The referendum vote in Meriden this summer was worth supporting because grassroots democracy is just about always worth supporting. The referendum showed that ordinary people (and I mean that phrase in the most complimentary of ways) could make a dramatic difference by playing by the rules and following proper procedures.
In this case, following the rules meant collecting enough signatures to force a referendum vote on the City Council’s adopted budget, which called for a tax increase just shy of 5 percent that was regarded by critics as going too far. Enough people signed the petition to force the referendum, and once that vote was taken, in the middle of summer, it came as no surprise that the votes by those who felt the council should go back to the drawing board vastly outweighed those who felt a 5-percent tax increase was just fine, thanks.
Grassroots democracy feels good. “It’s really empowering and I’m excited for what this does for the future,” said Michael Carabetta, the city resident who had spearheaded the referendum effort.
Such optimism can be quickly tempered, and in this case it came nearly right away when a streamlined budget led to the elimination of school resource officers and the police department’s Neighborhood Initiative Unit. The loss of these popular programs came as a blow, and you could say the city has been dealing with the reverberations ever since.
At the time, in early September, it was seen as a crisis. “This is a complete devastation of our neighborhoods,” said Holly Wills, president of the Meriden Council of Neighborhoods.
Police Chief Jeffry Cossette said the department was “not abandoning our neighborhoods by any means,” but predicted there would be a lot of finger pointing.
There was. “The City Council did not remove neighborhood initiative officers, not one,” said Councilor Brian Daniels. “To be absolutely clear, we’re talking about $250,000 in a $13.5 million budget.”
All of this, the history of a few months ago, is worth bringing up because the chief has just asked the council for $200,000 to reinstate five positions in the Neighborhood Initiative Unit. The request is a response to an uptick in gang-related crimes. Restoring the officers will “nip in the bud” the increase, the chief told the council’s Public Safety Committee.
So, first things first. Safety in the city is paramount, and if the neighborhood initiative unit is essential to it a way needs to be found to restore the program. But you also have to wonder, and referendum supporters have a right to ask, whether such programs needed to be cut in the first place.
It’s also worth pointing out that we appear to be moving full circle here. Cossette’s request for funds to reinstate the neighborhood initiative program arrived just a little more than a week after news came of the restoration of school resource officers.
As with neighborhoods, why would anyone vote against school safety? But at least two councilors, Bruce Fontanella and Sonya Jelks, both Democrats, earned admiration for pointing out it wasn’t as simple as that.
Jelks said she wasn’t convinced the funding couldn’t come from the police budget. Fontanella questioned taking savings from current and future department vacancies.
“The whole purpose of the early retirement program was to generate surpluses and reduce the budget,” he said. “That’s the way it was sold to me and that’s the way it was sold to the citizens of Meriden, and what we’re doing is the opposite.”
It’s always worth having somebody around to point out the ironies. Just a few months down the road, the referendum “win” is looking very far away.
Reach Jeffery Kurz at 203-317-2213, or firstname.lastname@example.org.