'Yes' to Question 2 to keep public land transfers public

No one has to tell the people of eastern Connecticut about the value of public lands nor the temptation to state officials to use them for barter. Seaside Regional Center, Pachaug State Forest, Gungywamp and miles of one-of-a kind riverbank and shoreline are found — only — here.

What voters do need to be told about is a ballot question they will see Nov. 6, one of two general questions that would amend the state constitution and thus reduce the discretionary power of the General Assembly to act. It has not had much publicity.

Question 2 asks voters to choose whether to approve a constitutional amendment that changes the way the state gives, sells or swaps land. A "yes" vote would approve two key changes to legislatively authorized conveyance of publicly owned property: A legislative committee must first hold a public hearing to allow for public comment on the transfer of a specified property; and if the property is under the control of the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, giving it away, swapping or selling it would require a two-thirds vote of the membership of the state House of Representatives and of the state Senate. The second provision covers much of the state's undeveloped land because much is under the stewardship of those two departments.

The amendment would not restrict the transfer of buildings or land that come under general procedures established for state agencies, which include public notice. What it would do is tie the hands of legislators in the matter of late-session bills or amendments that in effect give away or sell the land in the dead of night.

The Day has consistently raised warnings over what amounts to tit-for-tat bargaining by legislators to get unaired items through the General Assembly at the last minute. It's too bad that it takes a constitutional amendment to stop that, but that's Connecticut politics. Experience has shown that political expediency will prevail, especially as the closing gavel nears.

If passed by the voters, Question 2 would add Section 19 (a) and (b) to Article 3 of the Constitution of the State of Connecticut. In theory, it would prevent or at least lessen the chance of waking up one morning and finding out that a chunk of your favorite state park was to become something else. Section 19 could not help but improve transparency.

It should improve the public's chances of holding on to land that is valuable for any reason, including location, uniqueness of environmental features, historical importance or longstanding and popular use. State parks and state forests would be better protected from self-serving or simply unenlightened plans and profit motives.

The push for the amendment has come largely from a group calling itself Protect CT Public Lands Coalition.  It includes the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, a non-profit organization based in the fetchingly named village of Rockfall in the town of Middlefield.

It's worth noting that the proposal has no organized statewide opposition and that it passed the General Assembly the quicker way — by gaining a three-fourths majority of the Senate and then of the House of Repressentatives this spring. The Senate vote was unanimous. The proposal therefore did not need to be reintroduced in a subsequent session and is going directly to the voters next month. By their vote, most legislators agreed that there must be a check on last-minute temptations to dispose of land.

To become Article 3, Section 19 of the state constitution, the proposed amendment needs a simple majority of voters to vote in favor.

As always, The Day endorses transparency in conducting the public's business, in this case with the added benefit of requiring cooler heads to reflect on whether a parcel should stay in the public domain or be put to a use that benefits the public in some other way. Vote yes on Question 2.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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