My friend Paul inspires me. Paul is blessed with uncommon common sense. He has a knack for cutting through the irrelevant, seeing issues at the heart of the matter, and looking for simple solutions.
Which doesn’t mean I always agree with him.
Several weeks ago Paul commented on one of my essays, and I wrote a response entitled “How Do We Get There From Here?” Last week he commented on two more essays, and he’s inspired me once again. His issues aren’t new – I’ve written about them before, but they are issues at the heart of the debate about how to attack greater Hartford’s broken governance system.
I will respond to Paul’s comments below, but the discussion that his comments inspire highlights the most important point: It’s not about whether Paul is correct about how to proceed or I am. The most important point is that greater Hartford needs to do something about these issues. When we begin to work on fixing our governance, when we begin to do the planning necessary to get our community working together toward a better future, we can decide which strategy to follow.
The point is that it’s time for greater Hartford to get going.
In the meantime, what did Paul say that got me writing?
In response to my essay entitled “Politicians Can’t Solve the Problem,” Paul wrote:
All good points. But my gut says that starting with schools is exactly the wrong place to begin. How about libraries or garbage collection for baby steps? Then maybe police and fire.
Well, Senator Looney targeted schools instead of libraries or garbage collection or police or fire because schools are the only local activity that receives large amounts of state support. Senator Looney wasn’t advocating for regional governance; he was just trying to reduce state spending. My point was to demonstrate that politicians aren’t even trying to solve our governance problems.
Paul meant, I think, that although he agrees we should govern ourselves as a region instead of as the separate municipalities that we have now, he thinks that schools are such a hot-button issue that any such proposal would fail if it would upset the current system of local control of schools. Thus, he believes, an incremental approach is necessary to achieve the ultimate objective.
I discussed the incremental approach in “What’s Wrong with Shared Services?” One problem with first working on, say, garbage collection is that in order to regionalize garbage collection, the towns will have to agree on how to manage a regionalized system. That management solution will involve, in one way or another, the creation of a commission. The commission will either be an independent entity, like the MDC, or will be governed by representatives from every town, like CREC. It will need taxing authority or will need a budget approved annually by all of the member towns – and funded by the towns. In short, we will have created another governmental entity.
After we create the garbage commission, we will have to create the police commission. Then the fire commission. And, of course, each town will opt into some of these commissions and opt out of others.
When we’re done with the incremental approach, we will have not only ten or fifteen municipalities; we also will have a half dozen or more MDCs and CRECs, all of which will be separate institutions, with different membership and different governance and different funding. When we finally get around to merging the towns and Hartford, all of those separate institutions will need to be undone so that the new merged city can assume control of trash collection, police, fire, etc. In short, the incremental approach will create more government when the ultimate objective is to reduce and streamline government.
We need to recognize that the governance system we have is failing us. Rather than construct a patchwork of commissions and authorities on top of an already broken system, we need to redesign and rebuild the system. We have to do what the founding fathers did when they saw that the Articles of Confederation weren’t working: start over with a new Constitution.
There’s a bigger problem with an incremental approach: Every time we work on a piece-meal solution, starting, say, with garbage, each town will negotiate to further its best interests, not the interests of the greater community. Each town will decide, without regard to the greater good, whether and how to participate in the regional approach. That is, our towns will be acting separately. Acting separately is at the core of what’s wrong with our current governance system. What greater Hartford needs is for its people to act together as one community instead of as eight or ten. The incremental approach reinforces the behavior we need to get past.
And the biggest problem with the incremental approach is that it will take fifty years or more to complete the task, and we don’t have the luxury of that much time. Greater Hartford has been wasting time and money for decades, operating the way it does, while other, better organized mid-sized cities have been building and actively pursuing employers and growth opportunities. The game will be over long before greater Hartford has come together through an incremental approach, and greater Hartford will be the loser.
But what about Paul’s concern about schools, the hot-button issue? Frankly, I think people need to get past the notion that the “quality” of this school or that is dependent on local control. Every metropolitan area the size of ours, metropolitan areas with one school board instead of ten, has maybe a dozen high schools, some of which are “better” than others. It isn’t local control that makes schools better or worse, and merging Hartford and several towns won’t magically ruin some schools or dramatically improve others.
Finally, here’s what Paul said in response to my essay entitled “The Politico”:
The problem is well stated. But our region isn’t an Athenian democracy and expecting “the people” to rise up, sweep the politicos away and fundamentally restructure our government doesn’t seem realistic.
No, ours isn’t an Athenian democracy; but it’s still a democracy. Democracy is government that gets its authority from the people. This government we have, the government that isn’t working, is our government. I simply will not accept that we can’t achieve meaningful change because the politicians elected to serve us won’t let us change our government. I won’t accept it because if that’s true, we have bigger problems than what we’re talking about here.
Maybe I’m naïve; maybe we can’t do what needs to be done. I’m not saying what has to happen will be easy. However, we can’t afford to shy away from the task because it’s difficult.
And we, the people, certainly can’t afford to abandon our democracy.
I’ll say it again: It’s time for greater Hartford to get going.