As published in the Record Journal, Sunday September 18, 2011
If I were a civics teacher, a viewing of last Tuesday’s Wallingford Town Council meeting would be a class requirement, and it would serve as a textbook example of why the functions of government should be carried out at the lowest level possible or, described another way, the level closest to the people.
On the one hand were the votes to repeal Town Council decisions to lease a piece of private property for 30 years and to spend public money on its improvement or face a referendum on the issue. On the other hand, was the report on the placement of the railroad station by the project engineer for the $647 million commuter rail project where the only impact that the citizenry of Wallingford might possibly have is on its location.
When you put these two projects side by side as was done the other night, it becomes clear why so many of us advocate for leaving as much authority and responsibility at the local level of government, or at least the lowest possible level that makes sense. Our ability to enforce accountability and transparency on those that run our various governments dissipates exponentially as decisions are made by higher and most distant entities. Here are three aspects of what I mean by that:
1. The citizen’s impact on government: the Town Council made two decisions regarding the parking lot. Those decisions have been challenged by some voters. First, they were able to argue for a repeal of those decisions in an open meeting directly with the people that made them. Not having achieved that goal, they were able to secure sufficient signatures to allow every voter in Wallingford to weigh in on the issue in a referendum. The railroad project?
Well, maybe, just maybe, if, in their judgment, they deem our comments worthy, we may, just possibly, perhaps be able to get the State of Connecticut and the Federal Railroad Administration to … listen to us regarding where to locate the station. That is the sum total of citizen impact on this $647 million project. As for any other citizen comments the other night: it was “this deal is done; sit down and be quiet” time, according to one councilor’s comments.
2. How these projects are paid for: The Town Council of Wallingford is paying for the parking lot improvements immediately from a capital and non-recurring fund financed by current contributions from our Electric Division. How is the commuter railroad being paid for? Well, the State of Connecticut is borrowing its hundreds of millions from us and our children. The feds are paying their hundreds of millions of dollars with … Happy Bucks borrowed from our great grandchildren. In other words, local government finances its wishes with real money; the state with sort of real money to be paid back years from now, and the feds with … money borrowed from … well, we really don’t know, do we?
3. Direct results: Wallingford Town Council spends $500 thousand. Result: parking lot improvements that everyone who owns a car in Wallingford can use. State and feds spend one thousand times that amount and we get: a startup commuter service that will be utilized by 6,000 residents statewide. But to justify this staggering amount of money spent on benefiting so few, they trot out the old impossible-to-quantify, years-and-years down the road “economic development” chestnut.
I am not for a second suggesting that the decisions to be made in building railroads or other similarly complex undertakings be the province of local authorities. That is clearly unworkable. However, the point I am making is that, in America today, we citizens are ceding more and more authority to higher and higher levels of government.
That Town Council meeting contained two starkly contrasting approaches to government. Unless we are wise, we will lose the one and be crushed by the other.