The other day a friend of mine called me a politico. I quickly disabused him of that notion. I’ve had other people suggest I should run for office. Believe me, that is not happening.
What I’m talking about – merging six or eight or ten or more towns with Hartford to form one city – is a task for anyone but politicos. Our current governance structure may have been created by politicos, but it won’t be fixed by politicos. This problem is not new; if politicos had wanted change, they would have fixed it twenty or thirty years ago. If we’re going to fix it now, we the people of greater Hartford have to fix it, and we have to leave the politicos out of the process.
Why must the politicos stand aside? It’s about power. The fundamental goals of politicos are to get power (by being elected or appointed), to exercise power for the benefit of their community, and to keep their power. That third point is a problem in a democratic system, and we have laws that limit politicians’ ability to use their governmental office to preserve their power. The laws notwithstanding, politicos use their incumbency to get reelected or reappointed – always have and always will. I don’t say that as an indictment; it’s human nature and it’s a natural consequence of the system: it’s easier to stay in power than to get power from the outside, so if you’re a politico, it’s only natural to use power to stay in power.
Selectmen, mayors, town managers and everyone who works for them get their power indirectly from the state. The state is the sovereign power with control over everything within the state’s boundaries, subject only to federal authority. By statute, the state creates what are called “political subdivisions” – towns and other organizations, and the state gives political subdivisions some of the power that the state has.
How do the towns exercise that power? Pursuant to the town’s charter and other governing documents, people are elected or appointed and authorized to use the town’s power for the benefit of the town. When we elect a mayor or a town council, and when they appoint all of the people who run town government, we are giving those people the authority to use power the town got from the state.
All of those elected and appointed people are politicos – their profession, career or job is to get and exercise the power the state has given the towns. They exercise that power for the benefit of the community, and many of them also, quite naturally, exercise that power in a manner that allows them to maintain their profession, career or job.
Here’s the problem: The merger of Hartford and the towns has to be accomplished by the General Assembly, which would terminate the existence of the current towns and create one new, larger political subdivision. All of our current town elected officials, appointed managers and employees get their power from political subdivisions that will cease to exist. Their power will disappear, in an instant. The only way to get power back will be to start from scratch, to build a new political career based on the governance structure of a brand new government. Incumbents, elected or appointed, hate that idea, because it’s much easier to keep power once in office than it is to get power in the first place. There will be winners and losers – not everyone currently elected or appointed to serve the towns will hold similar positions in the new city.
Under these circumstances, it just isn’t reasonable to expect politicos to solve greater Hartford’s governance problem. Let me be clear: I’m not saying politicos are corrupt or bad people. They are, by and large, talented and hard-working people dedicated to public service. However, when it comes to acting in their official capacities in order to eliminate their own jobs, they are in a hopelessly conflicted position.
Merging several towns with Hartford to create one larger city won’t happen through normal political channels for the same reason we don’t have term limits. Why would we expect hundreds or thousands of people whose political careers or jobs depend on the existence of the status quo to use their political power to work to eliminate the status quo? Some people at the tail ends of their careers and some people who are willing to ignore their self-interest for the greater good might work for change, but many would not. The many will tell us, as they’ve been telling us for decades, that fixing our governance can’t be done, or we need to study it, or we need an incremental approach, or whatever. Politicos are part of the problem, not the solution.
I don’t know anything at all about Bloomfield politics, but just to give a concrete example, consider Bloomfield. There’s probably someone on the town council in Bloomfield who has political aspirations, who thinks that they can eventually chair the council, get elected to the General Assembly, maybe even run for statewide office. Why would that person think it’s a good idea to use their power to eliminate the political subdivision that forms their political base?
Or consider Robert Smith, the town manager in Bloomfield. I don’t know the man and I don’t intend to imply anything whatsoever by using him as an example, but consider this: Robert Smith began working in Bloomfield in September 2019, having moved from Arizona. He’s paid $160,000 a year and has a nice fringe benefit package. Why would Robert Smith use his power to eliminate the town that employs him and that convinced him to move all the way across the country? He wasn’t hired to do that. Maybe the merger process will take so long that he need not worry about losing his job, but he should worry about offending that politician on the town council with political aspirations, because that politician is his boss. And he should worry about how the citizens of Bloomfield (except, of course, those who read my essays!) will feel about spending town money on pursuing a merger.
Believe me, Robert Smith probably is not going to champion a merger. And even if he does, I’m not ready to have him join the steering committee that plans the new government. Here’s why:
We should beware any politico who wants to participate in the process, no matter how selfless they may be or how earnestly they may profess their undying commitment to change. Why? Because when this all happens, we will adopt a new charter for the new city. We will decide the size of the city council, the size and shape of the districts from which council members are elected, the extent of the mayor’s power, and all sorts of other characteristics of our government. Even the most selfless politicos will see the process and evaluate the options through the lens of the community they serve, be it Hartford, Bloomfield, Wethersfield or wherever. We will be creating a new system for a broader community, and the charter for that new community should not be created by people whose professional obligation is to serve a smaller, soon-to-be-eliminated political subdivision or whose self-interest may cloud their judgment.
What about all the knowledge and experience our politicos have about how our region operates? Wouldn’t we want to have the benefit of that knowledge and experience? Absolutely! We can get that benefit from talking to them, asking them to help us understand the unique obstacles the community will face. However, the fact that politicos know some things that will be useful in forming a new government doesn’t mean they should share control in making the critical decisions about that government. That’s the people’s decision. In order to learn about how other similarly-sized communities operate, the steering committee made up of citizens from around our community will want to examine best governance practices from all over the country. The steering committee will talk to politicos from those communities, but we won’t let those people decide what our government should look like, and we shouldn’t let our local politicos decide for us, either.
The truly fundamental point about politicos is this: In a democratic governmental system, the people create the government and the politicos work for us within that system. Fixing greater Hartford’s dysfunctional governance system is the people’s problem, not the politicos’. Once we have created a new, broader based governmental structure, then the politicos can go to work for us in that new system. Until then, the politicos need to be on the sideline.
I am not a politico.