When citizens go to the polls this fall in Hartford, Connecticut, many of them will scan their ballots for a charter reform referendum they've been looking forward to voting on all year. They won't find it.

That's because the city council decided to hamstring the reform vote- -designed to create a newly powerful mayor--by scheduling it for a December special election, rather than putting it on the November ballot. Since a special election referendum isn't valid unless 15 percent of registered voters say yes--and the last time a charter change was tried 15 percent didn't even show up at the polls--the council's maneuvering may well work.

If it works, though, it will do nothing to calm a stewing sense of frustration with Hartford's government. The city is not really run by anyone at the moment, and the sense of aimlessness is palpable to a visitor. The state has taken over the Hartford schools and oversees the downtown economic development effort. The police department is beset by scandal. The fire department is in better shape, but a recent study declares it vastly overstaffed and too expensive to run. The rest of city government is struggling in its delivery of basic services: There is no permanent housing or finance director, and it took three years to hire an economic development director.

The city council washes from one argument to another, the city manager--though well-liked--is facing questions about her effectiveness, and the popular mayor, Mike Peters, retains influence only through the strength of his own personality. Small surprise that the strong-mayor movement has support within the business community and among citizens looking for someone--anyone--to hold accountable.

It was not supposed to be this way. Hartford has always had its share of urban problems and political feuding, but for much of the 1990s, it was widely thought to be on the verge of a comeback. Ambitious redevelopment plans attracted broad civic and private support. Peters, a dynamic and relentless civic salesman, seemed to be the first public figure in years capable of generating a sustained feeling of local enthusiasm. His willingness to sell corporate leaders, suburban Rotarians and wary neighborhood leaders on Hartford's charms helped transform the region's view of the city. Peters and the city council cut the tax burden and made inroads against Hartford's gang problem, tearing down a dysfunctional public housing complex and replacing it with single-family homes and an industrial park.

And ambitious new projects are in the works at this moment, among them an expanded civic auditorium; a collection of new schools and social service clubs, near Trinity College, that is known as "The Learning Corridor"; $750 million in state-financed downtown projects that will include Adriaen's Landing, a massive new retail, entertainment and housing development; and a football stadium across the Connecticut River in East Hartford.

At the same time, however, there is a lack of confidence that all the strands of revitalization, most of which still exist only on paper, will ever come together. Indeed, only the Learning Corridor--which was entirely a private initiative--is actually a physical presence at the moment. "There is a sense," says the director of one prominent nonprofit in the city, "that if two years from now much of this stuff hasn't been built, that will be a big blow."

In short, the battle for Hartford has not been lost, but it isn't going very well, either, despite the economic boom that has brought new life to dozens of other Eastern cities. And the worse things get, the more people decide that ultimately the problem is that the city's governing structure has simply become unworkable. City government, the nonprofit director continues, "is not seen as an asset to the city of Hartford. It's not because they're bad people, or not smart. I don't know exactly how it's broken, but it is."

Hartford's is a council-manager form of government, with the administrative authority in the manager's hands. But it stands out as something of an anachronism in an era when other cities with similar forms have opted to give their elected mayors at least a modicum of power: In Hartford, the mayor has neither a veto nor a vote on the city council, and so depends for leadership at any given moment on his ability to persuade a majority of the nine-member council. Actual political power, in other words, rests with the council.

And in Hartford, the council is a particularly Balkanized body. The Democratic caucus, with six members, is carefully balanced to contain two white, two black and two Hispanic members, reflecting the roughly equal proportions of the city's demographic makeup. Two white Republicans and one African-American Green Party member make up the rest of the body.

Each member feels compelled to represent his or her "community" on every personnel and contracting decision the council makes. And the council makes a lot of these, since it has a habit of looking over the shoulders of city manager Saundra Kee Borges and her department heads. Told of another Connecticut city's quick decision to hire a new marketing director, one person familiar with the Hartford council commented, "That could never happen here. If we tried to hire a marketing person we'd never get over the racial arguments and competency arguments over who should be hired."

Of course, one of the responsibilities of the city manager in a government like this is to help the council focus on the decisions it needs to make and provide it with the information it needs to do a good job. That does not happen in Hartford. Exactly why can be a bit difficult to untangle. There are those who argue that the council is not interested in encouraging a strong city manager, who could advise it on policy but who might also fend off its incursions into the day- to-day management of the city. Others argue that Borges, a former deputy corporation counsel who is widely credited with having brought stability to the post, is by nature too conciliatory for a contentious city like Hartford.

Borges, not surprisingly, rejects that notion. She points out that only since July--after a long process--has the city had in place a strict set of guidelines for evaluating department heads and other senior managers. "We're finally in a position to hold people accountable for things we want to see happen, and they won't be able to come up with excuses," she says. "You either meet those benchmarks or you don't."

Yet there clearly are some serious problems with basic administrative functioning. For one thing, critics argue that a system for evaluating the performance of department heads should have been in place long ago. In Hartford, department heads with support on the council have been able routinely to ignore requests for information or action from the city manager's office--as the city's former finance director did-- without much fear of the consequences.

Even when city agencies take action on specific problems, they often move slowly and clumsily, as when months of complaints about unmowed city parks eventually led to the hiring of seasonal workers to do the job, which in turn led to the discovery that the city didn't have enough equipment to enable the workers actually to cut grass. And both Borges and Peters have been criticized for allowing problems in the police department to fester: Not only have some 20 Hartford police officers been arrested over the past decade but there have been two grand jury investigations into corruption and a stinging consultant's report that came up with more than 150 recommendations for administrative change, citing such issues as the department's willingness to structure assignments so that cops working on weekend days would get paid overtime.

The sense that city government is, at best, not on top of things is summed up by Peter Adomeit, a professor at the Western New England College School of Law. "What I've seen happen over the years is that various problems would arise within the city which, for whatever reason, were not being addressed by city government," he says. "It could be as simple as a street corner that had a lot of drug dealing, or it could be a business person trying to get permits, or a recent problem the city's had with rats. The people who had these problems were not getting them addressed by the city. So what I've seen happening is that they call the Hartford Courant and columnists write about the problem, which creates public exposure, and that hopefully causes the city to address the problem. Which is why I refer to this as a `strong-columnist' form of government."

The move to change the city's charter and give it strong-mayor government did not actually arise with Mayor Peters, although he has gradually come to support it. The recommendation came from a charter- revision commission created last year by the city council, with strong support from business leaders.

And Peters, although he considers the council's recent special- election vote to be a political setback, remains somewhat ambivalent about changing the nature of his post. "I'm not sure what it would get me; probably nothing," he says. "Right now, it's about cajoling a lot of people before you get to the promised land." And cajoling is, in fact, what Peters excels at. A former firefighter, he is funny, profane, companionable, charming--"It still amazes me how he can command a room," says council member Marilyn Rossetti.

In Hartford, this is not an inconsiderable skill. The years of uncertain leadership--the word "vacuum" comes up a lot in conversations with civic leaders--have created a city in which lots of groups, from major corporations to neighborhood organizations to groups of small businessmen to state-appointed boards of trustees, the governor and the legislature, all have a say in the city's direction. Getting things done in Hartford involves making trade-offs, kidding people along and coaxing them to line up behind a particular course of action. But eight years of this can be exhausting, and Peters admits it. "Finally, you hit a wall," he says. "It's not the inability to do things, it's how much can you do? You can't deliver on everything. So the limitations do handcuff you."

This is a time when Hartford should, by rights, be well on its way back. Cities such as Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Maine, are enjoying growing popularity, but they are also reaping the results of years of focused planning and leadership. Hartford, by contrast, ranks at or near the bottom in Connecticut on many signs of economic vitality: per-capita personal income, market value of taxable property, housing permits, unemployment and the like.

To be sure, you can walk around and point to promising individual projects: the rehabilitation of the old Colt Firearms factory into living and retail space; a 950-seat addition for the grand old Bushnell Auditorium; new housing and a hotel slated for a site by Bushnell Park, the central green space that flows down from the state capitol; the recent deal with Capital Community College for that institution to take over the abandoned G. Fox building, the old department store that is still a signature piece of Hartford's skyline; and, of course, both the Learning Corridor and the vital Adriaen's Landing project.

But there is a haphazard quality to all of this, which is not surprising given that the city council abolished Hartford's planning department several years ago. Indeed, if Hartford has any coordinated development vision these days, it's the result of work by the Toronto- based urban designer Ken Greenberg, who's been hired variously by the city--at the urging of a downtown-focused civic group--by Trinity College and by a neighborhood nonprofit to draw up plans for different quadrants of town.

Meanwhile, the city's various neighborhood merchants' groups are busy deciding what they want to see happen on their particular turf. Hartford may be moving forward, in other words, but only as a result of small initiatives taken beyond City Hall.

The challenge for the city, then, is to weave all those strands into a more coherent sense of direction. As Eddie Perez, president of the Southeast Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, a community development organization, says, "We're not able yet to overcome the fact that piece by piece doesn't add up to a whole strategy." And it's not clear that a formally weak mayor--even one with considerable powers of persuasion--can do this. Peters has never pretended to be a big thinker; as a friend of his says, "The mayor is a firefighter by nature: He reacts to things and is very good at that. But if you say, `What's the vision for housing or for traffic patterns?' he can't do it, and he admits that."

This is not an insuperable obstacle: A mayor such as Peters, backed up by a strong city administrator and a working majority on the council, could give the city the sense of direction it now lacks. But that can't happen until Hartford city government gets the basics right, and that will take a stronger hand than the city has been able to muster so far. "The question is, how do you make Hartford more livable," says Perez. "Nobody expects the city to perform a miracle and bring in 10,000 jobs. But they do expect basic services: education, police, public works. This city is challenged with those basics. And it can't pay attention to the second tier like development or growing the tax base until the basics are decided."