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The civic DNA of (your town's name)

The last time Connecticut towns elected their municipal leaders we were four months away from a pandemic that no one saw coming.

As the newly elected were still learning the ropes and the re-elected resuming the familiar rites of the budget cycle, towns halls shut down tight. Like schools and businesses, local government urgently had to find ways to operate, with the added responsibility of doing the public business in new, emergency definitions of "open."

It's municipal election time in Connecticut again, and I suspect most taxpayers and residents have given it even less thought than usual. Local elections perennially get the least voter participation of any election cycle. Add to that the fact that town business went out of sight for months in 2020, unless a citizen was committed enough to attend a public meeting by teleconference — once the town got that up and running.

Yet during the grim and isolating pandemic months the trash was still collected, the town's bills paid, records kept, and you might even have gotten a building permit if you gave an official working from home enough lead time. Most important, a presidential election was successfully held, to the everlasting credit of town clerks and registrars everywhere.

What brings all this to mind is that in Year 2 of COVID, the July-to-June Fiscal Year 2022, the pandemic is playing a new role in local government affairs. This is the banner year of COVID relief funds. Watching the response of local towns to the news that they will receive cash infusions in the millions of dollars is a reminder of why we in Connecticut stubbornly stick with the concept of Home Rule, though operating separate services is far less efficient and economical than regionalized agencies would be.

Efficiency and thrift are the cardinal virtues of Yankee governance because taxation and public spending dominate every other consideration. Rather than economize by  joining our public school systems or police departments, we observe our even higher principle of self-determination. The people of (your town's name) know what's good for (your town's name).

Watching the response of towns to the pledge of federal assistance, I believe it. In ordinary times, lean times, public officials have to be miserly with the dollars, which often tempts them to be equally stingy with transparency and participation in decisionmaking. They sometimes forget the legal description of an open, public meeting. In some towns there is chronic mistrust between the school board and the finance board. 

The power to choose, when there is finally enough money to make things happen, seems to have activated the sense of a civic DNA. Virtually every town in southeastern Connecticut is asking residents and taxpayers how to use the relief funds for a better future for the people who will live there. Any town that might have delayed on getting public input has heard about it. Under the New England model of small town governance, people know what fits for (your town's name).

It will be vital to think forward, not back, and equitably, rather than for any one privileged group. If towns choose to spend American Rescue Plan funds on projects such as broadband access for all neighborhoods or energy-efficient climate control for schools and public buildings, for example, economy and efficiency will be automatic and equity will follow.

Home rule for 169 Connecticut towns costs too much in dollars, but it does pay off in local leadership. An appropriate way to show appreciation to local leaders for coming through in unimagined circumstances would be to adopt their attitude, which I'd describe this way: Of course we keep the town running.

Of course, with wise use of relief funds we can do even better for (your town's name). And of course, the rest of us will get out and vote Nov. 2. 

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.


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