Does the City Charter Hartford voters accepted back in 2002 already need changing? That’s one of the questions city leaders are hoping will be answered in a series of public forums. One forum has already been held in the West End. Three more are scheduled (see box).
As chairman of City Council’s Legislative Affairs Committee, Councilman Matt Ritter is coordinating the forums. “We want to gauge support [for charter reform] among city residents as well as present a synopsis of the process.”
According to Ritter, the biggest possible charter change now being discussed would be switching from having council members elected by district rather than by the city as a whole (or “at large”).
Those supporting such a change feel it would make council members more accountable to the district they serve. Ritter said supporters also believe district elections would reduce the power of the town committee endorsements. Such endorsements are highly important in city-wide elections, given the time, effort and money necessary to run a campaign. In smaller, more localized district elections, a challenger running without a party endorsement would have a far better chance of winning.
On the other hand, supporters of the current city-wide council elections say council members representing various areas of the city could pit neighborhood against neighborhood in battles for funding and services. A further problem with district elections is that they would free the city from the state law that prohibits council from having the majority party (in Hartford’s case, the Democrats) occupy more than two-thirds of the seats. The remaining three seats are currently occupied by Republican Veronica Airey-Wilson and Working Families Party members Dr. Larry Deutch and Luis Cotto.
Ritter said that, given the city’s overwhelming Democratic majority, doing away with the law requiring minority party representation would make it much more difficult for a Republican, third party or independent candidate to get elected.
However, Ritter said, a council with some members elected at large and others elected by district would still have to retain the minority party law. This is a third option currently under consideration.
Another possible charter change was brought up by Councilman Luis Cotto. He suggested that the Board of Education, which currently has four elected members and five appointed by the mayor, should have only four appointed and five elected members.
Ritter said a third major change was brought up by several residents who attended the Charter Revision Forum in the West End earlier this month. Under the current charter, the Corporation Counsel, who acts as the city’s top authority on legal matters, is appointed by the mayor with council approval. Some have suggested that if the Corporation Counsel was appointed by City Council or as by an independent body, his or her office would be able to act more independently.
Ritter’s Committee will report its findings to Council following the conclusion of the forums. Council must then decide whether to form a Charter Revision Commission by the end of September. After a period of examining the matter, the Commission would then present its recommended revisions to Council. Ritter said Council can then put all or some of the Commission’s recommended revisions out to a city-wide vote. Or it can reject all of the proposed revisions and/or puts its own changes out to a vote. “The Council has enormous power in this process,” said Ritter. He added that, according to state law, if the referendum is held as a special election, 15 percent of the city’s registered voters must vote in order for the charter revisions to be ratified. The 15 percent rule would not apply if the charter referendum was held in conjunction with a general, city-wide election.
“It’s a long process and it should be,” said Ritter. “I don’t think we should revise the charter every year or so. The current system may need some changes – that’s what we’re trying to find out with these public forums – but once we choose the form of government we want, we should stick to it and do the best we can.”