ‘I will see what I can do.’”
The box was built over a weekend, Petit said, and was ready when she came to work January 7, except for the door, which came in two weeks later.
“It was built with overtime,” Petit said. “The same week the office was being built, they laid off the carpenter, that’s why it took us a while to get the door. That’s why the stuff is not finished. The carpenter was laid off.”
An inquiry was made with Mayoral spokesperson Sarah Barr about the construction of the office. She responded, “It is our understanding that the registrars are working it out among themselves.”
“It was not my decision,” Petit said. “Never, ever did I want an office built.” And for good reason: with the registrar’s office budget in doubt, who would want to spend $14,700 on a windowless box that lacks ventilation?
“They gave me the office and said furnish it,” Petit said. “They said there is no money in the budget to do anything. When are we getting the money? Who do you ask?”
The furniture that Petit does have – a printer’s table as a desk, a bookshelf and two chairs – she scavenged from various parts of the larger registrar’s office.
“The reason I have two chairs is that I close my door, and put my feet up on the chair to write, because I have no room to write on the desk,” she said. Her laptop computer takes all space on the small printer table.
And while things with Vazquez are improving, the row over the budget for the registrar’s office has clearly not settled.
Vazquez expressed concern that the budget she inherited from outgoing registrar Shirley Surgeon may be insufficient to pay the salaries of the registrar’s themselves. But Vazquez is certain she will be hiring a deputy.
Petit suggested that they all take part-time deputies, and not build any new offices. But Vazquez maintained that she wanted a deputy, which would prevent Petit from having the office.
Vazquez refused to say who the deputy would be, nor would she say what the qualifications were for a deputy registrar.
“There is a lot of qualifications that need to be fulfilled,” Vazquez said. “There are a lot of requirements. I am going to leave that to my knowledge. I don’t want that to be public. I don’t wish to share that information right now. I will share it at some later date.”
Vazquez made it clear the deputy's position was political patronage, and she said that her deputy will not be Ramon Arroyo. But she will have one, which is why Petit needed the box.
Vazquez admitted the box is not pretty, and that the way it was built was not open for debate.
“Not to my knowledge, it was not a democratic process,” Vazquez said. “I didn’t have anything to do with her resolving the situation of her office."
Neither Vazquez nor Petit know from which budget line the money to build the box came from. But Petit will deal with it, despite it being foisted on her with no input from her.
“I am going to accept it and move on,” she said. “The taxpayers are the one paying for this, they deserve for me to give them an honest day’s work, and that’s what I intend on doing.”