City Council President Pedro Segarra found himself at the center of the political and media storm that washed over the city last week in the wake of Mayor Eddie Perez’s conviction on bribery and extortion charges. Segarra will succeed Perez as mayor now that Perez has announced he will resign this week.
It was Segarra who as a member of the city council led the way in confronting Perez as the city’s first “strong mayor” when Perez treated the council as an annoyance he didn’t have to deal with, or that he could run roughshod over.
Segarra began demanding last year that city department heads appear before his management and budget committee to deliver the information about the city budget he was seeking, threatening to subpoena them if they didn’t. But then later, as council president, Segarra was praised by his colleagues on the council for reaching out to Perez and smoothing over the sometimes rough relationship between the mayor’s office and the council.
“Our problems in the city are too severe for us not to have a fully functional council and a fully functional office of the mayor that can collaborate and do the right things,” Segarra said in an interview this week. “There is no room for going it alone, there is no room for being so pretentious to think one person is the solution to all the city’s problems.”
Segarra says he strongly believes in “collaboration and cooperation and communication” between the mayor’s office and the city council. Now he’ll be on the other side of that equation.
Hartford’s Chief Operating Officer and Development Services Director David Panagore carried on as usual Monday in his expansive office in City Hall occupying the same corner office complex as Perez.
But Panagore was well aware of the fear and apprehension that pervaded City Hall as city employees anticipated the sudden change of administrations.
“People get nervous, they get worried. It could be the mayor’s staff wondering, ‘Will we still be here?,’ a department head saying, ‘I’ve always been on the firing line,’ or even a city staff person saying ‘I’ve always done my job this way, what will happen when things change?’” says Panagore. “Everyone has something they could spend their time worrying about.”
Panagore has done his best, he says, to make sure city staff isn’t distracted by the current upheaval in the mayor’s office.
“As I told staff, nothing changes until it changes,” says Panagore. “Don’t spend your time worrying about what may never occur because right now you’re in limbo. Keep going. If you do a good job today, it may help you for whatever happens tomorrow.”
The change of administrations in the city actually might provide an opportunity for Panagore to shed one of the two major positions he holds — Chief Operating Officer and Director of Development Services — without losing them both.
Perez asked Panagore to become the director of development services about a year ago in addition to being COO, assuring him that it would only be a month or 45 days before someone else was hired for the job and he could go back to doing one job.
“I’m still right now the director of development services and the COO,” says Panagore. “The city needs better attention and it’s a challenge for one person [to do both jobs] no matter how many hours they work.”
For his part, Segarra was not giving any assurances about job security, especially since he was not yet in charge.
“I would assume that immediately after becoming mayor I have to research all the important issues regarding staffing and make decisions on those issues,” says Segarra. “Before doing that I would have to get acquainted with more immediate issues that need immediate attention. We have serious financial issues to deal with and ongoing problems we need to tend to trying to get the city out of poverty and recession. There’s a lot of work ahead.”
Perez refers to “lengthy and heartfelt” discussions with Segarra in the statement announcing he will resign this Friday, and says he will work with the city council to ensure a “smooth transition.”
“It is time to move the city forward,” says Perez. “I am truly sorry for the mistakes I have made that have harmed the City that I love.”
Segarra was hoping for a bloodless transition to his administration, and he appears to be getting it. He will serve as mayor until the next municipal election in November 2011, and says he is giving no thought right now to whether he will try to remain as mayor once this interim period is up.
The remaining eight members of the council will appoint a new council member to replace Segarra.
As for Perez, it’s hard to be optimistic about his immediate future. As a result of his conviction, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal recently announced he would move under a recently passed state law to take back Perez’s pension.
Perez has expressed his deep disappointment with the guilty verdicts he received and has vowed to appeal, but the chances of such an appeal being successful are remote, according to Attorney Steven Melocowsky of Collins, Deans & Melocowsky, who has been serving as an expert commentator for local television stations.
“They have nothing to lose by appealing so I bet they will appeal, but as far as it being successful, I would be shocked,” says Melocowsky. “An appeal is not a matter of saying a jury should have decided differently. There has to be a mistake the judge made in the trial, some mistake of fact or law that clearly is erroneous. That’s the legal standard.”
Perez faces up to 55 years at his sentencing on Sept. 10, but Melocowsky says the most likely scenario is that Perez receives between one and four years in prison.