Let’s Talk About Regional Government

I recently attended the MetroHartford Alliance’s Pulse of the Region at Dunkin Park.  It was a farewell event of sorts for Mayor Luke Bronin, and it got my regionalism juices flowing again.

One of the questions from the audience at the event was about a return to something like county government.  It was the only question that drew applause from a large part of the audience.  It seemed that the audience understood the importance of the issue, understood that this issue was of unique significance to the future of greater Hartford.

Unfortunately, the Mayor had the wrong answer to the question, and he doesn’t often have the wrong answer.   He agreed, in so many words, that our governance system is inadequate because municipal governments are too small, but he said that won’t change because Connecticut is the “land of steady habits.”  He meant, I guess, that municipal government is a bad habit we can’t change.  I doubt Mr. Bronin would stop encouraging a loved one to quit smoking, and he shouldn’t stop encouraging us to quit town governance, either.

What the Mayor meant, of course, is that the politics of Connecticut won’t permit change to a more rational system.  His conclusion:  Rather than change the political reality, we need the state to solve urban/suburban problems.

Asking the General assembly to manage our regional issues is a bad idea.  Why would legislators from New Haven and Stamford and New London care about spending state money to solve Hartford’s problems?  What do those communities get out of that spending?  Nothing, unless there is some grand bargain that sweetens the pot for each of those communities, too.  But that means that every time greater Hartford wants to improve services or drive economic development, the process will depend on negotiation with legislators who simply aren’t interested. As we know, negotiations of that sort are long, complicated, often fail, and even when they succeed, they involve considerable compromise that may not be in our community’s interest.

Expecting the state to solve our regional problems is the mirror image of expecting our towns to solve the problems.  State government is for the citizens of the entire state, and its job is to manage the state, not the regions.  Town government is for, well, I’m not quite sure what we need town government for, but the towns have demonstrated since 1960 that they won’t deal with urban issues.  Hartford and its suburban towns all have suffered as a consequence.

Greater Hartford needs a right-sized government.  State government governs much more than just our region; municipal governments each govern only a portion of our region.  State government allows people who don’t live here to make decisions for us; town governance means no one makes decisions for the region.

Government works best if it is elected by all of the people in the community, and only those people.  The problem in greater Hartford is that we don’t have one government that’s elected by and is directly responsible for the entire community.

Why is it so important to right-size the government, to have one government for all of the people in our community?  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.

  1. Effective government.  Government can provide many services more effectively if we have one system to serve the half million people, more or less, in the immediate greater Hartford area.  Police services, fire protection services, 911 call services, road maintenance, education, solid waste disposal, park systems.  Almost everything local government does in greater Hartford can be done more effectively (i.e., better) if we do it regionally.  Communities of similar size all over the country provide those services regionally.
  2. Cost savings. Not only would government services be more effective if we had one government for greater Hartford; they would cost less, a lot less.  Collectively, Hartford and the surrounding towns could save tens of millions of dollars annually if we had one government instead of several.  The money we waste having separate governments is the money that could propel positive change in our community.
  3. Economic development. A more effective regional government would do a better job attracting development and employment to the region, because it would speak for the region, instead of town governments competing for those opportunities.  A more cost-effective government also would go a long way toward making the region more attractive to employers.
  4. Attacking racism and having a livable community for all of us. Many of us don’t like to admit it, but in the past towns used borders to institutionalize racial and economic separation, and today our borders perpetuate it.  Our town borders cause many of us to believe that urban issues are not suburban issues, that urban neighbors are not our neighbors.  One city that governs and serves all of us will create a more equitable community for all of us.

However difficult the Mayor may think regionalizing might be, it does our community no good to continue to ignore reality:  Greater Hartford cannot thrive without a rational governmental system.  Ignoring reality may be politically expedient, but it isn’t what we need.

Greater Hartford needs all of its leaders to stand up in agreement on this subject.  Political realities being what they are, we can’t expect our politicians to lead on this issue, but we can expect them at least to be forthright about the reality.  We need our corporate leaders to talk about the issue.  We need our nonprofit leaders to talk about it.  We need our clergy to talk about it.  Only as we talk about coming together as one community will we change our bad habit.

We need leaders throughout greater Hartford to talk about the problem, so that our citizens one by one can begin to see that better government will be better for all of us.

Let’s talk about regional government.

3 Replies to “Let’s Talk About Regional Government”

  1. I’m in favor. But if we’re going to talk about it, let’s get specific. Are we talking about merging certain towns in the Hartford region into one town? Putting in place a county-like structure throughout the state? Creating an optional regional structure that could provide certain services to multiple towns? Something else?
    Having those discussions would help identify discrete political and practical obstacles with each path and perhaps eventually move the ball forward. I wish I knew a smart blogger who could facilitate those next-stage discussions.

    • Thanks for commenting, Paul. I’m planning to discuss some of what you ask, in general terms, in coming essays.

      In general, the kind of change I’m talking about necessarily is long-term. We all understand the depth and breadth of opposition to the idea. Many, many people respond to the issue saying something like, “I agree, that’s a good idea, but it will never happen.” A lot has to change.

      I have talked in the past about some of the details you ask about, but my view of the details really isn’t important. If major change were to happen, the community will first have to come together and generate some momentum about the idea in general, and then the community, through some mechanism, would need to decide on details. Having said that, I think towns and city should merge, resulting in one municipal government governing what used to be Hartford and one or two or ten other towns (whoever wants in). We should not have town government AND county government. That’s too much government, and too much jurisdictional conflict. We should NOT have mechanisms to share services. Shared services result in unwieldy committees that have trouble getting anything done (MIRA), or undemocratic institutions over which the voters have no control (MDC). We don’t need more layers of anything.

      Ultimately, in some fashion, people will have to vote on whether they want to merge. So, we would need a majority of the voters in each town to approve the merger, which means we would need a lot of people to change their minds from where they are today. For that to happen, we need leadership and we need people talking about it. That’s why I was disappointed that the Mayor punted on the question. The question should NOT be dismissed simply by saying “can’t happen in the land of steady habits.” My answer to the question is, well, it’s going to very difficult, but there is no more important problem facing our community, and we have to dedicate ourselves to solving it.

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