Every two years, the Town of Wallingford goes through the exercise called a local election to determine who will spend the next two years managing the municipal government. Note that I used the term manage, because in the short term of two years, that is all that is really possible. If you were to look at the Town’s annual budget, you would see that 95 percent of the spending is non-discretionary, and of the remaining that is, 70 percent is under the control of the BOE. Quantum shifts in how money is allocated cannot happen because just maintaining the services that every town is expected to provide commands almost the entire budget.
Put another way, to effect a significant change in direction of this ship called local government takes years regardless of who is at the helm.
Wallingford is somewhat unique in that we have had the same person as Mayor for some thirty years, so the campaign that is commencing will necessarily turn on two questions: Are we satisfied with the management of the town government? Are we comfortable with the person who is leading the management or not? In shorthand, you might use the words competence and character.
If we are a serious people who view an election campaign on finding answers to these two questions, that is what we will demand to hear. The incumbent is a near totally known quantity. If you follow local politics at all, you know how Bill Dickinson governs the community. It is no mystery. We know his priorities, his management style, and the direction in which he has led the government. Regardless of whether you agree with those three factors or not, you do know them. And by now, after all this time, surely the voters have made a judgment on his character.
So in order to persuade the people of Wallingford to make a change, the challenger can fashion his campaign in one of two ways. He can work to convince a majority of the voters that he possesses both the competence and the character to replace the current Mayor, or he can attempt to get the voters to question whether the present chief executive of the town is competently managing the town government.
I am hopeful that he will choose the former. Attempting to show that the Town of Wallingford is heading off a cliff under the present leadership would be a tough sell given the current state of town finances, the residential tax burden relative to other communities and the financial industry’s rewarding Wallingford with a AAA bond rating.
Better to have a sophisticated campaign of informing the voters of specific programs – with their attendant costs spelled out – that would be initiated under a new administration. Note the two words “specific” and “costs.” Promising to fulfill each special interest group’s wishes for more programs and services without detailing the financial impact of such additions is telling half the story, and Wallingford voters deserve to hear it all.
By now, you may be wondering if this column actually has a point to make. Well, it is this: because we are a community with a pretty informed electorate, we deserve to have election campaigns that truly offer voters substantive choices. Arguing over minutiae and noisy finger-pointing jabs do not a campaign make. Dare I say it? Wallingford voters can see the forest for the trees.
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.