Despite interest from the city's own parking authority, the administration of Mayor Eddie A. Perez recently awarded a potentially lucrative contract to manage a city-owned parking lot to a longtime political power broker in the city's North End.
The agreement -- signed by Perez without the knowledge of the city council or a formal bidding process -- transfers the management of a 3-acre surface parking lot downtown to a company run by former state Rep. Abraham L. Giles.
According to critics of the mayor, the contract appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to lock up political support. Giles, political insiders say, controls key votes on the city's Democratic town committee and exerts strong influence in the predominantly black 5th House District, a constituency Perez needs as he seeks re-election this year.
Former state Sen. Frank Barrows, who is running against Perez in the 2007 election, said the contract represents everything that is ``wrong with politics in this city.''
``That's Hartford for you,'' said Barrows. ``My old saying is that you can buy someone's soul if you buy them a chicken dinner, and that is one chicken dinner right there.''
Parking in downtown Hartford has long been a rich source of political patronage. In the late 1990s, the state went so far as to stop funding any new parking garages until the city changed its laws, removing the city manager as the highest parking power and establishing a parking authority.
The authority was created in 1998 with the express charge of cleaning up Hartford's parking mess and stopping back-door political deals.
But critics say the contract with Giles marks a return to the old ways.
``I think this is an unveiled, cold-blooded attempt by the mayor to use the city resources as his personal piggybank to grant favors to people for political support,'' said I. Charles Mathews, former deputy mayor and another Perez challenger.
The mayor sharply disagreed.
When the city purchased the 3-acre parcel for $2.2 million in June 2006, the intent was to market it to private developers along with another lot known as 12-B, Perez said. The two lots sit across from one another on Trumbull Street.
Perez said he did not want to lock the city into a long-term, inflexible lease, and instead opted for a short-term license agreement, which provides fewer protections to a tenant and -- because it can be canceled on short notice -- enables the city to quickly react to a developer's interest.
``We do it to be able to use the site, but not have a permanent relationship with anybody,'' said Perez.
He said he was unaware the parking authority was interested in the site and that politics had nothing to do with the decision to award the contact to Giles.
``He is a qualified minority vendor and we have been satisfied with his service,'' the mayor said.
When asked about the arrangement, Giles said, ``You know the story. You know you do,'' before saying he needed to go and hung up the phone.
According to a copy of the contract obtained by The Courant, the deal was signed Nov. 1, 2006, by Perez, Giles and Carl Nasto, a city attorney. The deal extends through June 2008, but can also be revoked without cause at any time, requiring the city to give only 30 days' notice.
It requires that Giles' company, G&G Enterprises Inc., pay the city $1,000 monthly rent in exchange for operating the 225-space lot at the corner of Main and Trumbull streets and cover all maintenance and utility costs. The contract does not require Giles to give the city a percentage of the proceeds. He currently charges $4 a day for parking, or $75 a month.