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Political Realities Show No Easy Solutions for Registrars’ Dilemma

The problem in Hartford’s Registrars’ of Voters Office deserves more than a lament and pity. We do not know how many people voted for governor in Hartford 2014. Almost 250 years into representative democracy, this fact shocks the conscience.

We all want a quick fix to this intractable situation, where three registrars cannot cooperate, communicate or run an election. Yet state law and inbred local corruption thwart easy action.

The idea of impeachment is interesting, although it is not a quick fix. The dream of a sweeping reform package addressing all of the issues remains elusive. Hartford’s Court of Common Council tends towards reactionary prescriptions for the ailments threatening this part of the body politics.

But voters and citizens should demand the opposite: deliberate, thoughtful problem-solving for the long-term. We should not rush to disempower these three Registrars immediately.

This creates the unpleasant realization that a lawbreaking, incompetent Democratic Party Registrar will preside over the next mayoral primary election.

One would like to rely on the Secretary of State’s Office for oversight, but Secretary Merrill’s well-publicized ethical problems with meddling in a Bridgeport notary’s false application give pause.

Perhaps a federal or state court appointment a special master to oversee the elections would be helpful. We need people to have confidence in the electoral system, at the same time we are working to reform the mess before us.

Common Council holds many of the cards in this situation. The January 16, 2015 report issued by Common Council’s Committee on 2014’s failed election read as a primer to impeach or convict Democratic Registrar Olga Vazquez, and perhaps the other two registrars, Urania Petit of the Working Families’ Party and Sheila Hall of the Republican Party.

The Council’s subsequent path towards impeachment remains fraught with peril. Council president Wooden most likely held an illegal meeting on January 26, 2015. This meeting will be subject to review (more on that in a future column).

If the actions of the January 26, 2015 meeting are declard null and void, then the impeachment ratified at that meeting is set back, perhaps to the beginning. Olga has vowed to fight, as will Urania and Sheila.

Chapter 4, Section Three of the City of Hartford Municipal Code, Additional Powers of the Council, provides for “Removal of elective officers and other officers and employees subject to confirmation by the council.”

The ordinance continues: “Any elective officer or, officer or employee confirmed by the council, may be removed, by the council, from office for cause by a vote of seven (7) members of the council.” The code provides for due process hearings and evidence to be taken.

The ordinance specifically states character and fitness are criteria on which this removal can be adjudicated.

The Committee’s report set up this removal, the likes of which we have not seen in decades in Hartford. The Committee’s report also threw a pass to the State Elections Enforcement Commission for a potential prosecution.

This would take longer than the six months between now and the next City primary. Any legal removal would see appeals, and perhaps additional legal actions like a quo warranto and or even a mandamus.

The writ of quo warranto once removed an illegal registrar in Waterbury in 1935. Newspaper publisher William B. Pape realized an unusually high number of registered voters.

His paper’s reporting uncovered fake registrations, forcing the resignation of the Republican and Democratic registrars. They had appointed deputies, who by law should have ascended to the throne, but the Mayor named his own successors.

The Mayor acted illegally, according to a Connecticut Superior Court. See State ex. rel. Pape v. Derwin, 2 Conn. Supp. 60 (1935). The court granted a judgment of ouster and gave Pape his costs.

Quo warranto will not work here, though. Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-190 provides for election of the Registrar, but doesn’t discuss removal.

According to the CT Supreme Court in 2010’s Bysiewicz v. Dinardo mess, “one seeking judicial review of a person’s qualifications to serve in public office may bring a quo warranto action pursuant to General Statutes § 52-491.” See 298 Conn. 748, 760.

There Bysiewicz was unfit to run for Attorney General because she had not been a practicing attorney for 10 years. Here, we would ask a court to determine Vazquez fitness for office because of dishonesty and lawlessness.

I’m not sure statutory qualifications equate to character and illegality. The Council report harmed Vazquez a number of times, denuding her as blatantly untruthful and acting completely outside of her jurisdiction.

The easier course – bolstered by primal anger towards injustice – demands Vazquez’s resignation, as I have done any number of times in this column in the past six years.

Vazquez’s resignation is highly unlikely without another call from President Obama, even then, she might stay in. She probably needs the $80,000 annual salary. Who wouldn’t? Vazquez ignored the hapless Mayor’s call for her job.

Supposing Council impeaches Vazquez, should her deputy Garey Coleman be impeached, too? I think Coleman should go, too. The blood feud between Wooden and Sen. Eric Coleman leads to a conclusion that Wooden wants to hurt Eric’s brother Garey.

Blogger Kevin Brookman has suggested it Garey Coleman should never have worked on elections involving his brother. But America has survived (barely) larger conflicts of interest, like when Jeb Bush ran Florida during his brother George’s presidential contest.

One can only guess Deputy Coleman’s motivations. Assume his awareness of the extreme dysfunction in the office. Unknown is the degree to which he attempted to assert himself and negotiate a truce.

Whatever his response was, though, it was insufficient, since we still do not know the final vote count in 2014.

Deputy Registrar Coleman acquiesced to Vazquez’s illegal pronouncement that as the Democratic Registrar, in a city of majority registered Dems, she enjoyed the most power. She didn’t. State law says all three share equal power.

Coleman’s acceptance of this arrangement disqualifies him from further office holding.

Vazquez has few defenses for this. A perverse self-deputization to protect Hartford’s Democratic monopoly at all costs fails. One cannot see Shirley Surgeon canonizing herself similarly. Although it is easier to envision a Ramon Arroyo exerting extra-legal authority over the WFP.

That Arroyo even came within spitting distance of the Registrar’s seat shows the problems with the Democratic Town Committee, the solutions for dismantling that gang of thugs demands a whole different column.

All of this begs the question of who else in the City’s power structure knew Vazquez’s “majority rules edict” ran the registrar’s office, and who allowed it to continue? Did Corporation Counsel’s office know? Did Mayor Pedro Segarra know?

I bet yes. Reliable sources and reports suggest all three registrars at various times called the Mayor for help in mediating the dispute. Like Pontius Pilate, Pedro washed his hands. Add this to the long list of his failures.

Did members of Council know? If so, how can they sit in judgment of the Registrars?

What about members of the DTC or the Republican Town Committee? Or the WFP hierarchy? Why was Olga allowed to run roughshod over the law, openly and notoriously? The Council’s Report didn’t ask how long this arrangement endured.

Despite having three elected registrars, Hartford’s triad of Registrars knowingly and willfully broke election law.

I understand Urania’s acceptance of the Vazquez edict – with few allies and limited political power, her calls for help during the years were ignored. Did she have a duty to complain to the SEEC or the Secretary of the State’s office? Probably.

She needed to come forward sooner and make this public. Does she deserve to continue to serve? I’m not sure in a rekindled office of a different structure she can be effective because of the history.

I know and trust and have worked for and with Petit in the past. The report painted her as slightly more flattering, but the facts still made me cringe.

And if Council sweeps all of the current inhabitants out of office, the law abhors a vacancy. The Mayor cannot appoint a registrar, and if we have to run a special election for new registrars, who runs it? The Secretary of the State? The outgoing, inept registrars? A special master?

So many questions, so few answers.

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