Smart Growth for Vernon, CT

A loud gong signifying a change of socks

Editorials & Comment
Journal Inquirer
November 7, 2007

It would be too much to say that yesterday's election was a loud gong signifying nothing. But if it signified much it is hard to see what.

One could say that the voters voted with their wallets, that they are tired of bloated budgets, high taxes, and tax increases.

Certainly that is what Vernon Republicans, jubilant over the decisive victory of Jason McCoy over Ellen Marmer, said. But hold on. If recent Vernon budgets were bloated they could hardly be blamed on the Democrats and Marmer alone. Republicans, including McCoy, already controlled the town's Board of Education and Town Council.

Manchester experienced what might be seen as a sea change: the Republicans taking over the Board of Directors. Here again, the claim was that fiscal responsibility had won the day. The proof will be in the pudding. And the Manchester Repubs did have a platform (some said it was a gimmick) — to hold a town referendum when the budget increase is more than 3 percent. But the likely new mayor, Lou Spadaccini, is a longtime council member who has participated in town governments and budgets for many years. Was he secretly against most of what went on for all that time?

Candidates who run on a platform of "change" have a hard road to travel when they win, especially if they have been part of what they now pledge to alter. The questions are simply put and not so simply answered: Change from what to what? To what end or purpose? And how do we intend to do it?

Up in Minnesota they used to call state politics "sub-local." In Connecticut, said one wry observer, we might call local politics sub-petty.

Why should this be so?

Why, instead of classrooms of democracy and cradles of citizenship, should the politics of our towns be as mean — and often meaningless — as it is?

And by meaningless we mean candidates who run on no more of a platform than "I'm not him, or her."

The answer may be found in the work of Walter Lippmann, the great practical philosopher and journalist.

Lippmann said that for politics to have meaning, a politician had to have a public philosophy, and, by extension, the voters need some sense of one as well.

What is a public philosophy?

In simplest terms, it is a point of view, a value system, a reason for engaging in politics.

For example, John Edwards thinks it is the business of the national government to solve the problem of a third of our countrymen being without adequate, or any, health insurance. Ron Paul thinks the federal government cannot solve any problem and should not try. Hillary Clinton says it takes a village to raise a child. Fred Thompson says "the less government involvement (in whatever problem), the better."

Now you may agree with some of these points of view or you may disagree. But such points of view give politics context and meaning. When politics has no such context — when it is reduced to ego, posturing, and pandering, and when there is no public philosophy — politics is simply let's throw the ins out; vote for me because I am new. Elections become the mere routine of change and exchange — like changing socks.

"Change" without context is just chaos.

If we want to change local government in Connecticut we have to talk about issues we do not allow ourselves to talk about at present: How should we fund local government? What are our priorities in local government? What do we want our teachers and police officers to do and how much do we expect to pay them?

As it is now, we approach local elections this way: Anything but an issue.

If you really want to reduce the tax burden in a town like Manchester or Vernon, you have to do more than talk it to death. You have to find a way to control the growth in the salaries of public employees. There are different ways to approach that issue. But if you ignore it, you will never restrain the tax burden and all you will be engaging in at election time is a contest of personalities. And every election may be a revolving door: ins out and outs in. That is what they do in Tolland, for example.

In Vernon there have been eight mayors in the last 18 years (if you count Steve Marcham twice). That averages out to 2.25 years each. Some had great potential and some were, fairly or unfairly, seen as duds. But ask yourself: How much could anyone learn about a complex job in two years? You might say, "Hey, the town professionals run the town anyway." But that's not true. Mayors matter just as governors and presidents matter. Hartford has just put a bullet in its head, governance-wise, because a heavy-handed, isolated, and ineffectual mayor has been given another term. Talk to anyone in Vernon who knows town government and politics. Twenty years of instability have damaged town administration.

There were two big losers in our parts yesterday: Mayor Ellen Marmer of Vernon and Manchester's longtime Democratic chairman, Ted Cummings. Both have lots of enemies and some people don't like their style, sometimes called autocratic, and sometimes called combative. But both of these individuals have a public philosophy: Serve the town. Just serve the town. Don't run for higher office. Don't build your resume. Serve the town. And both have done so in many, many capacities for many years.

What is the public philosophy of their opponents?

Lower taxes?

Jim Michaud / Journal Inquirer
Jason McCoy and his wife, Angela, celebrate Tuesday's election victory in the Vernon mayoral race.

Fine. Tell us how.

You can look at local elections like yesterday's and say we live in a culture of distraction and the voters don't really know what they are doing. Or you could say: Elections come and go and life is more than elections; roll with it. Both points of view have validity. Or you could ask: Why don't we talk about something real? Why don't we give town politics a point? Why don't we talk about how to actually make town government better?

Otherwise it is all about ego and personalities and who is up and who is down and who is in and who is out.

There were two big winners yesterday: Lou Spadaccini in Manchester and Jason McCoy in Vernon. Both men have the experience and the personal skills to be great mayors. But they will need a public philosophy to change town politics.