Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Vernon rules

Editorials & Comment
Journal Inquirer
March 7, 2011

There is always at least one town in JI land in which local politics descends to the level of a dysfunctional family, sometimes a comic one, sort of like the running skit on the old "Carol Burnett Show." And like that old skit, it is funny for a while. Then it becomes sad.

Vernon has a mayor, Jason McCoy, who is popular and who enjoys a Republican majority on the Town Council. McCoy is intelligent, dedicated, and he can be personable. As mayor he's tried to keep costs and taxes down and taken his administrative responsibilities seriously.

But he has two large flaws, for a politician and for a mayor: One is that he yells at people and shouts them down. In public, during council meetings. This includes council members and citizens. His most frequent victim is Councilwoman Marie Herbst, who is in her 80s and has been a public servant for decades. She is a person who deserves some respect.

The mayor's other flaw is that he seems to have little respect for a deliberative process, especially where appointments are concerned. For the positions of town administrator, public works director, and, last week, social services director, the mayor has come up with a personal choice who surprised the council and required a reconfiguring of the job description. That's OK, maybe even good. But then the mayor doesn't want to explain. He doesn't want to be questioned about it or held accountable by the council, whose job it is to check and balance him.

When asked if Assistant Town Planner and Economic Development Coordinator Marina Rodriguez even wanted the job of social services director, the mayor became testy and refused to answer.

The nomination came out of left field. Council members were not given a resume until they asked for one. And the mayor expected the appointment to be rubber-stamped with no deliberation. (It was.)

This nominee actually seemed to be qualified. But frustrated members of the council seemed to be saying, in effect: We have to have some sort of process.

The mayor's response was, in effect: Not really. I am mayor, and I rule by edict and absolutely.

McCoy is not the first mayor to approach the job this way, in Connecticut or elsewhere. But this approach always falls of its own weight and things usually end badly for mayors who see the job as king for a term.

Everyone knows Jason McCoy wants to be a state legislator or even state attorney general someday. He's not going to make it unless he learns a little humility and respect. And if he can't truly learn either, he should fake it and hope going though the motions of civility somehow sinks in and changes his behavior.

It should also be noted that the dysfunction in Vernon is not all one-sided.

Democrats really despise McCoy and his party.

Democratic state Rep. Claire Janowski, a good legislator and a fine public servant who came up through Vernon politics, has introduced a bill that would ban towns from hiring one of the local party chairmen as the town attorney.

Maybe that's a good rule of thumb, a "best practice," but, like compelling people to turn on their car lights when their windshield wipers are on (a recent law passed in Ohio), you wonder if this defensible idea should be elevated to the level of a public law.

And maybe it's not even a good rule of thumb. Let's face it — town attorney is the only patronage the ruling party has left to dole out. A better reform might be to end the practice of passing the work out to three attorneys, or three or more law firms, which is darned expensive.

When the Democrats ran the town, the town attorney was, for many years, Joe Courtney, who was a legislator, candidate for lieutenant governor, campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, and now is himself the local congressman. Courtney was not a town chairman, but he was totally political. Another Vernon town attorney was Kevin Rennie, who was a GOP state legislator at the time, and also a political animal. (Rennie also served as town attorney for East Hartford while a legislator.)

This proposed new law is aimed at Hal Cummings, who is the current head local GOP hack as well as town attorney. No one has suggested that he is not a good attorney or that he has in any way failed the town in his official duties.

It's not a matter of broken rules in Vernon, and more rules will not fix Vernon politics. But some fair-mindedness, common sense, and civility will help the town get away from the dysfunctional family model and back to the town government model. And it must start with the mayor. He can begin with being respectful to Mrs. Herbst.