A friend of mine wrote to me a few weeks ago, asking whether regional government could help turn Stamford into a major city, not just in Connecticut but in the northeast. I responded as follows:
Frankly, I don’t have much of an answer, because I’m not all that familiar with Fairfield County. Everything I say here about Fairfield County may be ill-informed.
My reason for regionalizing government in Connecticut is all about community and has nothing to do with trying to create a major or lead city in Connecticut. I don’t think Connecticut will ever be anything that looks like an independent major city on the national scene and I don’t care whether that ever happens. I also think that Fairfield County will always be seen as part of the New York City megalopolis, not as a separate place.
I’m interested in my community and how it can function more effectively to create economic growth and sustainability for all the people who live in it.
Fundamentally, I think that for a community to operate properly, the geographic area of the governance structure should mirror the geographic area of the community. That is, we should define the size of the community, and there should be one government for that community. In Hartford, we have too many governments for one community. (As an aside, I will add that we are having the opposite problem nationally. Many people, including a lot of people in the red states, think that one government doesn’t work well for multiple communities and that we shouldn’t permit the federal government to impose one-size-fits-all on separate communities.)
Defining the size of the community is art, not science. The reason I’ve been so vocal about Hartford is that, whatever the actual size of the community is, the city boundaries do not define it. The community is at least Hartford plus the immediately contiguous towns. I often talk about community as the place where most of the people share the same roads, stores, workplaces, etc. There is only one reason that anyone thinks of the City of Hartford and the Town of West Hartford as different communities, and that is that they have separate governments. By every other rational measure of community, the people in those two jurisdictions live in the same community.
At first, I concluded we need one government for greater Hartford, rather than multiple governments, because having multiple governments is ridiculously inefficient. It costs greater Hartford more than $100 million annually to operate this way, and we get worse service. It’s really stupid. But as I thought about it more, I also realized that separate governments is how we manage to keep greater Hartford so segregated. Having separate governments makes it easy for people in Newington and Wethersfield (to pick two towns), relatively white and relatively affluent, to ignore their neighbors in Hartford and New Britain, because separate governments tend to make us see those places as separate communities.
My impression is that the distinctions between city and suburbs aren’t so obvious in Fairfield County. I don’t think that Stamford is as poor or as racially segregated as Hartford is, or New Haven. I think there’s a relatively healthy middle class in Stamford. The segregated, poor population in Fairfield County is, I believe, largely in Bridgeport, not in Stamford. And I don’t think it makes sense to define the Stamford “community” as including Bridgeport. People who live in each of those cities do not think of the other city as their core city.
Moreover, a lot of people In Stamford and the surrounding towns think of NYC as the core city, and Stamford proper isn’t all that important to them.
In other words, defining the “community” in the Stamford area isn’t so easy as in Hartford. In Hartford, pretty much everyone would agree that Hartford and at least the contiguous towns are one “place.” I think, for example, that when someone from Windsor travels to Seattle and is asked where they’re from, they respond “Hartford,” not “Windsor.” Serious debate about what is and is not greater Hartford begins only with the towns that are a little farther out – Farmington, Canton, Simsbury, Rocky Hill, etc. Greenwich is right next door, but it’s easy to argue that Greenwich might more properly be considered a part of Westchester County, New York than Stamford.
All of which is to say two things: (1) I don’t know if regionalization of the government makes as much sense in Stamford as it does in Hartford, and (2) I don’t really care. Stamford is one of hundreds of communities in the country, and each community has its unique governance issues. I think it would be nice if each of those hundreds of communities could move toward the best way to govern themselves, but I don’t live in those communities, and I’m not interested in spending a whole lot of time thinking about how they should do it. I live in greater Hartford, and I can see that regionalization is essential to fixing the community.
I say “fixing” intentionally. Although there probably are ways that Stamford can be run better, I don’t know if Stamford governance is “broken.” Greater Hartford’s is. There is practically no independent metropolitan area of upwards of a million people any place in the United States that divides it’s governance into so many separate political jurisdictions as greater Hartford. Nobody does it this way, because it’s hopelessly expensive. And the only people in other parts of the country who seem to want to move toward our governance structure are the white people in Buckhead who want to be separate from Atlanta. They don’t want to recognize their neighbors’ problems as a community problem; rather, they want to disavow responsibility for their neighbors.
I live in one community, greater Hartford, and the government that organizes and pays for plowing my street should be the government that organizes and pays for plowing the streets of my neighbors in Hartford. One community; one government. Unfortunately, not many of my neighbors agree with me.