Not as bad as Detroit, but not good

While the nation focused last month on Detroit going bankrupt, some interesting tales arose from three of Connecticut's major cities.

In New Haven, the leading candidate for mayor said voters shouldn't hold it against her because the family business run by her late husband and now by her son owes more than $1 million in taxes and is the state's biggest tax scofflaw. She also denies that family properties include slums even though reporters found one that looks like a slum and smells that way too.

In Hartford, the mayor's former chief of staff turned in his city car but kept a set of keys so he could use it after leaving the city's employ. His departure was prompted by a gala New Year's Eve dinner, featuring the mayor and caviar, that he charged to one of the nation's poorer cities.

In Bridgeport, home to some of the state's worst schools, they're having a furious fight over whether the superintendent, a nationally known school reformer who has been superintendent in New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia, is qualified to be superintendent in the Athens of I-95.

The New Haven situation concerns the powerful legislator, State Sen. Toni Harp. Her family's business activities became an issue when an opponent asked, how she can run a city "when you don't know what's going on in your own household?"

In response, the senator played the gender card, saying that judging her on her husband's business practices is sexist and asking why questions aren't being raised about the spouses of her opponents. Her hometown paper, The Journal Register, answered that one:

"To our knowledge, their spouses and children don't owe more than $1 million in back taxes and aren't accused of being slumlords. If they were, that would be news too and fair game for discussion in the mayoral race."

Hartford's mayor, Pedro Segarra, is the second "strong mayor" of his city. He succeeded Eddie Perez, the first strong mayor elected after the city charter was changed, replacing the council-city manager form of government. The idea was to have an elected official to hold accountable and that worked well as the first strong mayor is currently appealing a corruption conviction during his strong mayoralty.

There's no indication of big-time corruption in the Segarra administration, just penny ante stuff like the chief of staff and his appetite for fine food and free cars. The city has no Republican Party to speak of; the only opposition being the Working Families Party, a Democratic front.

The Bridgeport situation is more serious. Schools there were so bad, they were taken over by the state 18 months ago and the State Board of Education hired school reformer Paul Vallas, to run things. While heading embattled school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, Vallas renovated hundreds of schools, raised test scores and closed budget deficits. He also made 75 visits to Haiti after the awful hurricane there to help rebuild its schools.

His work in Bridgeport has been similarly effective. He eliminated a deficit of around $15 million by cutting administrative costs by a third while laying off only nine teachers in the 20,000 student system.

But Vallas wasn't technically qualified to be superintendent because he hadn't taken a 13-month course of study required of Connecticut superintendents. To get around the requirement, the state board devised and the legislature approved a special course but Vallas, busy with other things, apparently didn't do all the work.

Nobody seemed to mind, except the Working Families Party, which opposed the takeover of the schools and opposes anything, real or imagined, that threatens union members. The party got behind a lawsuit to remove Vallas and a Superior Court judge ruled him unqualified.

The case has gone to the state Supreme Court, which has decided he can stay on the job until his appeal is heard and decided months from now.

And so it goes in our cities.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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