Leadership is Missing

A couple of my friends mentioned Tom Condon’s interview with Lyle Wray that was published in the Hartford Courant on Sunday.  Wray Interview.  I have a few reactions to what Wray had to say.

Wray recently retired as Executive Director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments.  He worked with distinction for many years, seeking ways to improve governance in the region, including looking for ways to create economies by sharing services.  It was a thankless job, planting seeds in fields of weeds.

Lyle and Condon acknowledge that Lyle had had a tough job.   He’s a smart guy, and he fully understands the need for much greater cooperation in the region, the severe limitations our town governance structure places on attempts for broad-based community planning, and the political dynamics at work.   Nevertheless, Lyle worked tirelessly, looking for wins wherever he could find them.

Why was Wray’s job so difficult?  Think about it in practical terms.  His job was to get thirty-odd towns, or some subset of those towns, to agree to change how they do something, like provide fire fighting services, handle 911 calls, or buy office supplies.  He dealt regularly with town managers.  On any given day, each town manager came to the table with their own concern.  The manager from South Windsor may be worrying about the growth of the warehouse industry in town, the manager from East Hartford may be thinking about the development of the Showcase Cinemas property, the manager from Farmington is trying to maneuver the political waters as the town considers how to improve their high school facilities.  Another may be preparing for an interview for a job in a metropolitan area with more rational governance.  That is, on any given day, several and maybe most managers are not interested in talking about saving money by sharing internet services.  They don’t want to take their eye off the ball that’s currently in play in their town, and they don’t want to be perceived as promoting change that seems unimportant to the voters.  And to the immediate point, those town managers certainly do not want to put their jobs at risk by championing a proposal so radical as having metropolitan governance.

Two things struck me in the interview:  Over lunch a few years ago, I asked Wray whether anyone had tried to quantify the savings that could be realized by consolidating services in a substantial way, particularly by merging several towns with the City of Hartford.  He said the study hasn’t been done for many reasons, including the complex differences in how towns (1) are organized and (2) account for their income and expenses,  He said, however, that the savings would be substantial.   Wray declined to be more specific then.

In his interview with Condon, Wray put a number on what our community could save in the cost of government if towns merged.  He said the savings could be “hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”  I’m not surprised; my conservative estimate had been $100 million annually, and that was based on looking at only the most obvious duplicate services.  It’s important to note that we’re not talking about some fancy experimental governmental structure that will generate some kind of speculative savings.  We’re talking about organizing the governance of greater Hartford in the same way virtually all other similarly-sized cities in the U.S. already are organized and realizing the economic benefit that other similarly-sized cities already are realizing.  Hundreds of millions of dollars – annually.

The obvious question is why would we choose such an economically inefficient governance model?  Why would we willingly spend $100 million a year or more on duplicate services?  Why wouldn’t we prefer to use that $100 million or more to educate our children, to fix our roads, to serve our homeless, or to reduce our taxes?

What we get for our $100 million per year is local control.  We can be personally acquainted with our elected town officials, we can be heard at town meetings, and most importantly, we can manipulate the governance system to impede change in our towns, changes to our schools and changes in our neighborhoods.  We give up the opportunity to participate in decision making for adjacent towns and our metropolitan area, but we get the opportunity to use the town political processes to preserve our towns as they are.  And we pay $100 million per year for the privilege.   Many people in our region see how this bargain impairs progress for greater Hartford, but many others, unwittingly or otherwise, are willing to pay the price rather than relinquish control.

Wray’s most damning comment appears at the end of the interview, and his complete meaning can be found only between the lines.  Wray, who is from Canada, says that Manitoba merged city and towns in 1970 and “that the 50-year track record is pretty impressive.”  He then went on to say that “[Manitoba’s] is of course a vastly different political context and is not a model for the reality we face.”

In other words, Wray says that it is politics and the point of view of the voters that impedes progress in our region.  Politics is something human beings developed to facilitate participation in government.   We expect our government to respond to the needs of the community as those needs arise and change.  Politics should not be an impediment to the functioning of the government and the progress of our community.  Connecticut created town governance in the 18th and 19th centuries, and times have changed.  Politics has failed to respond, and our politicians have failed us.

The “reality we face” is clear:  people respond negatively to the idea of merging towns, and politicians (and other community leaders) are not willing to lead us to a better place.   What Wray said, in essence, is that greater Hartford doesn’t have the political will to do what many people can see is necessary.

We need people with the vision and political courage to put greater Hartford on the path to a better future.


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