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Democracy, silly style in the City of Groton

First you establish a municipal government within a municipality, a nonsensical creation sure to sow confusion.

Then you hold the election for this odd political subdivision when no one is thinking about an election because they just went through a major election four months earlier. And you hold it on a Monday because, you know, people are conditioned to voting on a Tuesday.

One more thing — members of only one party can vote.

So, is the purpose to discourage voter participation? Create the perfect set up for nonrepresentative government, so to speak? If so, the recent City of Groton primary was a smashing success.

The City of Groton is a political subdivision within the Town of Groton. If you own property there, you get to pay taxes to the city and the town. Lucky you. Other double-taxation political subdivisions in the area are the Borough of Stonington and the Borough of Jewett City (within Griswold), which only have the name “borough” in common.

The City of Groton is by far the biggest of the three, home to Electric Boat and the Pfizer research campus. With a roughly $20 million budget, it has its own police, fire and public works departments — eight municipal unions in all to deal with. And the city owns Groton Utilities, with a $70 million budget.

It has a City Council and a strong mayor, currently Keith Hedrick, but likely not for long. Hedrick, 61, managed to lower taxes during his four years in office — two terms. Overall, things appeared to be running smoothly. It looked like Hedrick would stroll back into office unchallenged in the May 3 election. He is a Democrat, as is every council member, and Republicans did not put up any candidates, using some lame excuse about fearing the ramifications of all the anti-Trump fervor.

But then Democratic Town Councilor Aundré Bumgardner, 26, saw an opening. All he had to do to become mayor, it appeared, was win a March 8 primary — on a Monday of course — a low-turnout popularity contest only involving registered Democrats. And Bumgardner knows how to be popular. Jobless, he had time. He went door to door and let people who otherwise would have no clue that there was an election in on the secret. Personable and empathetic, Bumgardner listened to their concerns and talked up clean energy and youth programs; and who could oppose those?

Hedrick, meanwhile, he of boring tax control and managing a utilities department, was caught flat-footed, which might explain his lack of door-to-door work. Well, that and having to run the city. He seemed reluctant to point out that he had a background in engineering management and an MBA from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, while Bumgardner had a high school diploma. Hedrick hinted at his superior experience and preparedness when he should have been shouting it.

One candidate executed his strategy perfectly. The other had no strategy. And when the votes were counted it showed strategy, and Bumgardner, winning 335-330. That represents about 13% of the registered voters. What a mandate!

A recount Friday comfirmed the result. When I asked, Hedrick did not rule out a long-shot, write-in candidacy May 3. He is taking time to think.

It is time the major political parties open their primaries to unaffiliated voters. In this primary, their involvement could have led to a different outcome. I expect it would have.

And if Connecticut insists on having these odd political subdivisions it could at least hold the elections when at least a few more people are paying attention. A bill in the Government Administration and Elections Committee would do just that. It would move these elections to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in odd years, the same as all other local elections. This order could be overruled by a two-thirds vote of the local legislative body to keep the election on the first Monday in May. At least they would have to go on the record.

I’m not sure what chance it has of passage. Despite repeated attempts, I did not get a return phone call from the Senate chair of the committee, Mae Flexer, a Democrat serving the 29th District in northeast Connecticut. But, hey, why work with a journalist trying to inform the public?

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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