‘Home rule’ comes home to roost
New Englanders famously have a taste for “home rule,” meaning that the town, not a county, is the first level of local governance. There is a catch, however. Autonomy comes with a to-do list, and if people forget about that right and duty, the result can be stagnation and a deep resistance to natural, needed growth.
Fortunately, we have the biennial municipal elections to remind us. This year, many of the newly sworn-in representatives to local boards of education, zoning commissions and other offices seem more inclined than usual to dig right in. Public interest in the issues these elected bodies will be debating already seems higher than average.
All of this means the potential for greater public attention on issues that affect people where they live. It bodes well for Do-It-Yourself governance, the often overlooked base of the pyramid under the layers of state and federal government.
Recent good examples of gearing up for their assigned roles in home rule have come from the Norwich Board of Education, the East Lyme Zoning Commission, the city of Groton’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Ledyard Planning and Zoning Commission.
In Groton city and the town of East Lyme, recent meetings have attracted residents and taxpayers with many opinions on issues that will color the future livability of their communities. Urgent housing needs for a growing workforce have brought out the competing interests of people who feel they have chosen — and supported with their taxes — a community they value and enjoy, and those of developers who see a profitable way to meet the need amid a virtually permanent shortage of units. A town that is growing will also attract developers of commercial projects that can divide the opinions of residents.
Norwich school board members are taking up a heavy budget deficit and a serious management issue, examining staff allegations of intimidation and retaliation against administrators who are now on leave. The board feels its obligation to have a competent professional staff and a good teaching climate so as to carry out its mission of educating and protecting children. It needs to keep hearing from citizens, parents and staff.
In Ledyard, proposed development of a quarry operation on most of the 150-acre former Dow Chemical parcel raises the perennial issue of a site with environmental and cultural claims against a business operation. A PZC meeting Thursday began the review with about 200 residents there to listen and to speak.
Representative government operates in various forms in every state, but most parts of the country rely on county government to oversee public schools, land use, law enforcement and courts. Connecticut and other New England states were settled by individual shiploads of Europeans who liked things small so they could be in charge of their own religion and business. When the newcomers imposed their individualistic style on the Indigenous people who had been using the land in common, they carved it into towns still governing today.
That’s the brief history. The upshot is that the smaller the town, the more each voice resonates. As 2024 looms, with its momentous national election, it is good to remember that local governance is grassroots democracy; it is self-determination at a human scale. The meetings of boards and commissions may seem designed to bore the participants and the public with their points of order and their length, but those are the places where laws and aspirations get hammered into workable relationships. And as those who have stayed and listened will say, it gets more interesting when you pay close attention.
Those meetings are the machinery of home rule. If there is to be a resolution everyone can live with, it will come from discussing the issues with transparency and a generous opportunity for public participation. Home rule.
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