Chairman’s View: New Canaan’s Town Meeting (May 9, 2019)
We have a special thing going on in New Canaan that no other town has. It’s a conversation by the people, about the town, that penetrates every decision made at Town Hall and more than a few decisions in Hartford. I’m taking about the Advertiser Coffee. Every Friday morning for the last 20 years the last four editors of the New Canaan Advertiser have hosted a community conversation called the Advertiser Coffee. What began as a relatively quiet conversation among 20 townspeople at Garelick & Herbs on Main Street has swelled to more than 60 people representing a great range of interests. Sometimes it gets loud. Democracy is a messy business.
The conversation used to be hyper-local, New Canaan only, parking spaces and cell towers. The conversation has evolved to include a bit more of Hartford, possibly a reflection of the fear that Hartford politics are intruding on our local decision-making, what we hold dear, home-rule, and that there is an increasing threat to the “Great Schools-Low Taxes” paradigm that New Canaan needs to stay competitive. Insights by representatives Tom O’Dea, Lucy Dathan, Will Haskell, Alex Bergstein, Scott Franz, Toni Boucher and Fred Wilms are invaluable, and yet Hartford sausage-making reports are strictly limited to 20 minutes so we can get back to parking, cell towers and the occasional real-estate report.
On any given Friday you will find our first selectman and the Democratic selectman having a spontaneous debate (from opposite ends of the room) about the issues. FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) rules prevent those two from ever having a conversation outside the public eye, which makes these conversations in front of us all unrehearsed and so much richer. It usually begins with Kit asking Kevin about something she learned in this week’s press briefings, such as the sale of Waveny land or the police station. She might say, “When was this discussed?” And he might say, “We’re discussing it now.” Let’s applaud them both for being so accessible. Their exchange is a fascinating look at where we differ and where we agree.
Represented every week is a majority of the Town Council, members of the Boards of Finance and Education, department heads such as the chief of police, the fire marshal and public works. Keith Richey, no shrinking violet, defends the latest controversies coming out of the Parking Commission while Lazlo Papp speaks with authority for Planning & Zoning except when he teases us saying “No comment on pending matters.” Tom Butterworth and I generally play nice in front of the room over budget cuts, we prefer to trade editorials in the newspaper during budget season. The conversation often comes around to the projects of our largest taxpayer and developer, Arnold Karp.
Our commissioners are there: the Conservation Commission, the Tourism and Economic Development Commission. Leadership is well represented including the Community Foundation, Land Trust, Board of Realtors, Chamber of Commerce, Grace Farms, the Ram Council, The Glass House, The Nature Center, Summer Theater, Scouting, The Preservation Alliance, our historical society and our library.
Join a slice of Americana, a true town hall meeting where everybody gets to speak and laugh and listen, at the New Canaan Historical Society every Friday from 9-10 a.m.
John Engel is chairman of the Town Council. The Chairman’s View represents only the views of the chairman and not necessarily any other council member.