Kevin Rennie: Be Careful What You Do Nov. 7

If you doubt how much your vote counts, think of what the people of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin wrought by narrow margins last November. I do not want to rehearse the disaster visited upon the world a year ago. Instead, I want to remind you that your Nov. 7 local elections are important.

The traditional low turnout in our municipal elections means the people who show up to cast a ballot have more influence than when, say, we elect a president.

We're in a permanent fiscal crisis. It started several weeks after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy won re-election in 2014 by promising he had fixed Connecticut's financial troubles in his first term. The problems, as anyone who has watched the legislature struggle to adopt a budget this year has seen, are getting worse, not better.

Malloy's budget, proposed in long-ago February, sought to shift a large chunk of the cost of teacher retirement benefits from the state to towns, without giving local governments the authority to negotiate the benefits. The legislature, in its excruciating negotiations, has rejected Malloy's plan.

It has been, however, a close-run thing. Local property taxpayers could easily have been hammered if the Republicans had not won more seats in the legislature last November, especially in the Senate. The continuing loss of jobs (2,000 more in September) and flight of the young will make the battle over who pays for what more ferocious each year.

Local elected officials are going to need to be informed, nimble and fearless in the fights that await them. Efficiently governed towns will face pressure to help pay the costs of badly run municipalities — particularly hopelessly led Hartford — in regional pacts that will punish the prudent and reward the profligate.

Towns will need leaders who are not afraid to say no to advocates of this bossy fashion. It will not be easy. Watch for state policymakers to dangle financial rewards in exchange for giving up autonomy. We are not talking about towns joining together to save money by purchasing office supplies together. It's bigger than that. Imagine, the call will go out, how much we could save by merging police departments in four, six or eight towns around Hartford? And what do we need all those fire trucks for in the region?

It is not just town councils that will face hard decisions in the next two years. Many local boards of education will have to cope with the state's plummeting public school population. This may mean closing elementary schools, always a wrenching experience. Also, do not be surprised if towns have to confront the consequences of state government deciding to scale back on its generous school construction cost-sharing in a time of scarce resources. Resolutions to these sorts of dilemmas are always more easily accepted and implemented when the decisions are made at the local level.

This is an unhappy era of hard choices. Local leaders will not be immune from them. Each community will need some members of their town council or board of selectmen who are not allergic to candor: leaders who do not fear confronting their representatives in the legislature whose actions are at wide variance with their rhetoric.

These are political virtues that voters should be able to find on the long ballot of a local campaign, sometimes in both parties. There is one especially unsettling contest in Greater Hartford. That's the race for mayor of Bristol. The incumbent, Ken Cockayne, has twice been censured by the Bristol town council for sordid behavior.

The 2016 censure has resulted in a legal secretary in Bristol's corporation counsel office suing the city for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. The mayor is also accused of trying to bully the employee into dropping her internal complaint. This year, the city council censured Cockayne for retaliating against a city council member (to whom the Republican mayor is related) when the two feuded over a political dispute. The feud included Cockayne distributing what one council member gently called "indiscreet photographs" of the mayor's target in retaliation for the political disagreement.

Many communities will face election choices over different policies and philosophies. Bristol's is nothing like that. It can get rid of a nasty bully — or embarrass itself for two more years.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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