The Wallingford Town Council is mulling over a couple of proposals, and this newspaper has come out in favor of both. I refer to resurrecting an Energy Conservation Commission and allowing public comment during the Council’s annual series of meetings called Budget Workshops. Call me a skeptic, a curmudgeon or whatnot, but I don’t find any real improvement in the Wallingford governmental process from either one.
Energy Conservation Commission: This one has some surface appeal. After all, how could one possibly be against saving energy? How could it hurt to look?
This is why: There is no issue in the country, or in the western world, for that matter, that lends itself to more polarization, politicization and blizzards of misinformation than that of climate change. Anyone who has the temerity to challenge the religion of climate change and its gospel that we must dismantle the fossil-fuel-based world economy immediately is branded a “denier.” And being a “denier” is too often looked upon with the repugnance once reserved for serial killers and child porn producers.
There no longer is any rational discussion about the subject. You either swear allegiance to the entire climate doctrine, or you are considered indifferent to the planet and its people. There is no middle ground. Weighing the actual costs against the assumed benefits is no longer an accepted exercise among all too many environmental groups.
I fear that would be the case here. Adopting every idea coming out of such a body regardless of the cost would be considered imperative. If the cost might outweigh the actual benefit, the justification for its implementation would then become: “to do our part to save the planet.”
So if there are individuals that would like to form a group on their own to bring suggestions for reducing energy use, by all means they should do just that. The proposal that the Town of Wallingford municipal government needs an official commission to augment the estimated $1.5 million that our own Electric Division is mandated to spend on that mission is redundant and will inevitably lead to the unfortunate discord that pollutes the climate issue nationally.
Public comment at Town Council Budget Workshops: This is another suggestion where any elected official opposing might be looked upon as some smoke-filled-room politician that isn’t interested in the public’s opinion. I have never met one of those in Wallingford.
The Record-Journal editorial suggests that allowing public comment enhances transparency. I cannot connect those two dots. Public comment is given a front-row seat at every regular Town Council meeting. Every Councilor can be reached by phone or by email from anyone in town that wishes to air their grievances, make suggestions or just seek information or assistance. Transparency has to do with information availability and public official responsiveness. Both are in abundance in the Wallingford Town Hall.
The annual series of Budget Workshops are held specifically to comb through the mayor’s proposed budget. The 2019-2020 Proposed Budget book ran to 89 pages. It contains thousands of lines of expenditures, and Town Councilors spend a great deal of time studying this document. The Town Council holds a public hearing with representatives of every department and receiver of town funds present to answer questions from the public.
Note: we have a representative form of government. These meetings are Town Council meetings, not town meetings. There are nine elected councilors, not nine elected councilors and a self-selected group of individuals in the audience acting as an unelected “shadow” council. During the year, our residents have abundant opportunities in Town Council meetings to weigh in.
But once a year, it behooves elected officials, having digested all manner of comment from the public in previous meetings, to sit down and perform the duties to which they were elected, and to do it in a serious atmosphere just among themselves. Constructing and reviewing a municipal budget exceeding well over $150 million is a time-consuming exercise as it is.
Adding a public comment period to these deliberations would be burdensome, distracting and unnecessary. The meetings would become ridiculously lengthy, riddled with duplicative commentary and subject to being sidetracked by special interests with no other agenda but to cause disruption.
The two sentences above will no doubt be taken as disrespecting the public. It is just the opposite. Over 45,000 people live in this community, and they have a Mayor and nine Town Councilors to represent them. Town Hall is wide open, and the free exchange of opinions is welcomed.
But at some point, the business of constructing and approving a Town of Wallingford budget must be done by those elected officials, and just those elected officials. And Budget Workshops are that place. The entire community deserves nothing less than these officials’ full attention to the responsibilities they were elected to carry out.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.