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No Tears For Latino Commission

Bessy Reyna

February 20, 2009

Last September, many in the Latino community in Connecticut learned that the members of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission did not represent them. Nor did these commissioners feel the need to be responsive to the community's inquiries.

Ironically, now that Gov. M. Jodi Rell is threatening to eliminate the commission in a cost-saving measure, those same commissioners who banned community members from speaking at their public meeting are now calling on the public to speak out and write letters to support the agency and save it from the chopping block.

There was a time when the community would have rallied enthusiastically behind the commission. Even now, many feel conflicted regarding the paid employees of the commission who have worked so diligently to achieve its goals. But the commission's disregard for its most important constituents has left a lasting wound.

Last fall, Latino leaders were shocked and concerned by the news of the commissioners' unceremonious firing of the commission's executive director, Fernando Betancourt, a highly respected and skilled leader who was the public face of the agency for 13 years.

Phone calls and e-mails raced across the Latino community informing those who have supported the work of the commission of Betancourt's abrupt firing.

These concerned citizens coalesced into an ad hoc committee and attended the next public board meeting at the Legislative Office Building in an attempt to seek a reason for the sudden and seemingly rash dismissal. They were not only denied any opportunity to participate in the meeting, but all were searched by Capitol police as they entered the meeting room and were forced to stand behind ropes like an unruly mob.

Any question as to the validity of the initial firing was set to rest when the commissioners, on the advice of their attorney, Susan Murray, voted to reinstate Betancourt. Then, they immediately voted to put him on administrative leave while they developed legal reasons to once again fire him. Those of us standing behind the ropes were appalled and stunned by this exhibition of despotic antics and the damage this irresponsible behavior would do to the commission.

Betancourt and the commissioners' lawyer negotiated an agreement. But those who had once been proud of the commission were left with a bad taste in their mouths. Carlos Alvarez, the commission's chairman, became a de-facto ruler acting in the absence of an executive director. From then on, it has become very clear that the work of the paid staff of the commission and the personal goals of the commissioners have been at odds.

Commissioners are appointed to two- or three-year terms by the governor and leaders of the House and the Senate. However, the number of reappointed commissioners and their actual length of service raises questions about the seriousness of the appointment process.

The Rev. Manuel Garcia, who brought the vote to fire Betancourt, has been a commissioner since 1997; while Ramon Arroyo, who was nominated by his wife, state Rep. Minnie Gonzalez, and reappointed by former Speaker of the House James Amann, has been on the commission since 1999. Ivette Servera, reappointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell in 2007, has been a commissioner since 1999; while Maritza Tiru, another governor appointee, joined in 1995. Of the 11 commissioners at the time of Bettancourt's firing, seven were making decisions even though their terms had expired. Are commissioners accountable to anyone?

Today, however, the most telling image left by the commission is that at their Sept. 17 meeting, the commissioners voted to fire Betancourt, then turned to the remainder of their agenda without discussing the consequences of his dismissal. It seemed the commissioners had more important things on their minds: The minutes show that Commissioner Arroyo made a motion to ask the state to pay for a table so that they could attend the Spanish American Merchants' Association gala. Their night out on the town cost the taxpayers $1,500.

Don't expect to see letters of support any time soon.

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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