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Botched Latino Firing Raises Questions

Bessy Reyna

October 17, 2008

The sudden and unexplained firing of Fernando Betancourt as executive director of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission by the board's commissioners on Sept. 17 set in motion the Law of Unintended Consequences. Scores of Latinos and others who have worked with the commission in programs benefiting their communities are incensed and demanding answers: Who are these commissioners? Who nominates and appoints commissioners? Are they answerable to anyone?

The official minutes of the Sept. 17 commission meeting read like a bad play about a dysfunctional family. After Betancourt concluded his report, Chairman Carlos Alvarez brought up an auditor's report, which was not on the agenda.

After a heated exchange that devolved from fiscal matters to Alvarez's dissatisfaction about details of the commission's coming gala and comments about how the commission was run, Commissioner Manuel Garcia complained that he was tired of hours wasted bickering. He declared that he would "put his neck on the chopping block." He then made a motion for the "termination of Fernando," which was seconded by Sonia Ayala. The motion passed with Ayala, Garcia, Ramon Arroyo, Yvette Servera, Luis Menendez and Pablo Rivera voting yes.

In the ensuing confusion, Maritza Tiru reminded the others that there were no criminal charges or claims of wrongdoing against any staff member, including Betancourt. She felt the termination was without cause and procedurally flawed.

With little discussion and a quick vote, 13 years of exemplary work and the efforts of Fernando Betancourt on behalf of Connecticut Latinos came to a screeching halt.

The minutes reflect a complete lack of procedural knowledge or caring about what the commission should do next. As he left the meeting, Garcia bragged that "you can get all the lawyers you want ... The state has to protect us because we are commissioners for the state." He should know he's in his fourth three-year term.

No doubt realizing the mess they had created, Alvarez consulted an attorney and called a special meeting. On Sept. 30, the termination was rescinded. Betancourt was reinstated and placed on administrative leave with pay. This gave Alvarez and his cohorts time to "develop a statement of the reasons for considering the termination." In other words, first you fire him and then find ways to justify it.

So, where do these commissioners come from? Hard to know because nominations and appointments are made by different people. According to Larry Perosino, spokesman for House Speaker James Amann, Arroyo, Rivera and Ayala were nominated by state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, D-Hartford. Arroyo is Gonzalez's husband and has been a commissioner since 1999. The commission website ( www.cga.ct.gov/lprac) shows who appointed each of the commissioners but not who nominated them. Shockingly, the terms of seven of the commissioners have been expired for more than a year.

The commission has 13 commissioners. The governor appoints three members for three-year terms. The Senate majority leader has one appointment, the Senate minority leader has two, the speaker of the House has two, the House majority leader has one and the House minority leader has two. There are two vacancies to be filled by the Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams. All legislative appointees are for two-year terms.

The ad hoc Concerned Citizens Coalition has sent letters to the appointing officials decrying the commissioners' actions, which may have violated the commission's bylaws. Is it too much to ask of these elected officials that they take responsibility for their appointees and intervene in this matter?

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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