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February 13, 2004
A war of words between Gov. Calderon and Carolina Mayor Jose Aponte served to highlight municipal reform as issue of some importance in this election year. With mayors from both the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party clamoring for sharper powers for their towns, the two main gubernatorial candidates and lawmakers will likely hone their planks on giving more autonomy to the towns.
The municipal reform issue jumped onto the headlines after Calderon's surprising verbal ambush of Aponte during a press conference to announce the expansion of a medical supply business in Juncos, a town that shares Carolina's southern border. A day earlier, he had blasted Calderon fornot paying enough attention to mayors calls for movement on the municipal front. Aponte, the head of the PDP's Mayors Association, said the governor was inaccessible and shut off from what is happening at the town level.
Apparently referring to prepared notes, Calderon shot back in broad daylight, calling Aponte "a temperamental person with a short memory." She went on to suggest the Carolina mayor was a crybaby, saying that when she was La Fortaleza chief of staff he cried in her office, frustrated by the lack of attention paid by then Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon.
Calderon continued her very public admonishment of Aponte by ticking off a list of dates where she either met with him or spoke with him by phone.
She went to say that while she still supported municipal reform, which was a key part of her 2000 campaign platform, she did not know the status of measures in the Legislature that would beef up towns' powers.
Aponte is a squeaky wheel, and he has managed to get a lot of grease for his large town. Carolina was the first to be declared autonomous under the Hernandez Colon -era municipal reform. He is also a committed PDP soldier, making the governor's salvo all the more surprising.
Frustrated that proposed municipal reform in the Legislature does not go far enough, the mayors sent their own bill to La Fortaleza this month. As drafted, the measure would explicitly exempt towns from making a yearly payment to the health reform. Municipal reform would be written into the Puerto Rico Constitution to shield it from political whims and the constant tweaking that they say has undermined the original 1991 law.
Mayors would have the right to charge for trash pick-up and would be given more help from the central government in drawing up Master Zoning Plans, a key step in getting zoning and permitting power.
In answering Calderon's verbal haymaker, Aponte tried to take the high road, slipping in just a few jabs while reminding the governor of her 2000 campaign pledge to boost municipal authority. He also said PDP gubernatorial candidate Anibal Acevedo Vila's campaign was firmly behind the mayors' push for powers. He pointed out that Acevedo Vila was key in drafting the 1991 reform.
Aponte realizes that the bill faces an uphill battle to be passed during the term's final legislative session , which ends in June so lawmakers can hit the campaign trail. By bringing the mayors' demands into focus now, Aponte can make municipal reform an issue impossible to ignore leading up to the November vote.
NPP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rossello did not get behind broadening town authority during his two previous terms in La Fortaleza. With powerful party mayors like Guaynabo's Hector O'Neill, head of the NPP's Mayors Federation, also pushing for reform Rossello will have to add a sympathetic stance on the issue to his campaign platform. While he has called for municipal input on education, his position on other fiscal matters important to the towns has not been enunciated.
By highlighting Acevedo Vila's apparent support for the reform, Aponte has deftly pointed to differences in the two campaigns. Just as important, the verbal sparring further served to distance the PDP mayors, and Acevedo Vila, from Calderon's lame-duck administration. With the Calderon government going nowhere fast and lawmakers counting the days until they get start stumping in earnest the action will increasingly be seen on the campaign trail. Movement has slowed to a crawl in La Fortaleza and the Capitol, providing two giant and sluggish targets for the NPP as the campaigns get nasty.
Calderon has said she is unaware of any strategy within the PDP to create space between her an Acevedo Vila and reminded the press that she is still governor until next Jan. 2. It is unfortunate that some of her energy has gone into battles with Aponte and PDP Sen. Margarita Ostolaza, two powerful members of her own party with whom she once worked closely.
Requiem For A Heavyweight (Contender)
Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark dropped out of the race for the White House on Wednesday, taking his detailed policy paper on Puerto Rico with him. Clark was the only candidate to concretely state that commonwealth is not a "constitutionally viable" option for Puerto Rico's ultimate political status. He called for islanders to choose among statehood, independence and free association to resolve the status dilemma once and for all. Importantly, the Clark campaign also took a clearer position on island economic issues than any of his Democratic rivals or the Bush re-election bid.
Quoted in a local newspaper, Senate Minority Leader Kenneth McClintock, the Democratic national committeeman in Puerto Rico, said: "Clark set the benchmark [on Puerto Rico policy] for the future on which every presidential candidate will be measured."
It is probable that Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry and Bush will sharpen their stances on Puerto Rico as November nears.
But Clark, a retired four-star general, hit the ground running on Puerto Rico. It is a shame he is now out of the running.
Kevin Mead is city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at email@example.com