Quarrel marks vote on staff additions

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Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

A marathon six-hour finance committee meeting ended in a shouting match early Tuesday morning as alders endorsed a plan to establish three new City Hall jobs, four shy of the mayor’s request.

Alders voted seven to two to approve the creation of a director of Minority and Small Business Initiative, a bilingual receptionist and a full-time grant-writer. Alders Mike Stratton and Anna Festa — founding members of the breakaway People’s Caucus — dissented, decrying the vote as a capitulation to the mayor and an “embarrassing” expansion of government bureaucracy as City Hall prepares to raise property taxes on residents.

“You should be using money for the people and not for this core, bloated bureaucracy,” said Stratton, who represents Prospect Hill and Newhallville. “You’re hurting the people. You should be embarrassed.”

“You should be embarrassed,” Board of Alders President Jorge Perez fired back.

Stratton stormed out of the alders’ chamber in City Hall with the promise to “see you in 2015,” implying an electoral showdown between the increasingly divided factions on the board.

The source of the disagreement was Mayor Toni Harp’s ARC ’78 request for seven additional City Hall positions, six of them in her office. They included the small business director, the bilingual receptionist, a legislative director and a four-person grants-writing office. Tomas Reyes, Harp’s chief of staff, and Michael Harris ’15, her liaison to the board, testified earlier in the evening that those positions were necessary to spur economic development and tap new revenue streams.

Shortly before midnight, Perez offered a substitute amendment, giving the mayor just under half of her request. He proposed that the $80,000-per-year director of Minority and Small Business Initiative position be funded in the current fiscal year out of an already-existing small business revolving loan fund. The amendment further provides that residual grant funding will pay for the bilingual receptionist and the Director of Development and Policy, a $116,000-per-year grants-writing position.

The legislative director position was nixed, and three of the four grant-writing positions were denied. The leftover money from the residual grant funding will pay for outside contracting with grant writers, the amendment states.

That proposal will now go to the full board for a vote.

Perez said the proposal gives Harp the leeway to “live or die by her policy.”

“You have a new mayor and a $511 million budget, and you can’t even give her these new positions?” Perez said. “At some point she’s going to be up for re-election and going to have to face the voters and they will say, ‘You promised this and you promised that, and you didn’t do it.’”

Stratton attacked Perez’s logic as brazenly political. He pointed to the requested addition of a Spanish-language librarian in the city’s libraries, a line item that did not make its way into the mayor’s budget as evidence of the City Hall’s priorities. He said the measure takes services away from residents and “bloats” central government instead, calling the committee’s vote “disgusting.”

Jessica Holmes of Ward 9 and Jeanette Morrison of Ward 22 came to Harp’s defense, saying that providing additional opportunities for Spanish-speakers to interface with their government will allow new segments of the population to have their voices heard. Holmes said the evidence Harris cited from other cities was compelling. Hartford and Bridgeport employ full-time grant writers and have had demonstrated success in winning state and national grants, Harris testified.

Currently individual departments write grant applications on an ad hoc basis.

Morrison defended the grant writer’s projected salary of $116,000, which Festa said was much too high. Morrison said competitive compensation is necessary to lure talent to City Hall.

Morrison also played peacemaker when passions ran hot following the vote, telling Stratton to “walk away” after a standoff with committee chair Andrea Jackson-Brooks, during which he accused her of being complicit in what he described as wasteful bureaucracy. Jackson-Brooks threatened legal action.

“You don’t know a thing about me,” she said. “And buddy, you better be careful … I will have my lawyer on your case and you can deal with him.”

Festa called the personnel increases “unconscionable.” She said she had received numerous phone calls, text messages and emails that evening alone asking her to vote against the mayor’s request.

She said new hires should have to prove themselves before they make six-figure salaries, and that other Spanish speakers working for the city could be moved around to cover the need for a bilingual receptionist in the mayor’s office. The office already employs one receptionist full-time and another part-time. Perez said he was convinced that staffing level is not sufficient to handle the volume of calls.

Stratton said Harp already has six secretarial positions in her office, an estimate Perez denied as an “allegation.” Perez said 30 percent of the city’s population relies on Spanish as their primary mode of communication, justifying the need for bilingual capacity.

Harris and Reyes said if the positions do not prove themselves to be financially solvent, they will be eliminated.

The vote was preceded by detailed budget presentations by a number of city departments, standard procedure as the city prepares a new budget set to take effect July 1.

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