30 December 2006
His New Britain blog is a reminder of what community journalism should be about -- asking the right questions in a nonpartisan way and focusing on topics that fulfill the ultimate task of journalism -- the public's right to know. In his recent posts about the decades-long decline of downtown's retailing (impact of Westfarms Mall) and the track record of a new developer for the Andrews Building near Arch Street, Thibodeau shows what an informed observer can bring to public and community issues.
Thibodeau's blog, bloggers in 2006's state and national political campaigns (Example: spazeboy) and sites as such New Britain Community News are a cause for optimism that the internet can bring New Britain and other localities thorough coverage and commentary that each deserves in a democracy.
Local journalism via mainsteam, corporate-owned daily newspapers has been in rapid decline for some time. The Herald of New Britain and The Hartford Courant, notwithstanding quality efforts by individual editors and reporters, do not deliver the news product they used to. That is no fault of the editorial staffs. Their budgets and the demands of absentee owners severely restrict the scope and content of the "news hole" for any one community. Corporate-owned print publications also struggle with selling the commodity of "news" via the internet. That's why the knowledge and perspective of a Pat Thibodeau are rarely found in daily coverage anymore. And why the tradition of the free press is in jeopardy at all levels, particularly locally.
Thibodeau's reporter's eye and analysis are what New Britain needs not just occasionally, but on a daily and weekly basis. But that is something even the best and most well-informed bloggers cannot provide. A town's newspaper --in the traditional sense of being the "fourth estate" -- is akin to a public utility. It comes out daily or weekly and, in the age of internet and blogging, should provide a regular filter for balanced information. You didn't make a zoning board hearing about a new development in your neighborhood? You should be able to read about what happened to know the impact it will have on you and your neighbors and what you should be doing about it.
An outstanding example of how the internet can bring community journalism back is found at the nonprofit New Haven Independent. This five-day a week online publication led by Editor Paul Bass demonstrates that the role of a local free press can succeed thanks to an accessible internet and sufficient funding. The Independent, "rooted in and devoted to the city," believes "that democracy starts at home, with smart, thorough, in-depth local news reporting and broad citizen debate about local issues. Thanks to the Internet, journalists and news-deprived citizens need no longer be hostages to out-of-state media conglomerates. We can reclaim our communities. Power of the press now belongs not to those who own one, but to those who own a modem. We own a modem."
As long as the internet remains accessible and affordable on the bandwidths of the nation, online publications like the New Haven Independent can blossom in many places, including New Britain.
19 December 2006
Parents everywhere share a constant concern about the safety and well-being of their children. It's a mindset that rarely leaves mothers and fathers from birth, through the school years and into young adulthood. That's why recent reports of weapons and crimes against persons in the schools are so emotional and difficult. This is another moment when the well-worn phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" should guide public policy and new responses on education and safety.
The situation recalls some talks on politics I was asked to give to civics classes at
School security and the quality of education will be important if not dominant issues during the 2007 municipal election cycle. This will be a good thing so long as politicians use the campaign to propose constructive action and long-term strategies that will utilize the available funds to decrease overcrowding and increase student achievement.
Proof that education and safety in schools is on the front burner is apparent at the end of 2006:
- Police and school officials, following a meeting of the Mayor, School Superintendent, high school principal and police chief, have added a second resource officer at the high school and given students a hot line.
- The Common Council, responding to a new parent group seeking more safety measures, has created a task force to consider new responses to the school safety question. Recommendations will be offered by May.
- The state Senate is pushing the S.A.F.E. Schools initiative that will provide $15 million to school districts to address the threat of violence and disruptive behavior. The legislation appears to address many of the immediate concerns of parents and school officials by providing funds for security assessments, entry door alarms and security devices, staff training and requirements that new school construction include plans for "security infrastructures." State Senate President Don Williams, who discussed the plan with State Senator Don DeFronzo in
, says that local school districts "shouldn't have to decide between smaller classes or more secure schools." At issue is whether the legislation can address school safety issues in all the cities and towns that will request state assistance next year. New Britain
- The Board of Education, prior to the start of the current school year, adopted a plan that includes the opening of a freshman academy next fall and development of an alternative education center that would enroll students who are disruptive and have a history of behavioral problems. The measures were taken to provide some relief to the burgeoning school population at the high school.
While all of these developments address the safety issue, they are really what School Board President Peter Kochol might refer to as "band aids" in terms of delivering educational services that will foster higher student achievement and help students with significant learning deficits to do better.
A new push to de-centralize the high school and develop "smaller learning communities" will require innovation and a judicious use of limited resources to improve the situation.
Positive alternatives may be found in what Kochol describes as "academy-style, inter-district magnet schools" that have been developed in cities such as New Haven and Hartford and that draw students from surrounding towns. Funded with up to 95% state assistance for construction and renovation, the magnet option may be the best approach to solving the problems in secondary education. Although many educators believe the No Child Left Behind law enacted in 2002 is seriously under funded in the federal budget, the initiative includes a grant program that addresses the issues confronting a large high school like
To some extent NBHS has employed a learning communities approach by dividing the school in houses and adjusting scheduling to accommodate so many students. But small-scale learning communities, according to the No Child Left Behind law, also may involve career academies, magnets and other “school within a school” ideas that can improve on the high school’s configuration by “creating a more personal experience for students.”
Ideally, learning communities also should involve increasing the number of adult advocates and other mentoring activities, reducing teaching loads and fostering a caring environment.
Inter-district magnets – apart from reforms instituted at the high school, can provide a range of curriculum options for New Britain students, and they provide new state funds that will expand education resources in New Britain at a time when money is needed for both safety and learning. This does not mean breaking the high school into two comprehensive and high-cost facilities at either end of towns.
Academy-style magnets at the secondary level will offer a broader range of curricular options for
State Rep, Tim O'Brien (D-24), whose comprehensive property tax relief legislation would reduce schools' reliance on the regressive property tax and promote statewide equity in education spending, is one of the leaders pushing for academy magnet schools that would bring about a "learning communities" solution.
"We must ensure that the new freshman academy does not become the end of the plan for addressing NBHS overcrowding," O'Brien wrote in his Supporting New Britain Schools blog. "That means that we need to ask for action in the coming months - from both the school system and City Hall - to get the ball rolling on a cost-effective plan for school building to alleviate the safety and educational setbacks that are caused and exacerbated by the fact that we have so many students packed into one, huge high school facility."
O'Brien's call to action offers the Mayor, Board of Education and Common Council a starting point for developing good solutions to security and an improved environment at
16 November 2006
The margin for Murphy was almost identical to the blowout Charlotte Koskoff handed Johnson in New Britain in 1996 when Murphy was the youthful manager of Koskoff's campaign.
That year Koskoff --- an articulate nominee who would run three times for the job --- nearly pulled off a political miracle with only token support from the national and state party. Johnson had been bruised by her chairing of a congressional ethics panel that failed to adequately investigate then House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his financial dealings and improprieties. Johnson was also hurt by GOP efforts to gut domestic programs in the federal budget as President Clinton rode easily into a second term. But Koskoff's big leads in the cities of the old 6th Congressional District gradually gave way to strong support for Johnson in the many small Republican towns of the district and Johnson eked out a 1,200 vote win.
This year Murphy didn't have to sweat a Republican surge in the towns of the Farmington Valley and Litchfield Hills. Johnson's ties to the right-wing GOP agenda and her mean-spirited attacks led not only New Britain and Meriden but most towns in the district to reject her candidacy.
From his acceptance speech last May Murphy let it be known that he would be a different kind of candidate and it served him well through the vote on November 7th. He correctly focused on Johnson's support for the Bush Iraq policy, her authorship of a lobbyist-inspired Medicare prescription drug law and her vote for a federal budget that turned its back on working and middle income families. Beyond this list of issues, Murphy also conveyed a sense of optimism and "hope" -- one of the key tasks of leadership for politicians at all levels. He defined himself and conducted himself in a positive way that made many past Johnson supporters in those suburbs change their minds and made those anti-Murphy TV spots backfire on the incumbent.
Johnson, who always managed to cultivate a "moderate" image in all her previous races, used the Republican playbook of fear and division -- a strategy that failed spectacularly.
Murphy, backed by a grassroots campaign capably led by manager Sarah Merriam and with enough financing to adequately respond to the Johnson onslaught, overcame conventional wisdom and prevailed. The victory made for a perfect symmetry between 1996 and 2006. A decade ago campaign manager Chris Murphy helped Koskoff come as close as can be to an impossible win. This year candidate Murphy finally gave New Britain Democrats and Democrats throughout the sprawling district a victory they had been seeking for the last 24 years.
24 October 2006
A decision by the New Britain Ethics Commission to summarily dismiss a complaint brought by Ward 4 Ald. Lawrence Hermanowski over the award of a no-bid $68,000 fencing contract is the latest example of the Stewart administration’s politicization of the ethics process in municipal government.
Current ethics commissioners are all appointees of Stewart and the commission includes contributors to his campaigns. When a new charter abolished most city boards and commissions several years ago the ethics commission was re-constituted by city ordinance. It made the Mayor the appointing authority and its members’ terms tied to his election or re-election. The ordinance failed to adopt a sensible provision from the old charter which required an ethics commission composed of members serving five-year terms. The longer terms served to set the ethics board above partisan appointments and represented a buffer against using ethics complaints for political purposes.
Stewart and his allies wasted little time in using the ethics commission for partisan purposes. During his first term, two city aldermen who worked for the city and were members of the AFSCME Local 1186 were the subject of complaints for involvement in city contract issues. The Commission ruled that Ald. Fran Ziccardi, then a union official, faced a conflict as well as Ald. Paul Catanzaro. The complaint filed at the behest of the administration by Citizen Property Owners Association (CPOA) leadership turned an easily resolvable labor/management issue into an unwarranted ethics flap. The ethics complaint was no more than a thinly-veiled attack on public employees.
Conversely, a complaint filed against Stewart, a city employee on leave from his fire department job, was dismissed by the ethics board. The complaint argued that Stewart, as the duly elected mayor, had every right to participate in collective bargaining and management issues at the Fire Department, including the hiring of the chief. The complaint, however, cited an ethics provision requiring Stewart as the Mayor to file a disclosure statement about his status on leave from the Fire Department. The ethics board, acting like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Mayor’s office, ruled in Stewart’s favor, ignoring case law and the provision requiring a disclosure statement.
The Hermanowski complaint alleges a conflict involving a considerable amount of public dollars based on the ethics code that was strengthened within the last year to include conflicts arising when appointed and elected officials are involved as vendors in city contracts. At issue is the no-bid award that went to New Britain Fence Co. owned by Wilfredo Pabon, a Police Commission appointee of the Stewart Administration and a Stewart campaign contributor. Pabon’s son is also a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals. “No other fence company was given a similar opportunity to provide such a quote, “ according to Hermanowski ‘s September 19th complaint, which stated the “process was not open and public” as required by ordinance.
Mayor Stewart responded that an “emergency” existed because of a threat of illegal dumping and vacant buildings. Hermanowski, however, maintains that the city had ample time to seek bids since the city took control of the property on August 4th from the CT Housing Finance Authority.
Stewart attacked Hermanowski, calling him “a political hack” and dismissed the issue as an effort by Democrats to embarrass his administration. But Stewart’s quick award of the fencing contract led The Hartford Courant to admonish the Mayor in a recent editorial for overstepping his authority and playing fast and loose with the ethics process. On it merits, the Hermanowski complaint deserved further review and consideration by the ethics commission. It is unfortunate that the partisanship of the Stewart administration has overtaken the current ethics process, making it a rubber stamp when potential conflicts arise involving public money and public officials in his administration. That should not stop Common Council members from exercising appropriate oversight on the award of city contracts and to insist on an open and public bidding process to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
02 October 2006
It may be an obscure issue for most Americans – a foreign policy matter that dates to an event that occurred in the early part of the 20th Century. But for Armenian Americans what the U.S. Congress has said and done about the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians in World War I matters a lot.
The issue came back to me in the run up to the August 8th Primary between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont when I chatted with Sean Smith, the departed manager of Lieberman’s primary campaign at a New Britain candidate forum. “Sorry we lost you on this one,” Smith said regarding my support for Ned Lamont. “You lost me 16 years ago,” I replied.
There have been many reasons given this year about the disenchantment of Connecticut Democrats in their junior Senator. But the words I heard from Senator Lieberman on the Armenian issue 16 years ago were the beginning of my political disenchantment with him. In February, 1990, Joe Lieberman could have cast a vote that would have confirmed a commitment to high principles and morality in
Lieberman said no to this symbolic vote –siding with the first Bush administration and Republican Dick Cheney – despite harsh criticism from the Armenian American community. Subsequently, Lieberman reversed his position saying in 1992 “we must remember the Armenian Genocide and other abuses of state authority against ethnic minorities.” The flip flop would once again allow Lieberman to be on both sides of an issue.
When Lieberman and Cheney became the vice presidential nominees in 2000, Sasha Boghosian, a public affairs consultant and advocate of Armenian interests, wrote: “The November general election is without a doubt the most important for the United States of America. Unfortunately it is a tossup between two tickets that are mediocre at best (and downright uncooperative and dangerous at worst) on Armenian issues.”
I never would have known about S.J. 212, let alone remember it in 2006, had I not attended a Lieberman appearance at the University of Hartford after the resolution failed in the Senate 16 years ago. Lieberman, then two years into his Senate term, was sharing his positions on several issues when he volunteered why he did not support the resolution on honoring the Armenian victims. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” Lieberman said. Lieberman received a call “from a defense contractor in
Lieberman had plenty of company in opposing the 1990 Armenian resolution. The Bush Administration opposed this gesture of sympathy because of the geopolitics of the region and a reluctance to offend
09 July 2006
The Danbury News-Times' Fred Lucas reported that Connecticut members of Congress took advantage of $600,000 for 300 trips between 2000 and 2005.
Rep. Johnson accounted for one-third of interest group expenditures or $200,000 for 51 trips "on someone else's dime." The runner up was incumbent U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman whose office received $119,000 for Lieberman and his staff in the five year period.
Johnson's journeys came to light in 2005 with the news that The Nature Conservancy (TNC) paid $17,900 for Johnson and her husband to visit Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands . The trip was made, according to its backers and Rep. Johnson, to learn about the nature conservancy's natural resource and biodiversity conservation work in Ecuador and "to discuss with Ecuador's government officials the effects of illegal immigration in Connecticut."
Backers of free trips for Johnson included insurance and pharmaceutical industry groups which underwrote trips to conferences for Johnson and her staff to Orlando, Boca Raton, Tampa and Las Vegas. A spokesman for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research and watchdog group, said that the business trips of members of Congress tend to be to vacation spots and rarely to "undesirable locations."
Johnson is an architect of the controversial Medicare prescription drug program that provides millions in subsidies to pharmaceutical and insurance interests. Critics of the Medicare drug plan, who cite arbitrary and insufficient coverage for many seniors, believe Rep. Johnson has a conflict in accepting travel perks from some of the interest groups in her position as Chair of a Congressional sub-committee on health care that developed the prescription drug law.
Democratic Congressional Nominee Chris Murphy (D-Cheshire) told the News-Times that he supports a ban on the subsidized trips for members of Congress and their spouses, stating that acceptance of such gifts from special interests are an example of "what is wrong with Washington." House Democrats are seeking support for stricter bans on perks and gifts from lobbyists and special interest groups.
More information is available at www.publicintegrity.org
06 July 2006
His letter to the editor, appearing in the Hartford Courant and New Britain Herald last week, was a rambling diatribe against Democratic leaders -- the "bosses" who "would have Democrats believe that their votes in general elections count for nothing." Apparently, he can't find any bosses in the Republican party to take on at the moment.
Salvio is an increasingly bitter and angry public official who, in carrying the water for Mayor Stewart at the Council, regularly engages in name calling at meetings, in print and via dictatorial e-mails to Common Council members.
In vitriolic opposition to former Ald. Rick Lopes, Salvio and others have attacked the Town Committee and its members. They say an advisory recommendation made by individuals who represent Ward One on the Town Committee puts the "party" over what's "best for the city."
What Salvio and his followers are showing is disrespect for the democratic process and the method by which both parties endorse and nominate all candidates for municipal office every two years. They are also showing contempt for voters who include the individuals who are elected and serve on the Town Committee in Ward One.
The Common Council leadership is being inclusive by asking the Town Committee for advice on who should represent the people of Ward One between elections. Asking the endorsing body whose members will pick candidates to run in 2007 demonstrates more respect for the voters of Ward One than Mr. Salvio does by always dictating to his constituents and anyone else within earshot what is in their best interest.
The vacancy has also led Salvio and Lopes' opponents to disqualify Lopes because he lost the 2005 election. Ald. Salvio has a selective memory. He lost the 2003 election to Mr. Lopes, but no one questioned his right to run and serve again.
Lost in the overblown rhetoric of Salvio and company is the impressive work of Mr. Lopes when he served on the Council. His legislation curbing mini, motorized bikes in neighborhoods became a model for the state, ending a nuisance and public safety hazard on the streets. His diligence in handling constituent issues at City Hall earned him praise from the same voters who Salvio claims to speak for.
It may be impractical given the fact that city elections occur every other year, but the best solution would be to have a special election so that voters decide, not Common Council members with vendettas against a particular candidate.
03 June 2006
What remains on the table, however, is the work product of Deborah Canyock who abruptly resigned in May from the part-time auditor post amid continuing and sometimes personal attacks by Republican Ald. Louis Salvio, the Stewart Administration's self-appointed defender of the public purse.
Canyock's final report cited escalating costs across city departments that the Mayor and Council should examine to extract additional savings. She asserted that "budget creep" within some city departments amounts to $331,000 that should be reviewed before a final budget is set.
Salvio has sought to divert attention from Canyock's work by opposing the ordinance that created the $36,400 part-time position that is intended to provide the Council with fiscal expertise and analysis in adopting budgets submitted by Stewart and department heads.
While the auditor position raises interesting issues of separation of powers and the prerogatives of the executive and legislative branches, the immediate question remains: What do the Mayor and the Common Council intend to do about the possibility of saving $331,000 for the taxpayers? If Mayor Stewart and Ald. Salvio have their way the tax rate will increase and the report on cost cutting will be thrown in the trash. Common sense dictates that the Common Council, particularly all 12 Democrats, unanimously support consideration of the Canyock report.
28 April 2006
New Haven's John DeStefano and Stamford's Dannel Malloy are also a departure from recent gubernatorial candidates. They will be better financed for a statewide contest (despite the cost of a primary). More important, they are leaving Gov. Rell in the dust on a range of issues that the state should address in the next administration. Talk that a primary on August 8th will hurt Democrats is also wrong. The primary campaign will allow a broader base than party regulars to get to know candidates and issues before Labor Day. That will boost Democratic chances in the fall.
At issue for Democrats is selecting the candidate who has the best chance of winning and whose agenda offers a clearer shift from the status quo, particularly on such issues as property tax relief and affordable health care. In New Britain, John DeStefano has emerged as an overwhelming choice to be the gubernatorial nominee.. While one or two issues do not define a candidacy, candidates' positions on property taxes and affordable health care are illustrative. They are compelling reasons why I will support and work for DeStefano in May, August and November.
Property Taxes: DeStefano, drawing on his work as Chair of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Property Tax Reform and Smart Growth, calls for a dramatic shift in the tax structure, ending reliance on the regressive property tax and supporting a more progressive income tax that would bring more equity, particularly in meeting costs of education at the local level. The reason is that the state's wealthiest residents pay 4.4 percent of incomes to local (property) and state taxes. Low and middle income residents pay double that amount. DeStefano supports a millionaire's tax to level the playing field. By contrast, Malloy shies away from any definitive change in the tax structure. While acknowledging the property tax is "at the heart of many of our State's problems," he offers a minimal approach of repealing the tax on manuf acturing property with a vague pledge to "institute smarter revenue sharing." A Governor DeStefano will deliver meaningful property tax relief and a concrete solution to New Britain residents hit hard by 40% assessment hikes three years ago.
Health Care:On the heels of Massachusetts adopting a bipartisan universal health plan, DeStefano is proposing a Connecticut universal plan that would be financed by closing $350 million in corporate loopholes to meet costs. The plan would establish a CT HealthCare Consortium from which small businesses, families and individuals could obtain affordable coverage. With an estimated 356,000 people in CT without coverage, the DeStefano "shared responsibility" plan would cover working low and middle income people who do not qualify for Medicaid and cannot afford high-cost premiums. Dan Malloy has commendably proposed expansion of the State's HUSKY program to cover all uninsured children. But the question can reasonably be asked: what is Dan Malloy's plan for covering the parents who are unable to obtain coverage in the present system? A Governor DeStefano will make universal health coverage a reality.
A Strategy To Energize The Base: Dan Malloy maintains he is more electable because he can cut into a big vote for Rell in Fairfield County while holding on to the Democratic base. The strategy is evident in Malloy's positions on property taxes and health care. They would not alter the status quo. They won't energize the base, either.
John DeStefano's strategy is to energize the Democratic base and move unaffiliated voters into the D column with the force of his ideas for change. On the stump, DeStefano tells his audiences that the election is not about him or Dan Malloy. It is about "improving the lives of middle-class and working families." He speaks with a passion and clarity that will win over undecideds, energize the base and put him in the corner office in January 2007.
14 April 2006
Late in 2005 The Department of Public Utility Control approved the 22.4 percent rate hikes because of the higher costs CT Light & Power now pays for generation of electricity. CL&P remains a distributor but not a generator and claims its hands are tied when it comes to the need for higher rates.
The state Legislature is considering legislation to maintain a regulated electric rate and to move away from total de-regulation. An end to de-regulation would lessen the economic hardships caused by the recently approved double-digit increases. It's not clear the Legislature has the time in the 2006 session to enact meaningful rate controls on a statewide basis. New Britain and other municipalities, however, may act as "electric aggregators" by pooling the electric purchasing power of residents, businesses and government to negotiate lower-price electricity for all within the city borders.
New Britain Ward 2 City Alderman Adam Platosz, supported by Democratic Majority Leader Mike Trueworthy, is proposing that New Britain take advantage of the state law [General Statutes, Sections 16-245 and 16-245b] that allows a municipality to engage in bulk buying for lower rates.
In a City Council resolution this month, the Platosz proposal directs the City Finance Director to register the City of New Britain as a "municipal electric aggregator" by July 1st. If the State fails to amend the current deregulation law, requests would be made for proposals from companies to sell electricity to government, business and residents within the city. Making the city a bulk purchaser or "electric aggregator" has the potential to save city government hundreds of thousands of dollars, reducing the tax burden and controlling the costs of a necessity.
The Platosz' proposal deserves bipartisan support because of the substantial savings that may become available if the city exercizes its "aggregator" option.