The Trumbull Times this week published a terrific letter by outgoing Town Council member Greg Basbagill, where he said he’s leaving town politics because of overwhelming disfunction on the Town Council. He lamented how the local Republicans have gerrymandered the Council so that there are now only four districts, including a crazy “superdistrict,” with more population and more representatives than other districts.
Basbagill said a massive majority and essentially a one-party government is not good for Trumbull, and I agree. Trumbull needs a balanced government, where the outcomes of votes are not predetermined. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. But the Republicans are bent on creating a one-party system (because it’s currently to their advantage) which invites unchecked abuses on the one side and hopeless resignation on the other. Neither serves Trumbull’s interests.
That’s the Republican legacy. Democrats, on the other hand, gave Trumbull 30 years of prosperity and a Town Council that actually debated issues in a meaningful way.
Make no mistake: Trumbull will not be well served because of the ill-advised Republican scheme to reduce the Council from seven to four districts.
There’s another aspect to this, probably even more fundamental. In Trumbull, we really don’t have a truly equal legislative branch of government. The Council is functionally closer to a board of directors, one where the directors are appointed by the executive.
This is not the fault of the people on the Council. It’s rooted in the structure of the government and in the election process. The lack of caring, the boredom, the arrogance—all of the things that Basbagill described—those are just symptoms of the challenge we face.
Council people are part-time volunteers. The executive is a professional. The Council doesn't really take independent initiatives. It generally only responds (and generally signs off on) the initiatives of the professional elected executive. The first selectman has all the resources at his disposal, including town lawyers, town professional staff and the ability to fully research an issue. Plus, he has political power that’s probably too decisive. In our electoral system, Council members are subordinate to the executive, and they get nominated and elected largely at the whim of the executive.
We should all want a more equal legislative branch. We should want a Council where the lines are not so one-sided that actual debate is meaningless—and where researching and understanding the issues can be useless, because too many members are going to vote party line anyway.
So we ought to look at things we might be able to do. Here are a few:
• Start with a more balanced legislature, and an immediate return to seven districts. That way, one or two independent-minded members can actually make a difference.
• Also look at staggered elections, where the Council members have more political independence.
• What about considering a full-time legislative director and a town attorney who is hired by and reports to the Council?
• Perhaps we should modify the Charter as well to strengthen the Council and expand its powers.
We certainly can start just by having a conversation about these things.