It Was Eddie — Not Strong Mayor System — That Went Wrong
Though Mr. Perez stumbled, city should retain strong-mayor government
June 20, 2010
The conviction of Mayor Eddie A. Perez on bribery and corruption charges Friday raises the question of whether Hartford made a mistake in adopting a strong mayor form of government in 2002. Absolutely not. The city simply had the wrong person in the job.
Hartford adopted a progressive council-manager system after World War II, replacing a confusing system of boards and commissions. In the 1960s, the system underwent considerable fiddling, ending up with an unstable system in which the mayor was a figurehead with no vote on the council. The deputy mayor often had more power than the mayor.
This system was confusing on its best day; people who wanted to do business with the city were never sure whom to talk to. Power resided in whoever could cobble five of nine city council votes together, and power shifted fairly often. No one was responsible, so no one was accountable. Not much got done. Mr. Perez's predecessor, the beloved Michael P. Peters, left office in frustration. All that this system brought the city was an era of long, slow decline.
Someone has to be in charge. The buck has to stop somewhere. There must be lines of authority and accountability. The country learned this during the Revolutionary War, conducted under the weak Articles of Confederation. The Founders knew they needed a stronger system.
But no government runs on structure alone. It must have thoughtful, intelligent, honest people in office. Mr. Perez looked the part when he took office. He had a great personal story — a former gang member who had straightened out and became a good public servant. He gave a glimpse of how the strong mayor system can work when he hired an innovative school superintendent who dramatically energized a school system that had been inert and failing for decades. This will be his best legacy.
But he also made some serious mistakes, for which he will pay dearly. It's a shame, but his own fault.
Mr. Perez issued a statement Friday saying he was relinquishing his duties, but it wasn't clear from the wording if he intends to resign or step aside into some official limbo during the appeal of his case. If he's trying to keep the job, the council should follow the same charter that created the strong mayor and use the provision that allows for his removal for cause.
Under the charter, an employee or office holder can be removed after a hearing "for neglect or dereliction of official duty, or incompetence, or dishonesty or incapacity to perform official duties or some delinquency materially affecting the officer or employee's general character or fitness." Removal would require at least seven votes from the nine-member body. That, or resignation, would put council president Pedro Segarra in the mayor's chair until next year's election. There's no reason to think Mr. Segarra, a former corporation counsel, would not run the office competently. The sooner he's there, the better for the city.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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