Honeymoon Is Over For Hartford Mayor, Council

The city budget is driving a wedge between Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra and the city council. (Rick Hartford)

The nine city council members sworn in at the start of 2012 spent their first year largely in step with Mayor Pedro Segarra.

The council approved numerous proposals set forth by the mayor, and both sides communicated regularly on major issues, from the city budget to legislative priorities.

But recently, reeling from staggering budget deficit projections and with mounting frustration, council members have taken a stand against Segarra. The council late last month passed an ordinance requiring the mayor to get the panel's approval for any overtime pay or for hiring not already budgeted — a measure that Segarra quickly vetoed.

Council members followed up by voting to reverse the veto — a move that hasn't happened in years, possibly even decades, according to political insiders — saying that they would work out details of the plan later.

Members also have criticized Segarra's practice of handing out bonuses to city employees — more than $160,000 over the past three years — even as the city has laid off workers. After some back-and-forth, the two sides agreed to eliminate bonuses except for those already built into union contracts.

And at least one councilman has expressed frustration over the thousands of dollars spent by people in the mayor's office on travel, dining and office equipment, among other things. Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, a Democrat who until recently was a longtime supporter of Segarra's, responded by introducing legislation that would ban the use of all city credit cards.

Some council members said they're growing tired of the spending, as Hartford faces increasing fiscal challenges, and of a mayor who appears to be losing touch with the needs of his constituents.

"There's an agreement about things that need correcting in terms of how the administration deals with the council and how it runs government," Kennedy said. "There's kind of this attitude [from the administration] of, 'Leave us alone, we're doing this the right way.'"

The council has requested an audit of all city purchasing cards — credit cards used by employees to pay for meals, travel and other expenses. Members said they'll hold off voting on Kennedy's ban until they review all of the documents.

Segarra said that council members' proposals — such as the plans to eliminate bonuses and purchasing cards — don't reflect his overall performance as the city's chief executive officer.

He said the bonuses were given to people who made strong efforts to help offset city deficits and save money. In his budget address earlier this month, he suggested streamlining Hartford's travel and technology expenses with the hope of bringing down costs.

"Anyone who's looking at this objectively would see I'm moving the city forward," Segarra said. "I understand very clearly that one of the biggest challenges confronting the city has been poverty."

Segarra said he agrees with the council's concerns about overtime costs, and is willing to work with members on a solution. He said that better communication is needed from both sides, and he encourages council members to suggest more solutions.

"If there was communication and collaboration, we could reach soaring heights," he said. "The strategy I have relied on is communication. I need to have a conversation with them on their expectations of me and my expectations of them."

Councilman Alexander Aponte, a Democrat who is the panel's majority leader, defended Segarra, saying that many of the attacks on the mayor were politically motivated.

"The voters can say, 'We don't like the job the mayor is doing,' and they can replace the mayor, but instead the council wants to replace the mayor," he said. "It's naked political ambition."

Aponte, a Segarra ally, said that some of his colleagues were "jumping ahead" by making decisions about finances prior to the release of Segarra's 2013-14 budget proposal.

"Because of the large deficit next year, people are jumping the gun," he said. "Let them present the budget and then let us decide what we're going to do."

"We should all be able to sit down and talk about this. We need open, honest dialogue instead of issuing press releases."

Segarra has proposed closing what was projected to be a $70 million deficit next year by making tens of millions of dollars in spending cuts, through savings brought on by the restructuring of debt, through employee concessions and by taking money from the city's rainy day fund.

Still, some council members expressed a need for greater fiscal control as the city faces large budget deficits in the coming years. Future deficit projections include: $72 million in 2014-15; $77.4 million in 2015-16; and $82.3 million in 2016-17, according to the city's management and budget office.

"The theme of our actions is, we want to make the city better," said Shawn Wooden, a Democrat and the city council president. "We're just concerned about making sure we advocate for taxpayers in this city, our residents. We're responding to what we hear, which has been concerns about spending and waste in government."

Councilman Larry Deutsch, a member of the Working Families Party and the panel's minority leader, said some council members have felt that the mayor hasn't kept them informed about important issues, like city development deals.

"Generally, we don't feel like we're at the table when plans are discussed for any development project," he said. "The city council in general, and the minority party in part, receives plans and proposals late in the game and without adequate information to see who's really benefiting. Many times under [former Mayor] Eddie Perez and still under Pedro we get proposals, but we don't have an awareness of the overall plan."

Segarra said, however, that he has increased transparency in connection with city finances and development projects. He said that he has provided the council with monthly fiscal updates, term sheets, meeting dates and times and details about offers.

Kevin Brookman, a Hartford resident who has written about city spending issues on his blog, "We The People," said he was concerned about several charges he noticed in a review of city purchasing card statements, including dinners at high-end restaurants.

"I think a lot of people just feel that the administration is so far out of touch with what the people of Hartford are feeling," Brookman said. "There are plenty of people who would love to whip out a credit card and buy dinner on the taxpayers' dime, but we don't have that kind of luxury. It's also difficult for us to cry poverty at the Capitol when there's spending like that."

John Kennelly, a member of the Hartford Democratic Town Committee and former city councilman, said that although the city's economic strain has created friction between the mayor and council, the rift is more likely caused by the council's trying to figure out its role.

"Ten years out from when the strong mayor form of government was adopted, the legislative body is finally, for the first time, flexing its muscles and spreading its wings," he said. "They're trying to figure out where they fit in the governance of Hartford."