Most of the nation's attention has been focused on the Thanksgiving weekend travel and the upcoming Christmas - excuse me, generic holiday - shopping season that officially kicks off today.
But Monday and Tuesday evenings, in Enfield, Connecticut, newly elected Republican Council and Board of Education members were sworn in and took their seats to start two years of what can be and should be new directions for the community. Throughout the summer and fall the GOP spread the message that the emphasis will be on transparency, accountability and inclusion for the community.
Monday night there were statements of cooperation and bipartisanship from the new GOP council majority, while the Democrats looked quite uncomfortable in their new status as minority party. The pledges to work together were well received, but if those pledges are to hold, and Democrats hope to have any meaningful input, they will have to shift away from the far left of their party and get back to traditional values.
The proof of this statement lies in the official swearing in ceremony held in Enfield's council chambers. The room was jam packed with Republican party members, council members' families, supporters from the public, and the media. It was attended by Connecticut Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, former US Congressman Rob Simmons, and Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy in addition to local and regional office holders.
Mary Ann Turner, the Republican chairwoman, was ecstatic and enthusiastic as the Republican majority took office after a tough campaign, and an exhausting recount that reaffirmed what voters had expressed on Election Day.
But beyond the enthusiasm shown for the GOP victory, and far more representative of the mood of the voters, was the evening's program.
It has become more than fashionable in some quarters to take God, with either a capital or small 'g,' out of our schools, out of our courts, out of our government, out of the media, and out of our lives. As evidenced by Monday's program, those quarters do not include much of Enfield, Connecticut, and I suspect they don't include most of America.
The evening was begun with a prayer, and it closed with a prayer. People proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance and said "One Nation, Under God" without hesitation and no lowering of the voice.
Alyse Pilch, a young lady who judging by her incredible vocal talents can well be on the way to a successful singing career, gave flawless renditions of the National Anthem and America the Beautiful, a cappella, again to an enthusiastic reception from the audience.
Contrast that setting to people refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or shortening it because they can't handle the phrase "Under God." How many times have we seen the openings of sports events where a minority of self-absorbed pseudo-intellectuals refuse to stand for the national anthem, refuse to salute the flag, refuse to stop filling their faces with junk food for even a couple of minutes that could better be used reflecting on the wisdom and humility that helped create a government that tolerates such boorishness.
The big public event was Monday night when the council was sworn in, but the most dramatic and immediate changes to Enfield's government came on Tuesday night's swearing in of the new Board of Education.
Many who attended that event say it would be hard to give a better indication of the attitude of the administration and teachers' unions than the conduct of Tuesday's ceremony compared to Monday's. On Monday, the council was the focus of the evening.
Tuesday's meeting, at the local middle school, was run on an agenda that put the most important business - the swearing in ceremony - last. The Board of Education, which at that point had not been officially sworn in, thus had no official chairman to set the agenda.
Instead, the newly elected school board and the audience sat through a lengthy presentation on volunteerism, a facet of school life that is worthwhile and certainly saves money on personnel costs, but should not overshadow the seating of the Board of Education.
Some in the community were adamant after the meeting that the schedule was constructed behind the scenes by the outgoing Democrats who had rammed through a new teachers' contract carrying a 16 percent wage increase two weeks before the election. They say the evening's schedule received the tacit if not overt support of the teachers' union, and is seen by some as a slap in the face to the new school board because Republicans had voted against the contract.
It certainly made the point that in the minds of some in the education field the elected representatives of the community are far less important and deserve far less attention than the education "professionals."
If that was the case, it was a futile and ultimately irrelevant gesture. The new board and council are saddled with finding money to pay for a contract they opposed, which will be difficult to be sure. But unlike previous decades where the teachers' union held substantial political power, the system's 400 teachers, only a fraction of whom actually live in town, didn't impact the election.
Thus, as soon as the new school board was seated and Republican Andre Greco was elected chairman, two major changes were enacted.
First, Republicans will now sit next to other Republicans and the Democrats will sit with other Democrats, rather than the previous arrangement where party affiliations were tossed aside and the board sat as an amalgamation. That arrangement was seen as one of many attempts by public education professionals to isolate school board representatives from the voters who put them in office. The implication was that party affiliations aren't important and that the school board is one body that should always act in accord "for the children."
A sampling of the debates over public education shows that party affiliations with their opposing value systems and priorities do matter. The Enfield school board, at least for now, has reinstated the concept that its members should not be sheep or automatons who blindly allow themselves to be herded into group decisions, but rather are thinking individuals who should be expressing the values and concerns of the electorate.
Second, and perhaps more striking, was the decision to stop holding school board meetings in the local schools on a rotating basis. This arrangement proved to be confusing for members of the community who wanted to attend board meetings occasionally, and it created an atmosphere of intimidation for some.
Now the school board will meet in the council chambers at Town Hall and the meetings will be shown live on the local community access channel, as well as taped for later airings. The GOP promised transparency and to its credit the school board delivered immediately.
There is more on tap. Republican incumbent Sue Lavelli-Hozempa campaigned on the need to conduct a forensic audit of the schools' budget, in excess of $80 million when all sources of income are counted. She now has the votes and the intent to get that measure passed, and the board should do it immediately. (A forensic audit is far more thorough than the annual CAAP - Commonly Accepted Accounting Principles - audit which is somewhat superficial and far less revealing in terms of exactly where the dollars went.)
This same advice can be passed on to the council. There may be nothing at all wrong with Enfield's finances in either the municipal or school budgets. Forensic audits may find nothing more than differences of opinion in what constitutes priorities in government spending.
But the GOP has been the minority party in Enfield government for more than a decade, and that is a long time to be out of control. The public repeatedly expressed its displeasure with the state of Enfield's finances throughout the campaign, and that frustration will not dissipate unless the GOP takes action.
On the outside chance that forensic audits of the budgets turn up something unexpected, the GOP should be in a position to discover that information before either the council or the school board initiate next year's budget process.
Once that process is underway, the public will see any financial issues arising in the local government as GOP issues with GOP ownership. Once the council and school board begin gathering the funding requests from the school superintendent and town manager, the public's focus will be on the upcoming budgets and what they mean for next year's tax payments.
It should never be far from the minds of the new council and school board members that national pundits see Connecticut as a blue - liberal Democrat - state, or that they are outnumbered 2-1 in voter registration. But Republicans, conservative Democrats, and non-affiliated voters alike gave the GOP an opportunity on Election Day.
Coloring Connecticut or any other state 'Blue' or 'Red' may be convenient for those looking for stereotypes and easy answers, but the electorate is neither that simple, nor that complicated. The voters said they want accountability, they want transparency, and they aren't afraid of an occasional reference to God either in school or the council chambers.
Voters want honest representation, office holders who remember that they are elected to serve, not dictate, and the belief, through results, that their concerns really matter. They want common sense and accountable actions, not sound bites. They want our streets safe, our children educated, and our wars won.
The voters in Enfield spoke very clearly on November 6, Election Day. Republicans on the council and school board now have a terrific opportunity to show they were listening.
Friday, November 23, 2007