Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A July 4th plea for compassion, understanding

7/4/07
Few issues today raise people’s hackles like immigration. With millions of people in this country below the radar of our immigration laws, there is widespread agreement that the current system is untenable. People die every day trying to bypass border security in the Southwestern desert, while others live in daily fear of reporting a crime or seeking treatment for illness because they are scared of being discovered.
That this is a country of immigrants is common knowledge. There were, of course, thriving civilizations on the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans, and the subsequent treatment of these groups is one of the great shames of our nation. But everyone who built our American society and our system of government, everyone who wrote immigration laws and enforces border security, is himself an immigrant or a descendant of one. Many, or most, came here "illegally" — presumably, the Pilgrims declined to seek official permission from the contemporaneous residents of Massachusetts.
Since the birth of our nation, on this date 231 years ago, tens of millions more people have come here in search of something better for themselves and their loved ones. We are proud as a nation to call our society a melting pot, a place where immigrants and people of various nationalities are assimilated into one coherent group. But immigrants have always faced difficulties.
Nearly every nationality, religion or ethnic group can trace a history of repression and struggle upon reaching these shores. People of any imaginable descent can look back to their ancestors and remember a time when they were shunned by the wider populace, and held back from advancement in society. And we’re not past those problems; we still too often look for new groups to scapegoat and take the blame for our ills.
But we are mostly a country of great opportunities, and even greater compassion. As the debate continues over immigration, illegal and otherwise, we must keep in mind that the vast majority of people in this land strive to make our country greater — to improve their own lives, and, at the same time, their wider communities.
Most recent debate focuses on Hispanic immigrants, and the xenophobic charges revert to time-worn clich├ęs once directed at any number of other ethnic groups. One group or another is more likely to commit crimes or give birth out of wedlock, is spending our tax dollars on services, sending all the money they earn out of the country, or stealing our jobs. It’s no more true or false than it ever was. The difference now, with our neighbor to the south the focus of people’s ire, is the previously unimagined remedy of a giant border wall to protect us from the oncoming hordes looming as a dream, or nightmare, solution.
It’s a fantasy. Build a wall, and people will climb over it, or under it, or go through it. That has been long proven. What we need is to show compassion and understanding for the people living here and struggling to get by, whether they’re in the country legally or not. We are not blowing open our borders to invite all comers, but we must recognize the contributions of everyone in this great country. We all deserve health care, schooling and police protection.
We are all Americans. Some of us have a piece of paper to prove it. Others show it in a different way, through their hard work and dreams of something better, every day of their lives.

Court at odds with speech protections

7/1/07
Individually, two cases decided last week by the U.S. Supreme Court could each be said to have merit. Upholding the right to try to influence voters, even by moneyed interests in the days and weeks before an election, is, to many people, a defensible posture. Similarly, asserting the right of a school district to limit students from promoting the use of illegal drugs is arguably a safe position.
Together, though, the court sent a troubling message. Free speech is to be defended if the speaker has money, but not if the speaker is powerless.
The use of so-called "issue ads," where, in the weeks before an election, a group not directly associated with a campaign will pay for commercials that implicitly support one candidate over another, was banned by a campaign-finance reform law passed in 2002. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, was one of two House sponsors of the act.
The High Court, though, overturned that clause, again opening up the airwaves to groups seeking to push one agenda or another without explicitly naming the candidate of choice. By their nature, however, these ads could not be clearer in their purchasers’ preferences.
Until the United States institutes some sort of legitimate public financing of political campaigns, fundraising will play a huge role in running for office. It’s unfortunate that lawmakers spend so much time hitting people up for cash that could be spent tackling the issues they were elected to deal with, but it’s a fact of life.
But to pretend that multimillion-dollar commercial buys constitute free speech is debatable at best. No one is suggesting that anyone be muzzled or not allowed to state his case; the argument is that election laws are clear, and money shouldn’t be the end-all of political debates. Free speech, in this case, is a canard.
In the other case, a high school student was suspended from school for holding up a nonsensical banner on television that seemed to promote the use of marijuana. The court ruled that the principal was justified in the suspension, even though the student was not in school. So where does this student’s right to free speech come in? Apparently, because it is within the school’s purview to discourage the use of illegal drugs, it is allowed to restrict the speech rights of students who defy that goal.
Each decision has its own tortured logic, but taken together, the implication is indefensible. Free speech is to be preserved for people and groups who can afford to buy television advertisements, but not for mischief-making high school students. Average citizens will have to decide where on that spectrum they fall before they put their own speech to the test.

Hold off criticism of Stratford plan

7/1/07
Residents of Lordship need to take a deep breath.
A proposal for a greenway that would link parks and open space along the town’s waterfront has people in the Sound-front community in a tizzy. They are raising objections that make no sense, and overreacting to a proposal that will likely be decades in the making.
The first thing to remember is that the waterfront is a communal resource. It’s true that properties on Long Island Sound or the Housatonic River are among the town’s most expensive, and those owners pay the most in taxes. But encouraging people to take advantage of the outdoor benefits in Stratford makes good sense. The greenway concept has been successful across the country, including in many of this region’s communities.
Towns and cities in the Naugatuck Valley have worked to create open space along their riverbanks, with the idea that the area’s greatest resource had for too long gone untapped. Stamford is turning its own Mill River into a destination for walking and other recreation. And New York City has made the greening of its waterfront a top municipal priority for the coming decades.
Fearing the worst from possible visitors, Lordship community activist Robert Sammis asked, "Are they going to be knocking on people’s doors to ask for a glass of water or to use their restrooms?" No, they aren’t. The full plan likely couldn’t be completed for 20 years, giving the town plenty of time to work out logistics and funding issues.
Litter and traffic are legitimate concerns, but for now, it would behoove people to take some time and learn more about the benefits and possibilities from such a project before ruling it out. A greenway could be a real community treasure, and town officials should be given every opportunity to state their case.
In the meantime, nothing has yet been decided. Lordship remains a part of Stratford, and the communal waterfront is everyone’s resource. Give this plan a little time to develop before jumping to conclusions.

Valley tries leaving the car at home

6/24/07
If the region is to get away from its all-car-all-the-time mentality, this is exactly the kind of program we need to see more of.
The Valley Transit District has launched a program that will provide shuttle service from homes to bus stops and train stations. It could go a long way toward solving one of the key shortfalls of a push for reliance on public transit — bus lines can’t go everywhere.
People like their cars, and our suburban sprawl isn’t going anywhere. But for people who don’t have cars — or people who’d like not to have to use them every time they leave the house — a system like this will be useful. Without density, which most of Connecticut is sorely lacking, public transit can only go so far. People have to get to and from train and bus stations somehow, raising problems from traffic tie-ups to parking shortages. Those are the issues mass transit is supposed to solve, not exacerbate.
The new service will run along a corridor between Derby and Seymour Town Hall; a one-way fare of $2.50 will be charged, with reservations required 24 hours in advance. It’s not a perfect system, or one flexible enough to put a real dent in car traffic, but it could be a model of how things are done.
Smart-growth initiatives and transit-based development aren’t about getting people to give up their cars. The goal is to offer alternatives. Our streets aren’t laid out in a way conducive to mass transportation around here, but there are some plans in the works that could offer a change. Until we all live a quick walk to the bus depot, though, for those trips when we do need to go a ways for something, programs like this one in the Valley will serve a need. It may even serve as an example for other communities.

Sox fans are right

6/21/07
Red Sox fans have mostly gotten over their communal, lifelong inferiority complex — and whenever they start feeling down, they can always pop in a tape of the 2004 American League Championship Series to make themselves feel better. But in one important way, they really are being treated like second-class citizens around here.
Mets and Yankees fans are all set; they can watch every inning of every one of their team’s games, from spring training to the victory parade. Sox fans, though, are shut out. New England Sports Network, which carries the team’s games, is not available in Fairfield County. Because the area falls in the New York market, Boston fans have to do without.
Even more galling have been a series of technical problems that kept Red Sox games that should have aired off the television. When national outlets like ESPN show games involving a local team, those games are only available on the local network; for example, a Yankees-Orioles game slated for ESPN would be shown on the Yankees network, YES, while ESPN in that area would show alternate programming.
But something was missed during a few Sox games this year. Even though NESN isn’t available here, nationally televised Red Sox games on ESPN were blacked out in Fairfield County. Somehow, local Boston fans got caught in some sort of baseball double jeopardy.
It’s not the end of the world, obviously, but people take their baseball-watching seriously. And when fans tried to get to the bottom of the problem, they got the pass-the-buck response — blame was cast on the cable company, local stations, ESPN and Major League Baseball, or all of the above.
Boston fans are famous for reveling in their suffering, but they have a case. ESPN can do better; get those games on TV where they belong.

Competing plans show real promise

6/21/07
The most recent development news from downtown Bridgeport confirms what people in City Hall have been saying for some time: The city is playing in the big leagues. The competing proposals for the 11-acre site adjacent to Harbor Yard are from well-established, accomplished teams. And they are each, coincidentally, affiliated with retired sports stars — NBA legend Magic Johnson with one and retired NFL quarterback Roger Staubach with the other.
The proposals, of which the city, citing nondisclosure requests from the competitors, has revealed only the barest details, are impressive in scope. Each foresees a mixed use of apartments, movie theaters, shops, a hotel and other destinations. If completed, the development would add an entirely new dimension to downtown.
And the area is full of such promise. The Remington site next to Seaside Park could overhaul the vision of the shoreline. The Citytrust apartments may inspire a new standard of downtown living. And, of course, the long-awaited Steel Point project could change the very face of the city.
Now it’s about making sure these ideas are more than just promising. The site at the center of the sports-star showdown is considered prime development space, but it presents its own problems. For one, that space is currently used for parking overrun for events at the Arena and Ballpark at Harbor Yard. More parking levels are slated at the facility’s garage, but the city would be well-served to have good plans in place for out-of-towners to deposit their cars someplace safe.
The site is also, like the Remington location, not far from the noisy, unsightly power plants on a nearby tract. The negative impact of that facility can’t be allowed to hold back the potential for growth in the area.
The real potential in the Harbor Yard site lies in the possibility of healing the open wound that sears the city in half — the elevated Interstate 95 expressway. Separating one segment of the city from the other, the highway isn’t going anywhere (no Big Dig for us, thank you). But if this location, directly south of the highway and right off an exit ramp, can lure people into those dank underpasses from downtown and help reconnect the severed streetscape, it will be a real accomplishment.
The city needs to make a real effort to make those underpasses more inviting, and make foot traffic through the area an everyday activity. Good transit-based development counts on pedestrians, and the city can go a long way toward that goal if this development is done right.

Work on bridge will be for the best

6/21/07
It turns the daily commute from aggravating to intolerable. It can turn a 5-mile hop into a 90-minute nightmare. It’s indisputable — no one likes highway construction.
Sometimes, though, it really is necessary. When a heavily traveled bridge is showing signs of getting older, it’s probably time to get to work. So though no one is looking forward to the idea of construction on the Moses Wheeler Bridge, connecting Milford and Stratford over the Housatonic River on Interstate 95, it’s the kind of project that no one would argue has to get done.
But it’s going to get rough for a while. Starting this summer, the state Department of Transportation will get to work on repairs for the existing bridge, all so they can tear the whole thing down when they build a new one. The bridge is due for replacement, but officials have determined that the old one won’t last until the new one is ready, and so another phase has been added to the project.
The work will total $117 million, with the vast majority of that going toward the new bridge. About $7 million is set aside for patching and repairs on the current structure. And when the state is willing to spend that kind of money on a span that’s about to be put out to pasture, it’s clear the work is seriously needed.
Commuters can take heart, though. Up the river a few miles, the Sikorsky Bridge, which carries the Merritt Parkway between the two shorelines, has been replaced to everyone’s benefit. The old one sent shivers down the spines of the heartiest travelers, what with its metal grate surface that made a driver feel like the car was about to careen off into the river at any moment. Now, the double-span replacement, complete with walking trails to connect the nonmotorized among us, is a testament to how these things ought to be done.
Despite the Wheeler repair work, the existing bridge won’t be closed completely at any time until the new one is ready. But still, anyone who has tried to drive I-95 late at night knows those one-lane-only travel times in the overnight hours can back up traffic for miles. There really is no time of day when you can safely assume you will reach your destination in a decent time frame.
But if all goes well, the new bridge will be worth it. The state has, at the very least, set a good example farther north.

No more war based on lies

6/17/07
First off, no one should be surprised at this latest blast of lunacy. Followers of the neoconservative doctrine, of which Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman is among the most famous, have been itching to go after Iran for years. So though CBS host Bob Schieffer was taken aback by Lieberman’s push last Sunday to go after that country for supposedly endangering our troops in Iraq, he really should not have been.
It was never a secret that Baghdad was just the beginning. And had the current war gone well, the push to move on into Tehran and Damascus and points beyond would have commenced apace. But, of course, Iraq has been an unceasing disaster, so supporters of constant warfare have been forced to hold off. Whatever their actual reasons are for this grand empire in the sand, no one seems to know.
Among constituents who think Lieberman’s stance is sheer madness, there’s an awkward balance. No one wants to be seen as defending a country run by a tyrannical, fundamentalist regime. Iran’s religious leadership espouses a worldview that is antithetical to everything our country is supposed to stand for. It has long been recognized as a supporter of international terrorism, and many observers thought our country could have been justified had we decided to take on that nation, instead of Iraq, all those years ago.
But that’s not how it went. Five years ago, we were at the peak of our international stature. Had we then laid out a coherent rationale for taking on a violent, regressive Tehran regime, we might have been followed by much of the world. Instead, we decided to lie our way into the neighboring country. Saddam Hussein made a more convenient villain.
So what is one to make of Lieberman’s claims, repeated on Friday, that Iran is training forces just over the border to go into Iraq and harm our soldiers?
"We’ve told them," said Lieberman, "we’ve said so publicly that the Iranians have a base in Iran at which they are training Iraqis who are coming in and killing Americans. … We can’t just talk to them. If they don’t play by the rules, we’ve got to use our force and, to me, that would include taking military action to stop them from doing what they’re doing now."
Here’s the problem. In the wake of WMDs, never-ending reports of progress, the insurgency’s "last throes" and politicized terror alerts, our leaders have lost the country. We don’t believe you.
It’s a dangerous scenario. Having been wrong so often and having so completely politicized national security policy, our leaders have no credibility to tell us who is and is not a threat. We’ve been lied to before, and our troops are paying the price. After everything we’ve seen, does Joe Lieberman honestly expect the country and his home state to fall in line behind him?
"We cannot let them get away with it," he says. "If we do, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness on our part."
Enough of this. We don’t make policy based on how other countries will "take" it. We don’t want never-ending war, and our Army couldn’t handle it if we did. Surely Lieberman knows the Iranians wouldn’t react meekly to military action on our part. We can’t just strike once from the air and be done with it.
Lieberman and his ilk cannot be allowed to lie us into another war. This madness must be stopped.

Grant belongs with those who need it

6/15/07
The problem started right at the top, with the first two words in the headline: "GE gets."
Fairfield-based General Electric Co. in April reported net income of $4.5 billion for the first quarter of 2007. By any accounting, that’s a lot of money. But Thursday morning brought news that the multinational behemoth was the lucky winner of a $722,000 state of Connecticut grant to help cover the cost of installing solar panels on its headquarters.
Heaven forbid the company foot the bill by itself.
The grant, from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, supported by a charge on commercial and residential electric bills, is designed to encourage the use of renewable power sources, and it’s a grand notion. By all means, the state should be encouraging a move away from fossil fuels and their air-fouling, war-starting side effects.
State officials are clear that the grants are not need-based; all ratepayers are equally eligible. And GE is not the only successful business to take advantage of some green PR; a Staples, a B.J.’s Wholesale Club and other businesses, towns and schools also accepted grants.
But PR works both ways. Yes, we are all happy with GE for making an effort to promote renewable energy, and we applaud their forward-thinking approach. But maybe that state money could go someplace other than the company account.
Surely the business doesn’t need it. In a multibillion-dollar budget, $722,000 is a rounding error. For Plainville High School, on the other hand, a $736,000 green-energy grant will present opportunities and set a sterling example for the educational community. This is where money from this grant belongs.
Similarly, a $46,000 grant to a homeowner could enable environmentally friendly solutions previously undreamed of. The money only goes toward installation, not purchase of the panels, so grant recipients need to have a financial stake of their own in the project.
It’s a good, responsible program, and one that could be a model for future environmental projects. But recipients would do well to consider their options. There must be a school out there they could pass that money along to, right?

Train station can be a model project

6/11/07
With the massive train station development in Fairfield clearing every regulatory hurdle, the largest project in town history is starting to take shape. It will be a boon not just to its town, but to its larger neighbor just to the east — specifically, the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport.
The planned Fairfield Metro Center will likely see a groundbreaking next month. All the permits are in hand, all the approvals have been granted. What’s left now is to watch and wait for the train station/hotel/office building/retail center to rise from the shores of Ash Creek. It’s an opportunity for the neighboring communities to work together for the benefit of everyone.
The first phase, scheduled to open in early 2010, includes the rail station, hotel, a concourse building with 89,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of retail space, and the first of what will eventually be four 200,000-square-foot office buildings.
The train station is key — the state says it favors "smart growth" development, and projects based around transit and walkable communities are vital. With the promise of express trains from what will be Fairfield’s third train station down to Manhattan, the location should appeal to workaday commuters.
This is where the relationship with Black Rock comes in. The nearest populated area is right over the Bridgeport line, and housing and condominium developments are already being marketed as within walking distance of the new transit center. It’s in both community’s interest to make sure the development serves everyone’s needs, and doesn’t create unnecessary traffic, noise or congestion.
The train station project has been years in the making, and some initial reluctance on Bridgeport’s side appears to be in the past. With continued good planning and follow-through, the area can be a model for the less car-centric future that might rescue a state choking on its own exhaust. If this project succeeds, everyone gains.

I-95 crackdown should last all year

There’s not much more nerve-wracking around here than taking your chances on Interstate 95 next to an 18-wheeler. With narrow lanes, constant on- and off-ramps, limited sight lines and questionable road conditions, the trip is harrowing under the best of circumstances.
Drivers know this and state officials know this, but nothing much is ever done about it. Once a year, though, for three days, the state shows off its regulatory wares with the DMV Roadcheck, an event that sends Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors out on the highways to put a halt to noncomplying truckers. It’s a great idea — these may be the only three days people can feel relatively safe on the roads.
But, of course, violations happen every day, whether they’re caught or not. And it’s less than comforting to hear about the problems officials came up with Tuesday, at the start of the inspection period. "You’d be amazed at what we’re finding out here," said Sgt. Ralph Cafiero, an inspector. "Unlicensed drivers, cracked wheels, steering and brake problems — it’s scary."
Yes, it is scary, as we’re all well aware. There is only one truck route through the area, and I-95 is a bad highway that’s only getting worse. Barring a dramatic breakthrough in feeder barge service or some sort of rail link under the Hudson River, it will continue to be the only cargo path through Fairfield County. As populations and demand keep rising, the problem only stands to worsen.
A bill in the state Assembly to keep weigh stations at the state line open for longer hours makes good sense; it’s tied now to the state budget process, and it’s yet to be seen whether it will survive. But increased enforcement would be a good step. If inspectors are finding so many problems in this well-publicized three-day stretch, it’s a good bet there are problems the rest of the year, too.
All of which makes the DMV crackdown welcome, but disappointing. The highway is dangerous, and hazardous trucks (and cars) don’t help. We’ve avoided for a long time the kind of mass-death tragedy on the interstate that might inspire some real changes, but it’s probably only a matter of time. Until then, we cross our fingers every time we climb that on-ramp.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Bridgeport must stop Arena pursuit

6/4/07
Maybe now the message is finally getting through.
Bridgeport was rejected once again in its bid to get out of paying a contractor for final work on the Arena at Harbor Yard. The city, claiming that the contract was obtained through corruption and that therefore should not have to be paid, has turned a $4.8 million argument into an $8 million-plus problem.
Interest and legal fees have continued to pile onto the original sum in question, and the city has been stymied every step of the way. Officials are of course entitled to seek legal remedy for actions they deem questionable, but the signs have been pointing against them for a long time.
The contractor, C.R. Klewin Northeast, was informed in 2001 that it was not a target in the federal corruption probe that ensnared former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, but the city continued its pursuit despite receiving that knowledge two years later.
Now, finally, it’s time to stop. When the state Supreme Court ruled against Bridgeport in April, it was difficult for some city officials to take, but that was the time to fold up the tent. Instead, they asked the court to reconsider, which they last week declined to do. Now, the city says it will confer with the City Council on how to proceed, but there’s really only one choice — pay the bill.
It’s not as though the city has millions of dollars lying around to spend on quixotic legal campaigns. The mill rate is out of control, schools are underperforming and property owners are looking for relief. No one wants to see more money wasted on this lost cause.
The city is still picking up the pieces from the disastrous aftermath of the Ganim years, and it is looking for help anywhere it can think of. The courts have proven, though, that this is not the place to look. There are no federal issues at stake, so turning to the federal Supreme Court is out of the question. Painful as it may be after so much time and money spent, it’s time to get on with it and pay the money that is owed. There is, at this point, no other choice.

Involve the state in building's plans

6/4/07
It was disappointing news, but hardly a great shock. Plans for the abandoned building at 333 State St. in downtown Bridgeport fell apart, again. Now it’s up to the city to finally make sure something is done about the lingering eyesore.
Officials announced a year ago that a Norwalk developer had reached a deal to turn the former office building into apartments. The proposal fell apart when an agreement could not be reached on parking, leaving the city searching for a return on its investment. Bridgeport gained title to the structure last year in lieu of back taxes, and now needs something to show for the $3 million it forgave to the former owner.
The building, on the corner of State Street and Lafayette Boulevard, sits in the midst of Housatonic Community College, one of the city’s true bright spots. The city should try to find a way to sell the building to the state and push for it to be incorporated into the HCC layout, adding luster to the school and removing a blight on its entryways. Gov. M. Jodi Rell should give any proposed state takeover serious consideration.
Bridgeport says it will be sending out a new round of requests for proposals on the building, with possible plans coming back this summer. An office building could make sense, because the apartment plans fell through on the parking considerations. Any similar housing plan would face the same problems, so unless there’s an alternate approach in store, the city should take a different tack.
But the best plan would be to get the state involved. Whether they then decide to implode the building or take it down to its steel frame or somehow work with what’s there now, something has got to be done about it.
Bridgeport has seen its share of downtown projects come near to fruition in recent years, so it’s disappointing that this long-festering dark spot continues to blight the landscape. Out of respect for the students and faculty at HCC, and for anyone who goes downtown, we implore the city — get this done. We’re all tired of looking at it.

Shays, Lieberman: Please stop talking

6/1/07
Maybe Messrs. Shays and Lieberman can clear up a few things.
Those two esteemed congressional representatives are recently back from trips to the never-ending war in Iraq, but neither of them seems especially downbeat. U.S. troop deaths are reaching all-time highs, but, apparently, there’s reason for optimism. Who would’ve guessed!
Here’s Sen. Lieberman: "Overall, I would say that what I see here today is progress. Significant progress from the last time I was here."
Shays, never one to contradict his Best Friend Forever, concurred. But just to make sure he was covered on all fronts, he made sure to temper his enthusiasm. "We have just encouraged the insurgents to throw everything they have at us. [U.S. officials] think it will be a very hot summer."
One can only wonder what in the world he’s talking about. If the insurgents aren’t "throw[ing] everything they have at us," then what to make of recent developments?
l May 28, 2007 — 10 U.S. troops killed;
l May 26, 2007 — eight U.S. troops killed;
l May 19, 2007 — nine U.S. troops killed.
It goes on and on. No one has failed to notice that American deaths in Iraq have spiked in the past several months, and no one has been able to see a return for our losses. Men and women are dying every day, men and women in the primes of their lives, dying far from home and away from family. And yet still, we have no idea why. We have no indication of when it will stop.
Conventional wisdom has it that Republicans, while sticking with the Bush-Lieberman-Shays line for now, were chastened by last November’s election losses, and will not tolerate another election cycle of continued war without end.
Don’t bet on it. The president has shown no sign he is pulling out troops — none. Instead, he’s busy high-fiving himself after Democrats rescinded a demand for timelines to leave that country.
As for Shays and Lieberman, their credibility on Iraq is so shot that it hardly matters what they say. They’ve been wrong over and over, time after time, year after year. Why should anyone possibly care what they have to say?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Stratford should back off on airport

5/31/07
It’s not an airport expansion, and Stratford would be smart to let it happen.
Sikorsky Memorial Airport, owned by Bridgeport but within the bounds of Stratford, was finally approved this week for a "safety zone" at the end of its main runway. The work, approved by the state Department of Transportation and long recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration, requires moving Main Street a short distance toward the water. It will put more space between the end of the runway and the road running past it; the runway would not be even a foot longer.
It’s a good idea, and one that is long overdue. A 1994 plane crash at that spot killed eight people, and safety changes should have immediately followed that tragedy. Instead, there’s been nothing but obstruction from Stratford, especially the nearby Lordship neighborhood. Carefully examined, though, it’s clear this plan benefits everyone.
Main Street floods frequently in that area, and with only two roads reaching that far south, it can be a major inconvenience. But experts say the realigned road would be less prone to washouts.
Also, the spot where Main Street runs into Stratford Road has poor sightlines; it’s a regular scene of traffic accidents. The revamped roadway would soften the turns, and improve driver safety.
Throw in the fact that the federal government will pay for 90 percent of the work, with most of the rest paid for by the state, and there’s little reason to put up any roadblocks.
Stratford Rep. Terry Backer says he will push for legislation that would require the town’s approval before work starts, but he should back off. This plan is a winner for everyone, and safety should come first.
The runways are in need of repair, but the FAA won’t help defray that cost unless its safety recommendations are enacted. Stratford may have been gambling that by fighting the safety work they could keep airport traffic limited, but that’s a poor strategy. The airport is not going away, and it’s improper to use safety improvements as leverage in this kind of dispute.
Stratford is justifiably worried about an actual airport expansion, which could mean more planes, more traffic and more noise. But this isn’t the expansion they’ve been fearing.

Online protection deserves approval

5/30/07
If there's one item on the political agenda that all parties agree on, it's protecting children. A bill passed in Hartford last week by the House of Representatives and now up for approval in the Senate is another step toward that goal.
In another move to target sexual predators operating on the Internet, the bill would require convicted offenders to register all e-mail addresses with local authorities. They're already required to register physical addresses, so this is just another step in an ongoing process.
The move comes in the midst of an effort to protect users of popular online networking sites like MySpace.com. Parents and authorities worry that unsupervised users are in danger from adult offenders lurking on the site, often using false identities. In conjunction with a nationwide effort for states to force such sites to turn over information on registered offenders, this latest push will help cross-identify potential criminals.
Last week, MySpace officials said they had identified more than 5,000 registered sex offenders nationally who had created personal profiles on the network, including about 100 people from Connecticut. MySpace released the names to law enforcement officials after receiving subpoenas from a number of states including Connecticut, where authorities are reviewing the data to see whether any of the offenders, by creating the profiles, violated the conditions of their probation and parole.
The bill stipulates that the e-mail addresses would be kept by police but would not be part of the state's sex offender registry accessible to the public on the Internet. That's a good idea; police need the knowledge for investigations, but putting the addresses online would be an invitation for harassment. State officials are also looking for ways to force the networking sites to verify the ages of all users before they are allowed access, but that is a longer-term process.
It's always a good idea to protect children whenever possible, and the online realm is a vast, poorly understood new frontier, where parents and authorities are still learning their ways around. Guardians and law enforcement personnel have a long way to go before the mere act of unsupervised Internet surfing by a child doesn't bring a few shivers.
And while this bill deserves passage, nothing can substitute for parenting and one-on-one guidance. The best we can hope for is that if a child comes across a suspect individual, in person or online, the child will know how to react and how to protect himself. Not all dangers can be legislated away, but we can encourage common sense, awareness of potential trouble and knowledge. And we can do our best to keep those situations as rare as possible.

Soccer smoking ban a good idea

5/29/07
Most of the country is accustomed to smoking bans at this point. At work, out to eat, in the bar — there are fewer places than ever to light up these days. If a proposed municipal ordinance passes in Shelton, you can add the soccer field to that list.
The Shelton Youth Soccer Organization has requested that the Parks and Recreation Department make the community’s soccer fields smoke-free. It’s a reasonable request, and the town should take action to make it happen.
In a setting where children are physically exerting themselves and learning good health habits, it makes sense not to send them mixed messages. Youth sports are a great way to get kids exercising while having fun, and there’s nothing unreasonable about asking a spectator to wait to light up until the game’s over.
And it’s also not out of line for parents and friends to want a smoke-free environment for cheering on the players. We’ve grown accustomed to it in restaurants and in government and private offices — why should soccer fields be any different?
The town or parks department could just put up signs telling people not to smoke, but to be enforceable with a fine, the town would have to pass an ordinance. It would go above and beyond the state law banning smoking in public places, which doesn’t include outdoor activities.
There’s something known informally as a smokers-rights movement that says society’s laws are too onerous on private behavior, and that one person’s right to enjoy a cigarette shouldn’t be up to a town politician. There might be an argument there, but not over soccer fields. When Little Jimmy scores a goal and runs over to give Mom a high-five, he shouldn’t have to navigate a cloud of smoke.

Senate is right on juvenile justice law

5/29/07
The state Senate took an important stance on juvenile justice last week, passing legislation that would take 16- and 17-year-olds out of the adult justice system for nonviolent crimes. It’s a good move, and deserves approval by the House of Representatives.
Connecticut is one of only three states, with New York and North Carolina, to treat such defendants as adults, and it makes sense to change that. A criminal record can haunt a person for life, and efforts should be made to keep people without better judgment out of the system in most cases.
The change would not affect violent offenders; teens as young as 14 could be charged in Superior Court under specific circumstances. But nonviolent offenders — accomplices, bystanders or otherwise — would be spared the harshest punishments.
It would be a major change in Connecticut law, and a welcome one. The current system sees up to 12,000 young people per year arrested, and most of them would now be handled by the juvenile justice system. It doesn’t benefit the state or the accused to see them begin a lifetime of recidivism, which is often the outcome once someone enters the adult system.
Lawmakers made important points about the gains from keeping young people out of adult courts. Criminal records follow people around for years, and close off doors that the accused may not even know about. And because it has been proven that many young people do not possess the reasoning skills and mental capacity that they will develop later in life, it makes sense to treat them differently before the law.
This change does not involve going easy on criminals, or giving prisoners a break. One of our society’s greatest problems is a culture where young people spend their lives in and out of jail, in and out of the court system. Heading that off before it starts is our best prevention method.
A brush with the juvenile detention service can also serve to send a message to young people about where their behavior could lead them if they don’t turn around. But let that lesson be one that they can recover from, not one that will haunt them the rest of their days. As Sen. Edwin A. Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said, "When you put a 16- and 17-year-old into jail, you put them in there with hardened criminals. And guess who’s doing the teaching in jail? The only people who are doing the teaching in jail are the criminals."
It’s a lesson that the House and Gov. M. Jodi Rell should listen to, and they should pass and sign this bill into law. It’s better for our young people and better for society as a whole.

Remember today those we have lost

5/28/07
The list of names keeps getting longer.
At least 3,400 American troops have died in Iraq since that war started in 2003. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the war — how we got there, why we went in, how long we’ll be there — Americans can’t help but mourn the lives lost. The men and women, many of them young people, are lost forever; they join the long list of our nation’s war dead, and we remember them today.
Memorial Day dates back to our own Civil War, when many communities set aside a day to remember soldiers lost in that epic conflict. Originally known as Decoration Day, the final Monday in May was acknowledged as a time to honor fallen Union soldiers; it was later expanded to remember all men and women who died in military service to their country.
The event takes on special poignancy during a time of war, when new names are added every day to the ranks of dead service members. A person need not favor continuing the war in Iraq to wish the best for our citizens in that country, and a person who wants to see an end to the death and violence doesn’t necessarily favor ending the war. We all support the troops, we all wish them well, we all want them home as soon as possible.
These facts are too easily forgotten. Just last week, at a celebration honoring the graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, certain groups of protesters took disagreement over the war to new levels of ugliness. Even in matters of war and peace, there is a common humanity, and a value to each opinion. Even when emotions run highest, we must resist the temptation to demonize people with opposing viewpoints.
The truth is that no one knows the future of our war effort in Iraq, and hardly anyone even knows the present. When we reduce our support or opposition to name-calling or worse, when reasoned argument is replaced by calls of "hippie" or "warmonger" or "commie," no one gains, least of all the people actually fighting the war. Today, at least, put away the jingoism and oversimplification and remember what we’ve lost.
Put away the idea that anti-war people don’t support the troops. "Support the troops" has been used as a bludgeon to accuse anyone parting from the official Washington line of being unpatriotic. It’s not true, it’s unfair and it’s out of line.
Put away the notion that anyone in favor of the war has been brainwashed by the media, or is too dumb to know any better. There is room for legitimate disagreement on both sides, from every perspective, and no one gains by belittling the political opposition, least of all the people in harm’s way.
But setting aside the pettiness of war-related fistfights is not the same as foregoing dissent. It is the right and duty of Americans to question what their country is doing, to take their officials to task when they get their facts wrong or spin lies to get their message out. It says nothing about a person’s concern for troops in the field, or memory of those who have died, for that person to demand answers, and demand a change of course. An active, questioning citizenry has been essential to our nation’s history and will forever be necessary to keep our country strong.
The people who have died are never coming back. They have lost their ability to speak for themselves, to question the country’s goals and motivations. When we speak out in matters of war, no matter our opinion, we speak in no small part for the people who no longer can.
It has been argued that politics has no place on Memorial Day, and those who violate that unwritten rule can pay a serious price. It would be nice if such a rule also applied to our increasingly commercialized, advertising-saturated society. Remembering dead troops has nothing to do with mattress sales, and the day means more than a good excuse for a barbecue. We would do well as citizens to keep that in mind, even for a few moments.
Today is for those we have lost, present and past, in military service to this country. It’s not too much to ask to take a day and honor their memories.

Arbitration is best arts center choice

5/27/07
After months upon months of talks, the fate of the Black Rock Arts Center remains up in the air. City officials promised continually that a solution was in the offing, but the two sides have yet to come together. At this point, arbitration is the best option for both sides.
The city owns the center’s Fairfield Avenue location, and rents it out for $1 a year. Mayor John M. Fabrizi and other city officials, though, thought they could attract a more profitable tenant to the site, and explored ways to move the arts center or otherwise satisfy all parties. Despite all the talks, they haven’t gotten anywhere.
Arts center officials say the city’s demands are unreasonable, and are asking for arbitration. It’s the right idea; more talks are pointless. Both sides have made offers and a few concessions, and it appears that no more time should be spent on the endeavor.
Arts center backers say the city should offer a rent deal similar to the one offered the Downtown Cabaret Theater, for $300 per month. The city is also negotiating space in City Hall Annex for another arts program; it’s not unreasonable for the Black Rock group to seek similar terms.
The city’s counteroffer was clearly unacceptable. It wanted the arts group to relocate to the fifth floor of the Eisenhower Center on Golden Hill Street, but that was never going to work in terms of space or facilities. It was an offer in good faith, but more should be expected from the city.
BRAC officials say the group’s last lease with the city requires the two parties to enter into arbitration if a new agreement cannot be reached. All indications are that the group is ready to invoke that clause, even if it means going to court.
A vibrant and expansive arts community is necessary for any growing city. Bridgeport must find a home for the Black Rock Arts Center, and encourage artists of all kinds to make the city their home.
For Bridgeport to reach its full potential, it must be a diverse, dynamic community, and the arts must take a priority. Although it could surely earn much more in rent from another restaurant or bar, officials must not overlook what it is that gives the city so much promise.

School programs offer opportunities

5/24/07
When education budgets are slashed, it leads to more than larger classes and fewer textbooks. It can also take away opportunities.
Vocational-agricultural programs present an appealing option for some students. They offer a chance to learn a skill and develop abilities they may not learn elsewhere. They can also expose young people to different lifestyles and different groups of people than they are likely to meet in traditional classroom settings.
But, like everything worth having at school, they cost money. And as recent local budget fights have demonstrated, nothing is off-limits when it comes to saving a few dollars and pleasing the no-taxes-at-any-costs constituency. In the end, it’s the children who suffer for it.
Milford’s proposed budget would cut the option of the Trumbull regional vocational-agricultural program for its students. It would save about $100,000 from the education budget, or the cost of tuition and transportation for the 12 students currently enrolled. That’s not a small amount of money, but it represents one more lost opportunity, one less choice for Milford students.
The state mandates schools to fund only one vo-ag program per district, and because Milford is already linked with the Bridgeport aquaculture school, it has no obligation to continue working with the Agri-Science School at Trumbull High School. But education is about more than mandates and obligations. It’s about offering choices that students may not have known even existed. The Trumbull connection will be missed.
These programs are supposed to be regional in nature, and students meet people outside their typical circles. Opportunities to learn about aquaculture and agricultural science are hard to come by in most public schools, and though they may appeal to only a small subset of the student body, it’s hard to justify taking away a valuable learning tool.
Of course, textbooks and buildings and teachers cost money. And people are feeling the pinch of higher costs everywhere they turn, from the gas pump to the electric bill. But in one of the richest states in the country, we should do better. Schools should be opening doors, not closing them.

State pricing out younger workers

5/23/07
The Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University unveiled a report this week that showed people are being priced out of the state’s housing market, but it wasn’t that conclusion that was alarming; anyone with a glimmer of the real estate market knows that. What’s genuinely worrisome is the rate at which people are giving up entirely on making a home here.
Connecticut is No. 1 in the nation in terms of 25- to 34-year-olds leaving the state in search of more affordable lifestyles. And once they land someplace else, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever come back. This is the future of the state’s high-earning, highly taxed work force, and it is disappearing.
Buying a house in the southwestern corner of Connecticut means either lucking into an incredible deal or settling for something too small or too far out of the way. Even good-paying jobs offer far too little in salary for workers to settle down here.
Add in the other cost-of-living hikes — gasoline at an all-time high, electricity rates through the roof, a big water increase in the offing. It’s almost as if the state doesn’t want a middle class here.
The report said workers would need a salary over $100,000 to afford Connecticut’s median home sale price, and that can only be higher when the rest of the state is excluded. The push with Monday’s presentation was for legislators to enact affordable-housing laws this session that would allow people who were born and raised here to stay here.
The Assembly should get to work on the legislation before them, epsecially the innovative HomeConnecticut bill that offers a new way of building affordable housing in specially designated municipal zones.
Their current session, though, has been disheartening — no sense of urgency, a budget that may just make it in under the deadline and dwindling chances for energy-price relief. If they had their priorities straight, the ongoing drainage of young workers out of state would be the top item on the docket.
The trend isn’t slowing down; the state needs housing its work force can afford to buy and live in. Connecticut’s economic future depends on it. Not everyone can count on that trust fund kicking in.

People deserve property answers

5/22/07
The 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision enshrining eminent domain as an acceptable practice for taking one person’s property and giving it to someone else left many people flummoxed. Surely the state could take a person’s house for a school or a hospital, but giving it to a multimillionaire developer was hard to justify. But the court ruled, in a controversial 5-4 decision, that a development project meant to spur growth fell under the rubric of public benefit, and the rules of property rights were changed.
Owners have been asking questions ever since, and a nationwide backlash against that decision has led many states to severely limit the practice of eminent domain. Connecticut hasn’t yet followed that route, but the governor last week did name an ombudsman for property rights, an official whose job it is to answer the public’s complaints and concerns about insoluble property questions. It’s a good step on the way to eminent domain reform.
Sixty-four-year-old Robert S. Poliner, a former Republican state chairman, will take over the new job in the near future; he is by all accounts a solid choice. Pending confirmation by the Legislature, he will bring business and real estate experience to his position and give the public a much-needed voice.
Maybe his first order of business can be to figure out the Steel Point mess. The Bridgeport megadevelopment has been stalled for months, with one property owner, the Pequonnock Yacht Club, yet to reach agreement with the city on a deal to move the business. The city has many times threatened to resort to eminent domain, and it may reach that point. Either way, it’s time for some action and — at long last — some shovels in the ground.
Filling this position won’t solve property disputes in the state, but it’s good to give the public a voice and a place to go for answers from the state government. Someday, when the Assembly gets around to actually enacting legislation, maybe they can take a real look at eminent domain and finally clear up those contentious questions.

Immigration bill is the best option

5/21/07
After yet another bruising battle on one of the most contentious issues in the country, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Congress has come together behind a compromise immigration bill. With all the questions it raises and all the interest groups it angers, the bill appears to be the best solution available to this long-festering issue.
The bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for about 12 million immigrants now in the United States illegally. It also would mandate tougher border security and workplace enforcement and provide for a guest worker program.
It would provide a circuitous path toward citizenship for the millions in our midst who work hard and want the best for their children but who live in constant fear that their immigration status will be discovered. Fear of deportation or imprisonment keeps the sick away from hospitals and the needy away from government services. It’s time to take the fear out of people’s lives.
Critics call this "amnesty," and the bill faces opposition from all sides. But one thing is clear — there will be no mass deportations of millions of people living in this country without proper documentation. It is impractical, to say the least, and the United States ought not be in the business of breaking up families. Many illegal immigrants have children who are natural-born citizens, and separating an otherwise law-abiding family in the interest of avoiding "amnesty" serves no one.
But there is much that is troubling about this proposal. The so-called "guest-worker" aspect of the deal could create separate classes of laborers in this country, with only one allowed to exercise rights as Americans. This country has nothing to gain by officially designating an entire swath of people as second class.
Further, the bill would stipulate that illegal immigrants could not get visas or begin a path to citizenship until the proposed border security improvements and a high-tech worker identification program were put in place. This is a large burden — border security improvements are not as easy as immigration opponents make them out to be, and no one knows how long the ID system could take. It would be unfair to pass a law like this and then leave people waiting.
But it may be the best we can do. Despite its flaws, the legislation would allow a legal future in this country for millions of workers and their families, and provide hope for people living in fear. It’s a goal to which we should all aspire.

Time for reform in bond industry

5/20/07
Legislators were reminded again last week of the festering problems in the state bail-bond industry, with nearly everyone at a hearing agreeing that the state needs to reform the process from top to bottom. It’s about time the General Assembly took real action.
Bail-bond professionals warned lawmakers that because state officials are not enforcing the prices that defendants and their families are charged, the market is turning into a free-for-all. As a result, large, out-of-state companies are undercutting smaller firms and forcing judges to gradually raise the price of average bonds to the point where $100,000 isn’t unusual anymore.
It’s a bad situation for the defendants, the courts and for the state’s reputation for fairness and justice.
Lawmakers in a joint hearing of the Public Safety, Judiciary and Insurance committees heard testimony in support of legislation to remove much of the administrative work from the state Insurance Department and put it into the Department of Public Safety. It would also require bail bondsmen to remit the full amount of a bond’s premium to the insurer and then receive compensation rather than get their pay from the defendant’s premium itself.
Advocates for the bill say the current system makes a mockery of the judicial process, and there’s plenty of truth in that statement. With fights breaking out in courtrooms over the accounts of high-profile defendants, action is clearly needed to restore some dignity to the procedure.
It’s also about saving money. Experts said that in recent years, firms that undercut the state-mandated prices have regularly gone bankrupt, saddling the state with millions of dollars in uncollected bond forfeitures. That’s money that should go into the state’s coffers that is instead left floating in the ether.
There’s no shortage of reasons to reform the system, but action has, in years past, not been forthcoming. It’s time to change that, and bring some real reform to a system desperately in need of some.

Coal plants belong in the nation's past

5/18/07
Connecticut has long struggled to get other parts of the country to pay attention to its air pollution problems. Through little fault of its own, this state has some of the most vexing air-quality problems in the country. Pollution and particulate matter from the Southeast and Midwest make their way up into the atmosphere and settle in this neighborhood, making Connecticut pay for the rest of the country’s unclean ways.
The state isn’t completely blameless — we’ve had our own struggles with dirty power plants and motor vehicle congestion. And, too, the state uses its share of power from the grid, so it’s not as though the plants in Ohio don’t provide any benefit to the region. But it’s proven that we take a disproportionate share of the negative externalities.
The federal government has been nudged, slowly, in the other direction, away from the dirtiest power plants. But a report this week tells of a Depression-era program designed to bring electricity to rural areas, mostly in the Southeast, that remains in use, and is paving the way for a new era of coal plants.
The facilities, which spew carbon dioxide — fouling our air and contributing to global warming — run against the government’s expressed priority to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The nation’s rural electric cooperatives reportedly plan to spend $35 billion to build conventional coal plants over the next 10 years, enough to offset all state and federal efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over that time. It’s a blow to Connecticut’s fight to clean its air, and it also runs counter to our national interest.
U.S. policy needs to focus on energy, both supply and demand. The dirtiest power-producing methods need to be phased out, not given a jump-start through low-interest loans — the nation needs to put coal and oil in its past. The consequences in terms of global warming are stark. At the same time, increasing efficiency and conservation can cut demand, allowing a move to new technologies apart from the polluters of past generations.
Giving new life to coal-fired power plants, however well-intentioned, is bad policy. It hurts Connecticut, and will come back to hurt the world. A forward-looking policy can not allow this program to continue.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

All towns hit by flood deserve aid

5/16/07
In a bizarre turn, the Housatonic River has come to divide the deserving of aid from the undeserving, at least according to Washington.
Communities on one side of the river are eligible for federal relief from last month’s flooding, but the other side is not. With calculations based on county markers, Derby, Seymour and Oxford may lose out on funding even though they were hit just as hard as towns on the other side.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, not really known these days for its managerial skills, makes the determination of aid eligibility based on per-capita damage in each county. Because the flooding river had an impact on only a few towns in New Haven County, the per capita level wasn’t high enough to trigger the financial response. Fairfield and Litchfield counties, though, did make the cut.
Oxford alone sustained about $1 million in damage from the April storm, but was unlucky enough to be part of the wrong county. Gov. M. Jodi Rell should file an appeal with the federal agency and make sure aid is sent where it is needed.
And another request should be made to stop, at least in Connecticut, doling out relief on a countywide basis. It makes no sense. There are no county governments, and residents could be forgiven if they’re not even sure which town is in what county. No one knows because it doesn’t matter.
There’s also the question of proportionality. A county has to have damage up to a certain per-capita level to qualify for aid. But what if only, say, Oxford was damaged in the flood? It’s a small town, so a lot of damage there might still be swallowed up by the rest of an undamaged New Haven County, thereby keeping the per-capita numbers low. It’s a system that makes no sense.
So the governor should appeal, but FEMA should change its ways. Given its performance on a national stage in the past few years, no one is holding his breath on that one.

Economic news brings its own risks

5/15/07
Economic forecasts are notoriously unreliable — there are simply too many variables to make consistently accurate predictions. But to hear a group of developers last week discussing the future of southwestern Connecticut, all signs are pointing up.
Six development gurus met in Shelton on Friday to talk up their projects and the overall economic health of the region, and there was nothing but happy talk. Listening to speakers like Robert Scinto, of R.D. Scinto Inc., and Nancy Hadley, Bridgeport’s director of economic development, you’d never guess out-of-control housing prices and constantly doubling electric bills were forcing people of limited means to reconsider their commitment to this state.
After all, why scrimp to afford a miniscule lot in Seymour when the same money could get you double the house and room to grow down South? The speakers didn’t say.
What they did offer was a familiar rundown of projects in the works or on the table, and it is impressive. Housing units and proposals are sprouting up all over Bridgeport, and the Valley is poised to make a real comeback.
Event moderator Joseph McGee of The Business Council of Fairfield County cited the continuing expansion of the New York City business sphere, with tentacles of money reaching ever deeper into Connecticut. But he also struck an important note of caution: If communities don’t invest in housing that everyday workers can afford, the economy faces a collapse. People have to live somewhere, and not everyone has a hedge fund to run.
Speakers also touched on the importance of mass transit, and cited a proven fact: If there is access to New York, people will come. A high-speed rail connection to Manhattan from just about anywhere will attract people, especially the rich.
But community leaders have got to keep in mind the housing needs of the not-so-rich. People are being priced out of the state, and it’s a dangerous trend for Connecticut’s future. A new spate of luxury condos can look great for a community’s bottom line, but the area demands planning on a regional level to give people of more modest means a real chance to make a start here.
Of we can keep going the way we are, and watch all of our smart young people move to North Carolina.

Ban on trans fats worth supporting

5/14/07
In an unexpected amendment to an unrelated bill, the state Senate last week approved a ban on restaurants serving food prepared with frying oils containing artificial trans fats. The contentious legislation now moves on to the House, where it will likely get a stormy reception.
Legislators clearly mean well; trans fats, listed on food labels as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, are believed to be harmful because they wreak havoc with cholesterol levels, leading to heart disease. But the question on the table is whether legislation is the proper avenue to pursue these supposed health benefits.
Libertarians decry the rise of the so-called "nanny state," typified by laws requiring helmets on motorcycles and seat belts in cars. They ask, reasonably, why is one person’s safety choice the business of the state? The ban on driving with hand-held cell phones is often lumped in with those laws, but doesn’t really belong there — if an activity presents a driving hazard, it’s much more than the violator who is put at risk.
But the fight against trans fats falls squarely into this realm. It’s one thing to go after vending machines in schools; children who are bombarded with ads for junk food all day should at least be sheltered at school. (Easy access to soda and Twinkies defeats the purpose of gym class.)
But shouldn’t adults be free to eat what they want? Should a restaurant be cited for using the wrong cooking oil? Won’t restaurants that advertise an alternative attract people who care about such things?
In other words, can’t the market handle this one?
It can, but it might take a few thousand more deaths for that to happen. Relying on the market to solve safety issues is effective over the long term, but in the short run, it’s better to take action when the opportunity is available. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, and with the medical community strongly behind the move to get rid of trans fats, the Legislature must take action.
A car company that manufactures defective wheels would eventually get caught by the free market; enough people would see that the brand was unsafe, and would switch to a better one — thereby causing the first brand to upgrade as well to catch up. But wouldn’t it be better for the government to mandate better wheels to begin with? The same result is achieved, but no one has to die to get there.
It’s the same scenario here. Get rid of the trans fats, encourage healthy eating and common sense, and remove unnecessary risks. We can’t legislate our way out of heart disease, but we can take steps.

Long jury process isn't a bad thing

5/13/07
No one would have been surprised to see a national survey that rated Connecticut as having the slowest highways at rush hour, or one that said the state has the slowest legislators when it comes to passing laws. And a report that said we have the longest time span between grand announcement of a city-reviving Project for the Ages on a rundown peninsula and the actual breaking of ground would have come and gone with few raised eyebrows.
But a recently released report that Connecticut moves slower than any other state when it comes to picking juries for trials did garner attention. At first, it was unclear whether we were supposed to be pleased or embarrassed by it. After all, the right to a speedy, public trial is among our most basic rights —it’s right there in the Sixth Amendment. But no one likes to wait around all day wondering about their jury duty fate.
Connecticut takes 10 hours on average to pick a jury for serious criminal trials and 16 hours for civil trials, according to the survey. The next slowest states average about five hours for criminal trials and four for civil cases. South Carolina is the fastest state, taking 30 minutes to pick a jury in criminal and civil cases.
Put in that context, maybe we’re doing OK. Thirty minutes is an awfully short time to spend on deciding who could put a defendant away for life, or worse. That this state spends more time and energy deliberating over who should be allowed on the jury ought to give us confidence in our legal system.
But it’s still a long way from our record to the next slowest state. What accounts for much of the difference is the lack of group questioning; around here, prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire and then answer queries from the attorneys one at a time.
Opponents say it’s a waste of time and resources, but one that’s unlikely to change because it would require an amendment to the Connecticut Constitution. But the other side bears listening to — supporters say potential jurors are more honest when questioned individually rather than surrounded by their peers, when they could succumb to group pressure.
It’s a rational argument, and a process that deserves every safeguard we can provide. If that means lawyers have to spend more time on the selection process and jury duty is less convenient, it’s a small price to pay in the service of justice.

Shelton proposal will bring growth

5/11/07
Recognizing the potential gold mine running right past the town, Shelton planners are taking a big step toward increasing development. By opening up a stretch of the Housatonic riverfront to commercial and residential development, the town could clear the way for millions of dollars in future growth.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is moving on a proposal to create a River Front District on about 3.3 acres extending from 113-131 Canal St. The new designation would change the zoning from industrial to commercial and residential.
It’s a smart move. Industry, for better or for worse, is not coming back, at least not enough to base an economy around. This land will join another tract farther north — where developer John Guedes is eyeing a $250 million downtown project with thousands of square feet of commercial, retail and residential space — in setting new standards for Shelton.
Town officials want strict standards on this latest plan, with height limits for buildings and parking requirements. A recent study shows the "direction in the city’s downtown had changed to higher density housing and retail, and that was the way to go," said James Ryan, president of the Shelton Economic Development Corp.
It’s the pattern communities around the area are following as brownfields and rivers are cleaned. Sites that sat vacant and fallow for decades are being reborn as retail and residential destinations.
Shelton would do well, though, to make sure its current residents aren’t priced out of the new projects. There’s a clear regional need for housing that working families can afford, and the Route 8 corridor could go a long way toward filling that need. Market-rate housing brings in the big money, but the town should make room for all kinds of people to live there.
The rediscovery of the river has gone a long way toward making possible the region’s rebirth. Instead of dumping untreated industrial waste or sewage overflow, communities are treating the waterways with the care they deserve, and reaping the rewards from a populace looking to connect with nature. There’s no better way than a walk along the riverfront.
It could be in 10 years that the Naugatuck and Housatonic rivers are clean enough to take a swim, with paths and greenways from Milford to all points north; that abandoned former factory sites along them are replaced by parks and housing and ball fields and stores; and that the Valley is the place to be for young families taking a first look at Connecticut. If that goal is to be reached, moves like Shelton’s are important steps along that journey.

DeLauro does well to seek food safety

5/10/07
Federal officials Tuesday said some farmed fish have been fed meal spiked with the same chemical linked to a recent pet food recall; the contamination was probably too low to harm anyone who ate the fish, though. The same day, Cracker Barrel restaurants pulled hamburgers from dozens of locations after a woman reported finding a piece of metal in her patty. A few months back, Americans by the thousands gave up on spinach in the wake of an E. coli scare; peanut butter also had its contamination worries.
Americans are taking notice of their nation’s inefficient, ineffective food safety apparatus, and lawmakers are right to take action. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, says the nation’s inspection programs need an immediate overhaul, calling for an independent bureau to take over the task from the 15 separate federal agencies now charged with the job.
DeLauro has highlighted the issue at a time when war and politics dominate the headlines, but there’s never been a better time to push for change. People are nervous, and rightfully so — every glimpse into the convoluted and serially understaffed world of America’s food safety net makes us yearn for the time when everything edible was grown within a day’s walk.
Those days are long past, and our corporate food chain is big business. But people count on the government for basic services, and keeping contaminated food out of grocery stores — or out of the country — is high on that list.
But it just isn’t happening. According to reports, the federal Food and Drug Administration, which handles most food safety inspections, had enough workers in 2006 to check only about 1 percent of the 8.9 million imported food shipments. Domestic produce is no better; U.S.-grown ingredients are just as likely to slip through the regulatory net.
So DeLauro is right to take action. It’s only a matter of time before a food-borne illness is not caught in time and hundreds of people are sickened or killed. Getting a firm grasp on food safety in this country is in everyone’s best interest.

Upgrade will help early responders

5/9/07
In a victory for first responders, Gov. M. Jodi Rell this week announced an improvement in communication systems between various communities and departments. It’s a welcome change from a situation where fire and police personnel could be cut off from one another, adding even more chaos to a hectic situation.
The state will be spending $1 million on new communications equipment that will make it easier for emergency responders from different towns to talk with each other on their portable radios. The technology will also allow local police and fire officials to communicate even if they have different radio frequencies and systems.
It’s a smart move, and long overdue. In the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, poor communication technology was blamed for hundreds of deaths. Police and fire personnel had trouble communicating with each other, and it has been reported that many lives could have been saved with more modern communication systems.
Connecticut doesn’t have any terrorism targets like the World Trade Center, but disasters do happen, natural and otherwise. In the event of a large-scale catastrophe (a hurricane, for example), emergency responders must have the best equipment possible to deal with the crisis. Worrying about how to get in touch with others on the scene should be the last thing on anyone’s mind in that situation.
The new equipment plugs into existing radios in emergency response officials’ vehicles, meaning towns do not have to buy new radio systems. But it would be worth a high price to ensure the best technology.
So while it may be years late, it’s a necessary move. All measures should be taken to improve the abilities of first responders, in this state and around the country.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Package stores due for a crackdown

5/8/07
The law is clear: People under 21 aren’t allowed to buy alcohol. The signs are posted everywhere in stores and markets that sell liquor, and anyone even slightly young-looking ought to be expected to produce identification. Customers know it and retailers had better know it.
So how did all 15 Ansonia establishments that sell alcohol fail random tests?
The retailers have been advised, in the strongest sense of the word, to attend an educational workshop the state is putting on to refresh their memories about the law. But you could really boil the class down to a few words: Don’t sell alcohol to minors.
Young people have been trying to get around drinking laws for ages, and there are bound to be some violations that slip through the cracks. But all 15 establishments? That has to set some kind of record for futility.
Even worse, only one store even asked to see identification. Another clerk let the tester slide because the person "looked 25." It would be troubling if Ansonia got the reputation as the place to go for young people looking to buy beer.
There will be penalties, up to and including suspension of liquor licenses and temporary closings. The particular clerks who were cited have been charged with selling alcohol to a minor. And while the refresher course is a good idea, further compliance checks should be conducted around the city for as long as it takes to get the message across.
Underage drinking is a scourge around the country, and it’s never more dangerous than in a suburban environment when people need a car to get from place to place. We don’t need to see any more young people killed in drunken-driving accidents, and we don’t want to find out those kids bought their alcohol illegally at a local package store.
It’s not complicated — ask to see identification. Can those three seconds saved by not asking really be all that important?

Education key to water quality

5/7/07
It was good news/bad news in a recently released report about pollution in Long Island Sound. People who live near the water are concerned about its health, but don’t do much themselves to keep the water clean. They say they want to stop pollution, but are counting on other people to do the heavy lifting.
The survey asked 1,220 residents within 15 miles of the shoreline about their knowledge and attitudes about pollution and the Sound, and what role they play in it. It showed a general lack of information about the main sources of pollution and about how everyday decisions have a real impact on water quality. But, encouragingly, it showed education can have a real impact on changing behavior.
For instance, well-informed residents were less likely to use fertilizer-heavy lawn-care techniques — excess chemicals are washed away with rainwater and often end up polluting the Sound. Also, people who pay attention to water quality issues were less likely to pour hazardous materials in a storm drain, or otherwise improperly dispose of them. Not every substance goes through a treatment plant, and even when they do, sewage plants are often overwhelmed, leaching nitrogen into the water.
As the survey’s organizers said, the results indicate a wide gap between concern about air pollution and public knowledge. The positive from that, though, is clear — people care about the Sound and want it to be healthy. What needs to be done now is educational, and that’s possible. It’s much easier to fill people in on the consequences of their actions, especially when they have a vested interest in those consequences, than it is to convince people to care in the first place.
In that regard, the Sound and its supporters are already ahead of the game.

Medicaid contracts are public records

5/7/07
In the interest of open governance, the General Assembly should continue to pursue legislation to require Medicaid HMOs to disclose more information about their rates and services. Despite a recent setback, the amount of money involved — in the hundreds of millions of dollars every year — demands public accountability.
A bill that would have subjected the groups to disclosure requirements under the Freedom of Information Act was pared down as it passed through an Assembly committee recently, removing language that defined the businesses’ contracts with the state as public records. But it should be clear that by managing the state’s Medicaid program, the organizations are doing state business, and should be subject to the same disclosure rules as any other government service.
Lawyers for the HMOs counter by saying that technical information on rates and services is proprietary and could be used by competitors to undercut future business. While it’s a valid complaint, the need for open governance takes precedence; there’s simply no excuse for having government business take place in secret.
Court rulings and a decision by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal have strengthened the case to require openness, but the powerful medical lobbies have resisted legislative changes. The court decision is under appeal to the state Appellate Court, which will likely rule the same way.
A company that wants to protect information it deems proprietary has an alternative — don’t do business with the state. With $722 million on the line in the Medicaid program, that won’t happen anytime soon, and courts and legislators are right to hold them to account. How taxpayer money is spent is public information, and must fall under state Freedom of Information law.

Enforce the law on cell-phone use

5/6/07
If the goal is to change people’s behavior, it’s not working. Try driving on any stretch of road in Connecticut and it becomes clear people haven’t given up their handheld cell phones behind the wheel. Whatever the reason, be it force of habit or lax enforcement, the 18-month-old statute has not ended the scourge of gabbing drivers.
Whether it makes sense to legislate common sense is by now beside the point — the Legislature went after cell phones, and now they need better enforcement. Some proposals call for increasing the fine from $100 to $250 to increase the deterrent factor. Criminal justice experts can debate that one, but it seems unlikely that’s the problem. The law received plenty of publicity, and it’s unlikely anyone would hesitate to press the "answer" button based on a fine they probably won’t have to pay. There simply aren’t enough police officers to keep track of all the infringements, and everyone knows it.
So another school of thought has it that the fines should be lowered, thereby making it more likely that police will hand out the fines. The thinking is that if officers think, consciously or not, that a fine is out of line with an infraction, they will be less likely to issue a citation. It’s why making jaywalking a capital offense wouldn’t keep people in the crosswalk — police are people, too, and know when a punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
By lowering the fine, theoretically, more tickets of $50 would make a larger impact than fewer, larger fines, and thereby word would spread that the police are on the lookout. It makes a certain amount of sense, but still runs into the enforcement issue. Callers who drive are still not likely to get caught.
Distracted drivers are a real problem on our roads, and the problem shouldn’t be taken lightly. But it’s not just cell phones — eating, listening to music or talking to someone else in the car can all divide a driver’s attention. And with thousands of people dying every year on our roads, it makes sense to tackle the problems that we can, rather than leaving it all up to random fate. A bad driver puts much more than himself at risk.
But we also have to know our limits. We can’t legislate ourselves to safety, but we can encourage common sense. A good place to start would be telling people to hang up altogether, because hands-free devices present their own dangers. But the best solution is to crack down on enforcement and issue more tickets — the more people slapped with a fine could be that many more safe drivers.

Teachers only a short-term fix

5/4/07
Give Bridgeport credit for going to great lengths to fill teaching slots. With a shortage of math and science teachers and local recruiting coming up empty, the school system is looking overseas for qualified, available instructors ready to step in.
An agreement with India has opened the door for as many as 15 science and math teachers to come work in the Bridgeport school system. The three-year agreements give the system a little breathing room as it steps up efforts to find a more local solution, but still allows students access to high-quality instructors. Administrators deserve credit for taking advantage of an opportunity.
And the incoming teachers look to be well-qualified. Officials say the candidates all have bachelor’s or master’s degrees and a strong command of their subject matter — as well as strong English skills, a necessity for concerned members of the Bridgeport Board of Education.
Ideally, the city wouldn’t need to travel thousands of miles to fill vacancies. In a perfect world, Bridgeport would have the same quality facilities and offer the same salaries as its richer neighboring towns. But that’s not the case, and the city simply can’t match what teachers can get elsewhere, even in the next town, once they have been in the city system for several years. It’s the reason our lawmakers spend so much time and energy on details of education cost-sharing every two years.
So applaud the school system for going to great lengths to find qualified instructors for its deserving students, but don’t forget the larger problems. Whatever the cause, city students are at a disadvantage to their suburban peers, and the trend shows no sign of reversing. Until we find a solution, stopgap measures will have to get ever more creative.

Bus line upgrades will benefit riders

5/3/07
Anything to lure people off the highways — that ought to be the state’s mass transit mantra. A recently announced upgrade in bus service around the state and the region is a positive step in that regard.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced last weekend a statewide bus service initiative, including a $7.5 million outlay for 36 new vehicles and expanded service on a variety of routes. Among the improvements are longer hours, more frequent service, additional days and a few completely new routes.
Bus ridership was up by about 5 percent in 2006, the state reported, and with no end in sight to the climb in gas prices, that trend can be expected to continue. It’s important for the state to meet that rising demand with better and more frequent service.
Among the changes is the addition of peak-period express service between Bridgeport and Shelton, and weekday hourly service between the train stations in Stratford and Derby. With Route 8 slowdowns more and more common, every car taken off the road will help.
The state will also increase Saturday service on the Coastal Link, which runs between Norwalk and Milford, from once an hour to every half-hour. Farther south, the state is buying longer buses for the route between Port Chester, N.Y., and Norwalk, allowing for more seats with the same number of runs.
These are all good moves, and it is hoped they will presage even more expansions. The state also needs to do more to market their bus routes, getting out the word to people about times and schedules and stops. The more people know about the routes, new and old, the more people will take advantage of them and leave the car at home once in a while.
The state talks a good game when it comes to the benefits of mass transit, and it’s important to follow that up with concrete action. There is always more to be done, but by improving bus service, transportation officials are proving that they can do more than just talk.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Put fencing near dangerous tracks

5/2/07
It’s a coincidence that two people died on the train tracks at nearly the same place in Stratford in the past week. But because the spot is at grade level and is described as a regular crossing area for adults and children, authorities should put up a fence to keep people away. The area has proven to be too dangerous to stay as it is.
Metro-North is saying they have no intention of putting up a barrier, reasoning that the only areas usually cordoned off are around schools or other areas where concern is high. But if concern is not high now, with two people dead in such a short time, it’s hard to imagine what it would take.
Metro-North owns a 10-foot right-of-way alongside the tracks, so it’s within its power to take action. If it doesn’t, Stratford has indicated that the town will, either by putting up fencing on town-owned property or by trying to persuade Metro-North to act, through the courts or otherwise. It’s a good idea, and shows that the town takes seriously the welfare of its residents.
There’s nothing that can be done to keep people safe all the time, and, sadly, people will continue to die on train tracks no matter what is done. It’s a fact that when there are high-speed trains running at ground level, people are going to get hurt from time to time. But just because we can’t stop every tragedy is no excuse not to take action where we can, and this spot has proven to be dangerous.
And it’s not as though putting up some fencing would break anyone’s bank. Done in the interest of saving lives, a little time and money is well worth the expense. There will always be dangers, but this is one that we can avoid in the future.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Shays keeps us wondering on Iraq

5/01/07
Rep. Christopher Shays just can’t understand it. Critics say he’s all over the place on Iraq, on time lines, deadlines and blank checks. Did his position change in time for last fall’s election? He says no, but can he be surprised when people don’t see it that way?
Shays was one of the earliest supporters of invading Iraq, but he raised eyebrows when he called last year for a timetable for Iraqi troops to take over from American forces. This seemed, at least, like a reversal — he says it wasn’t. But the fact that the statement came weeks before one of the closest congressional races in the country raised concerns.
The election is over, and the next one is already getting started. Shays still supports a time line, just not the one proposed by Democrats. He also supports the "surge" of troops into Baghdad, to try, four years into the occupation, to pacify the capital. Is it any wonder people are confused?
His own plan for Iraq exists in some nonexistent middle zone. He said in supporting the ongoing escalation that "this strategy will only work if Iraqi troops do their part; Sunni and Shia politicians resolve their differences … and the U.S. and Iraq engage in a diplomatic surge with all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran."
But, as usual, there is no indication Sunni and Shia politicians are doing that. There is no sign that we’re reaching out to Iran and Syria. It does no good to say "things need to happen" when everyone can see that they aren’t. Shays threw his support behind the policy anyway.
He seems genuinely perplexed, and angry, at the idea that he’s playing politics with the war. The reality is this: President Bush sets the agenda, and he shows absolutely no sign of leaving Iraq. Democrats are trying to prod him in the other direction, but there has been no movement. And by voting with the president’s wishes against a bill to require a timetable to bring the troops home, Shays is endorsing the president’s stay-forever plan. He has his own proposal, but it will go nowhere. The choice before him is stay, with "progress" continuing as it has for the past four years, or start to leave.
No matter how he parses it, there are no other available options. Congressman Shays has long been known as a man of principle, but he needs to know that by voting with the president, he is endorsing a stay-the-course strategy. Everything else is just details.

City must put mess at Arena behind it

4/29/07
In a case with confusing time lines and disputed payments, it is now clear that Bridgeport erred in seeking to avoid payment in 2003 for work on the Arena at Harbor Yard. The city was told in no uncertain terms that the contractor, C.R. Klewin Northeast, was not a target in a federal criminal investigation centered around payoffs in City Hall. That the city proceeded with its claim anyway is the $6 million mystery.
That there were shady happenings under the eye of former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim is beyond question — his current nine-year prison term attests to that. But according to a recently publicized letter, the city knew four years ago that the multimillion-dollar Arena project was not among those that had been procured illegally. With that knowledge, it should have been clear that the city had no standing to argue that the final payment due the contractor of more than $4 million was not going to be overturned by an arbitrator or a judge.
And now, because of its intransigence, the city has turned a $4 million tab into a $10 million bill; three years of interest and legal fees will do that. City lawyers continue to insist that their case was solid, and did not hinge on whether the contractor committed a crime, only on the former mayor’s role. But considering that City Council leadership was unaware of the Klewin letter, and had seemingly been kept in the dark about its existence, the attorneys for the city owe an explanation.
The state Supreme Court ruled recently that the city must pay the outstanding money, and that it had claimed too late in the arbitration process over the final sum owed that corruption was a mitigating factor. While the city considers its options, interest continues to accrue. It’s time to put an end to this and pay the money.
But the larger issues still linger. A City Hall on the take has repercussions far past the end of the trials and long after the perpetrators are in prison. The effects of the Ganim administration’s malfeasance continue to resonate, and it clouds every step the city takes, whether entering into new projects or cleaning up old ones. As if the city needed another inducement to keep corruption out at all costs, it has just been granted a $10 million lesson.

Interrogations should be taped

4/27/07
A milestone of justice was reached this week when officials reported the 200th case in the United States of DNA evidence used to overturn a criminal conviction. Two hundred cases of sketchy witnesses, missing evidence or questionable police tactics which nevertheless combined to send an innocent person to jail, adding up to hundreds of years wasted in prisons. It’s a good thing to see someone innocent set free, an old wrong righted, but it calls into question much that we take for granted about our legal system.
As bad as the innocent person’s lost years in prison is the scot-free escape of whoever is guilty — faulty convictions don’t just harm the convicted.
And among cases that led to wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, a large number involve improper police interrogations, conducted behind closed doors, with who-knows-what tactics resulting in a signed confession. It’s time to open those doors.
It makes no sense for police interrogations not to be videotaped. Preserving a record of the questioning protects the police, who will have evidence to disprove claims of abuse. It also helps suspects, who will be less likely to experience problems (and, it should be noted, someone brought in for questioning is not necessarily guilty).
Detractors say the equipment is too expensive, but recordings will ultimately be a boon for town budgets, where millions of dollars can now be spent defending police from allegations of improper behavior.
Opponents further state that videotaping every interrogation would force questioners to change their tactics. If that’s true, all the better. If police are doing something they would be threatened by if it ever became public, we probably don’t want them doing it.
The state Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has approved $100,000 a year for a pilot videotaping project in the coming budget. It is time for Connecticut to join other states around the country and do what’s right for the police — and for justice.

Water projects win key support

4/26/07
A powerful committee in the state Legislature has taken an important step to ensure funding for clean water projects, and now it’s up to the wider Assembly and the governor to make sure the proposal is enacted.
The Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee recommended that $110 million in general obligation bonds be authorized for the state’s Clean Water Fund. It will allow a number of projects that have been put off in recent years, when the bonding was far below necessary levels, to move forward. The state’s environmental goals can be reached, but it costs money, and the committee’s push to get those funds is a good sign.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell received plaudits, deservedly, for her proposal to bring up the funding levels for the clean water obligations, but the finance committee has taken it even higher. It’s a necessary move, as keeping our drinking water clean and our lakes, rivers and Long Island Sound as pollution-free as possible is in all our interests.
And its communities along the Sound that stand to benefit the most. Bridgeport, Milford and West Haven each have wastewater treatment projects awaiting funding, and it’s to the benefit of the state and region that these programs go forward and are fully paid for. Clean water is not something you take chances on.
The committee’s approval makes it likely the bill will pass the wider Assembly and win the support of the governor. It’s important that they follow up on this, and make sure our water system is prepared for the worst. It’s an investment worth making.