In August 2002, the New York Times described then-Gov. John G. Rowland’s vision for the City of Hartford this way: “… on the scale of grand plans to turn Hartford around, nothing compares to Governor Rowland’s $770 million construction project that he says will turn this into a trendy cafe-and-steakhouse city by 2005.”
Fully five years beyond Rowland’s target year, the jury selection process in Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez’s corruption case revealed a different truth. Speaking of the City of Hartford, one potential juror stated, “I try to avoid it.” Another from Avon offered this: “We don’t go over the mountain.”
Frankly, who can blame them?
More than 32 percent of Hartford’s residents, including 46 percent of its children, live in poverty. Hartford’s mill rate is one of the highest in the state. Though the Capital City has less than 4 percent of the state’s population, it accounts for nearly 30 percent of the state’s murders and 26 percent of arsons.
While there is always an argument about whether it is enough, the state has tried to help. Statewide taxpayers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements like the new Connecticut Science Center or the Connecticut Convention Center. The state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula provides resources such that Hartford’s per pupil expenditure is even with that of Redding.
As evidenced by the jurors’ sentiments, though, the city’s lawlessness has marred the revitalization that Mr. Rowland, who was later convicted of a felony himself, described.
Mayor Perez’s corruption trial is, then, not just a determination of guilt or innocence but rather one more manifestation of the city’s troubles. It is a distraction that Hartford does not need.
While the law presumes innocence, public perception assumes turmoil when a leader is spending more time in a courtroom than in addressing Hartford’s big problems. Mayor Perez should do the right thing and resign as mayor.
Changing leaders won’t be enough. Restoring accountability also means improving transparency and disclosure so that the likelihood of corruption is mitigated in the future. Hartford can take its rightful role as a leader of Connecticut’s municipalities by making its expenditures, payroll information, and contract information available in an online, searchable database so that every local resident knows where their tax dollars are going.
The city’s next leaders already have their work cut out for them. They will need to focus on fighting crime and changing the public perception of Hartford throughout the region. At the same time, they must meet the challenge of reversing decades of poor property tax decisions despite weak revenues.
Hartford has the potential to be a place that people want to go. But it will take effective and trustworthy leadership to turn the mission statement into a reality.
Heath W. Fahle is a policy analyst and consultant based in Manchester. His background in political campaigns includes work for former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons and the Connecticut Republican Party. He also is the principal of Revolutionary Strategies LLC, a Web site design and consulting firm. Learn more at www.heathwfahle.com.