Friday, March 30, 2007

Expand the ranks of younger voters


Connecticut should do all it can to encourage young people to participate in the political process, which is why an effort to amend the state Constitution to allow 17-year-olds to vote in party primaries provided they turn 18 before the general election is a good idea.
Though a relatively small number of people would be affected, it's a positive step. It's not exactly a reduction in the voting age, but would allow people who want to take part in their civic duties the opportunity to do so. If, for instance, a person had turned 18 last year between August and November, he would have been able to vote in the general election for the Senate, but not the primary, which ended up being a much closer race (and also moot, but that's beside the point).
Anything to increase interest in our elective process is for the best, especially among young people, where tallies of participating voters are vanishingly small.
It's the first time in three years of trying that the bill has made it out of committee, and now the proposal goes to the full General Assembly. It's a long process, however, to amend the state Constitution. It would need the support of three-quarters of the Senate and the House of Representatives; voters would then be asked to vote on the proposal in the 2008 election because constitutional amendments can only be placed on the ballot in even years.
For the 10,000 or so potential voters, though, it could make a big difference. It could also be a big help for the health of our democratic future.

Dredging needed to be publicized


The dredging of Caswell Cove has been handled clumsily. What could have been a routine action has been dragged into a morass of complaints, recriminations and now a lawsuit. Appropriate communication between towns, businesses and state agencies would have headed off these problems.
Caswell Cove, on the Milford side of the Housatonic River, needs dredging because sediment has been building up, clogging the river bottom and potentially stranding boaters. The marina management there went through years of applications and approvals from the Department of Environmental Protection, and permission was granted to remove the sediment. A dumping spot on the Shelton side, however, was not cleared with anyone in that town, nor was it required to be. But courtesy and respect dictate that someone in the town should have been informed about it.
Shelton residents discovered the action by accident, after the permits were issued. The dumping site — now planned near Two Mile Island after two other options were rejected — and the contents of the dredged material have raised new questions. The DEP says the Caswell Cove material is cleaner than the underwater gravel it will cover at the new dumping site, but considering the department's first choice had to be abandoned because it was an important fish habitat — a fact that apparently escaped environmental officials — there is a credibility issue.
State Rep Lawrence G. Miller, of Stratford, deserves credit for pushing through the Assembly's Environment Committee a requirement that affected communities be notified of pending dumping. But the DEP should take action first, and immediately change its notification policy. It's not too much to ask that town officials, residents and boaters know what's happening in their river, especially when there are environmental questions.
As to the concern over pollutants, there have been legitimate complaints raised. But questions over how clean one site is compared to another, or whether materials can be expected to drift back where they came from can only be decided by the experts. We're left in the unfortunate position of having to trust people who know better than we do. But it doesn't take an expert to know that people like to be told what's happening. Open communication could have avoided bad feelings from the start, and maybe engendered cooperation, not contention, over where the dredged material will end up.

Bus service is only part of transit plan


As a transit alternative, buses have great promise and even greater limitations. A statewide push to draw more funding for better service, more express routes and increased reliability makes sense, but supporters need to show they can make the bus an acceptable choice for more people.
A study put before the state Legislature by a coalition of transit authorities, business representatives and employment interest groups would put tens of millions of dollars into bringing new and better bus service to Connecticut. Reliable, widespread bus availability would, so the plan goes, get cars off the road, help low-income workers expand their job-search areas and allow seniors more mobility.
But to vast swaths of the population, buses just aren’t something they’ll be riding. Trains are one thing — a Metro-North ride to New York is a somewhat representative sampling of the local population. But buses, outside of New York itself and other large cities, just don’t have the cachet that rail service offers. Does the bus-backing coalition have a solution? Will millions of dollars be spent to serve a narrow slice of the populace — so narrow that there will be no wider effect on regional transportation?
That’s what’s important — the big picture. If more buses aren’t going to help clear the roads a bit, there’s not much point; an express bus, after all, can only go as fast as the traffic it sits in. And our sprawled development makes any new bus map by definition exclusionary. You can’t reasonably send a bus everywhere.
So what this amounts to is a step. Among the more promising ideas is putting money into bus routes based around train stations. A dependable bus service stopping regularly at suburban Metro-North stations, with plenty of publicity and visibility, could lure some otherwise bus-phobic people to give it a try. But it would take a serious cash commitment, and some of that money would have to go toward getting people to change their attitudes.
So this proposal could have real benefits. But to make the most of any new subsidies, transit companies should be asked to rethink operating procedures, reaching out to all different income levels and age groups. Combined with improved train service and better road design, along with a real commitment to density promotion in future development, a better regional bus operation could help all of us get around easier.

Medical marijuana bill should be approved


It has nothing to do with legalizing drugs, and everything to do with easing suffering.
After years of failed attempts, a workable law allowing severely ill patients to use marijuana as a palliative is finally headed to a vote in the General Assembly. When it emerges, Gov. M. Jodi Rell should sign it, and give people in the late stages of a serious illness whatever measure of relief is possible.
There are legitimate questions about how the law would work, but its humanitarian basis is sound. Some people are troubled by the idea of people legally growing marijuana plants in their homes for personal use. Rep. Arthur J. O'Neill, R-Southbury, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, opposed the legislation because, he said, there is no form of marijuana that can be obtained without violating state or federal law.
"I wish the federal government would make up its mind," he said, and he’s right. In a better world, the distinctions between drugs on the basis of how much harm they cause would make sense, and be based on medical science, not politics. But this is where we are, and this bill can take a step toward rewriting our most harmful drug policies.
Connecticut has been down this road before, and in fact enacted one of the first medical marijuana laws in the nation in the 1980s. But the threat of federal prosecution has kept doctors from prescribing the drug. Once the medical community is freed from the risk of retribution, the law could make a real difference.
Rell has said that easing patients’ pain is a laudable goal, and that sentiment gives hope that she will see the wisdom of signing this bill into law. People with debilitating ailments like late-stage cancer or Parkinson’s disease are not looking for any kind of cheap high; they only want to feel better. We should give them the chance.
The argument over the nation’s overly punitive drug policies is for another day. This is about people who may not have much time left, and want to spend it in something other than constant pain. Until we can find cures, the least we can do is try to make people’s last days on Earth just a little easier.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Stratford: End the meetings already


Stratford politicians have one thing going for them — their town is never boring. The airport may be up for sale, the long-dormant Shakespeare Theater could finally come to life again and the town has picked a fight with, of all groups, the U.S. Army. But what makes for interesting news is also bringing sleepwalking citizens as town meetings on key issues drag on well past midnight. It has to stop.
A few recent meetings have run as late as 2:30 a.m., with the mayor and council members spending hours debating each point of contention on every proposal that comes up. Stratford has no meeting curfew, meaning officials can just keep on going, no matter how long it takes.
Residents say it’s only gotten worse since the mayoral system was instituted in 2005, and the fact that it’s a Democratic mayor and a Republican-controlled council doesn’t make life any easier. Still, there are more important things than scoring political points at 1 a.m.; getting some sleep is one of them.
Then there’s the fact that attendees — and even some town officials — have found themselves locked out of meetings after they step outside for a much-needed breath of air. It seems the doors lock after the custodian goes home at 10 p.m., meaning once you’re out, there’s no going back. It’s not just rude, it’s probably illegal under state Freedom of Information statutes. The law says the public must have access to official town business, and a locked door, if nothing else, blocks access.
And even if it wasn’t at a late hour, the debates are tiresome. There are only so many ways to make the point that your party is right and the other party is wrong before it’s time to just move on already. There are enough real issues facing Stratford without needing to debate every comma and period to death — especially after midnight.
So Stratford has a choice — they can keep things the way they are, denying citizens the right to participate in town business by putting unreasonable obstacles in their way (and staying at a council meeting until it’s time to make the next morning’s coffee is unreasonable), or they can take a step back. They could pass a curfew, which would force meetings to move faster, or they could just use some common sense.
Any official who thinks the public will respond well to this type of behavior in the next election is mistaken. The solution is simple — put a lid on it, get down to business and get people out of there at a decent hour. Is that really so complicated?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Judgment a solid quality in politics


It was offensive when it was about the war, but now it’s just stupid.
In response to the minor scandal over state Speaker of the House James A. Amann, a Milford Democrat, a Republican leader made a poor choice of words. After Amann said he would no longer seek lobbyists donations during his day job as fundraiser for the Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Chris Healy, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee, said Amann chose to “cut and run” from his political problems. The response is more offensive than the initial act.
The phrase in question, of course, became part of the national conversation in the run-up to last year’s nationwide congressional elections, when anyone of the apparently radical notion that maybe, possibly, the war in Iraq wasn’t going so well was labeled as seeking surrender, or looking to “cut and run.”
No one was spared the juvenile taunting: Decorated Vietnam veterans like Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha were accused of cowardice or worse for opposing the war, even as polls showed a majority of Americans had by that time turned against a strategy of “stay the course,” at that point the opposition’s chosen phrase connoting resolve.
Nothing in the Amann case comes remotely close to that. Questions were raised over the speaker’s fundraising practices; he maintained that no rules had been broken, but has since vowed to change anyway. That ought to be the end of the story, but Healy’s childish retort demands a response.
State politics can be bruising, and no one envisions a return to some long-lost “civility,” a notion that bears little resemblance to reality; the old days weren’t so civil, either.
But enough with the over-the-top insults. Pointing out questionable ethics is fair game, and is, in fact, expected of an opposition party and skeptical press corps. But here’s something else that’s expected — thinking before speaking.

Keep train station names as they are


Give the state Department of Transportation credit — they know a moneymaker when they see one. Whether the state is OK with creeping corporate ubiquity is the real question.
In an attempt to find new revenue streams, the DOT is exploring selling naming rights to train stations and other transit facilities. Instead of the Fairfield train station or New Haven’s Union Station, we could commute from the General Electric Terminal or The Original Frank Pepe New Haven Pizza Center and Transit Hub. Maybe The United Illuminating Co. could secure some positive press by getting naming rights to the Bridgeport station and guaranteeing the lights on the train stay lit. The possibilities boggle the mind.
But if train stations are up for grabs, why stop there? Why not the train cars themselves? Maybe the long-awaited replacement cars could be sponsored by the state of Virginia. Be careful about some companies, though — the T-Mobile Car or the AT&T Carrier could give people the wrong impression; seriously, no one wants to hear your cell phone conversations.
The bar cars are easy; the competition would be fierce to get these. But would the state be more comfortable with Budweiser or Sam Adams as its beer of choice? Or maybe we need something higher class; it is Connecticut, after all.
Once the trains are done, the logical next step is state-owned stadiums. We are, in fact, way behind on that one. So goodbye Gampel and so long Rentschler, and say hello to Nike Pavilion and Aetna Field. Other state-owned buildings make sense, too — maybe in honor of all the defense funding coming into the state we could have the Sikorsky Old State House and the Electric Boat Legislative Office Building.
Then the only thing left to sell will be individual legislators. Who would be first in line to sell ad space on the back of his suit jacket? Try something inoffensive at first — maybe Snapple.
In truth, advertising and corporate sponsorship are so all-encompassing that selling the names of a few train stations would hardly be noticed. It’s not like people wouldn’t still call it, say, the Southport station, even if Starbucks stuck its name on it. But the state ought to approach this gingerly. Any new revenue is welcome, but no one is looking forward to hopping on the train at Milford’s new Penthouse Boutique Terminal.

Open government may recieve boost


With the annual Sunshine Week wrapped up, it’s worth noting the continuing efforts on the federal level to keep information that is open to the public available and easy to acquire. A bill approved by the U. S. House and now before the Senate would beef up requirements under the Freedom of Information Act and would help citizens looking for information better complete their search. It is worthy of support.
The legislation is designed to create a tracking system and a hotline for people requesting information; create an ombudsman position, a person whose job it would be to help requesters find their way through the process; and ensure that, when requesters are forced to sue to see lawfully available documents, the government will pay the applicant’s legal fees. These facets show an admirable dedication to open government on the part of its sponsors, and may reflect a changing attitude after the past six years of secrecy and guardedness on the federal level.
The bill has passed the House and now awaits debate by the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, led by Connecticut’s own Joseph I. Lieberman. The erstwhile Democrat would do well to move the bill quickly to the full Senate, where it would likely be approved by a sizable margin.
The bill stresses accessibility, accountability and openness in the federal government. Now, more than any time since Watergate, our country is in desperate need of these qualities. Government secrecy has become the default position, with everything from presidential records to corporate consulting at the White House hidden from public view. It is only by reopening the vault of confidentiality — with all the necessary caveats for national security, but without a claim of national security trumping everything without evidence — that the public will regain trust in government.
Open government is important, of course, for more than one week a year. By supporting bills like this one, and reversing a trend toward classifying and revealing sensitive documents according to political convenience, the public will be served and its leaders held to account. It is honesty, not fear, that is most important in times of peril.

Enough sniping over voting session


As if trying to prove that nothing is too small to provoke a political furor, Trumbull is embroiled in a kerfuffle over a training seminar for optical scanner voting machines.
A session was planned earlier this week to educate voters on how to use the technology, and the Democratic town clerk set up the seminar with the sponsorship of the Trumbull Democratic Women’s Leadership Network. This was a mistake; a session like that should be nonpartisan. But the reaction of Republican Jack Testani, vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee, went over the line.
Testani, who ran unsuccessfully for first selectman and once served on the Board of Finance, said Town Clerk Rose Lodice must apologize, and said “this situation indicates concerns over possible additional situations of misuse of public office.” A simple acknowledgement that a mistake was made ought to be enough.
Optical scanning machines make good sense. They are a welcome update to the rusting lever contraptions used across the state, and have many more safeguards than the much-reviled touch-screen voting technology used elsewhere in the country. Like any system, the potential for problems exists, but overall, it’s a good process.
In Trumbull, the back-and-forth continued on Wednesday with Republicans demanding an apology, attempting to involve the Secretary of the State’s office and threatening an ethics complaint. Enough. The political aspect of voter education ought to be nonexistent. Once the misstep by the town clerk was noticed and rectified, the matter should be closed.
Hopefully, Trumbull will get a chance to use the machines in November in what promises to be an interesting election. But while it seems every year is an election year and all matters are political, some things really aren’t worth wasting time on.

Development plan covers many bases


In an area where development continues to explode, open space is a precious commodity. Picturesque farmland and valuable woods are bought and sold, leveled and reshaped, all for the latest housing development or strip mall. To some people, this is what it means to be in Connecticut in 2007.
Another vision, one of our not-too-distant past, is one of thriving industry. Connecticut’s cities once manufactured, processed and produced everything imaginable, from hats to brass to wire to engines. This vision is mostly gone, and its remnants include tracts of contaminated real estate — brownfields, as they are known. Much land that once helped the state thrive now lays empty, corrupted by years of chemical dumping and a lack of environmental standards. Cleaning up these sites is labor- and cost-intensive, and so many prime locations, waterfront, riverfront and otherwise potentially lucrative, go unused.
A plan before the General Assembly looks to solve two problems at once, and offers huge promise. Under legislation known as the Face of Connecticut, a bipartisan coalition is looking to secure state funding to transform these once-neglected brownfields into development hubs. At the site of an old factory or an abandoned mill, communities could set aside space for stores, shows or housing, affordable and otherwise. And just as importantly, pristine woods, farmland and open space could remain as it is, untouched by development.
The bill’s backers are serious. A 10-year, $1 billion plan, the state would put real muscle behind the brownfields changes if the law is passed. And the more brownfields are improved, the more greenfields are saved. Open space is a commodity, and not just for aesthetic reasons. Air pollution, noise pollution, sprawl and traffic congestion are just some of the problems associated with ever-widening development circles, and in-fill at previously used manufacturing sites is a remedy that deserves careful consideration.
Though it’s not the plan’s immediate goal, the Face of Connecticut has real potential as a sprawl-fighting initiative. Many former manufacturing sites are centrally located, offering ideal spots for re-creating density in the modern city. The suburban layout has run its course in Connecticut, and the best we have to show for it is a guaranteed hourlong trip from Stamford to Bridgeport at rush hour. Rediscovering the prime spots of the past may be a way to change all that.

Formalize court's procedures, rules


That the Connecticut judiciary is in the midst of a crisis over transparency is widely known. The would-be chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Peter T. Zarella, saw his candidacy derailed over a delayed disclosure of a supposedly controversial decision by then-Chief Justice William J. Sullivan, which set off the current round of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing over judicial secrecy. In testimony last week, Zarella came up with a novel idea — maybe all the judiciary’s unwritten traditions and experience-based tactics shouldn’t be quite so unwritten anymore.
Zarella spoke in front of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee last week, and described himself only as “mildly disappointed” that his move to the top of the state court system was driven off track by matters beyond his control. Whatever his feelings on the matter, the fact that secrecy in the courts has taken center stage can only be described as a good thing. Without an impetus like Sullivan’s ill-fated move, the Legislature might have had no reason to conduct its recent inquiries.
Zarella pointed out, and state Sen. Andrew J. McDonald agreed, that the lack of a written manual of procedures led indirectly to Sullivan’s actions. “We’ve gotten ourselves into a quandary in this particular case because, apparently, rules and procedures weren’t written down,” McDonald said. How that’s possible in as old an institution as the Supreme Court is unclear, but it is never too late to correct the problem.
Formalizing the court’s rules could go a long way toward bringing public respect back to the court system, which has clearly diminished over the course of the current investigation. Although court officials said the system continues to work efficiently despite the setback in public approval, it is necessary for the people to have complete confidence in their judiciary, and any ethical lapse must be met with strong action. A policy manual would be a good step toward regaining that trust.
Experience and unwritten tradition will, of course, continue to play as large a role as ever in the high court’s decision-making, as it would in any organization; no written handbook can change that. But for a system with public relations problems the size of the courts’, tangible steps are necessary to regain the lost confidence. No list of bylaws and regulations can cover every experience, but it might be a good idea to put down in writing that, for instance, delaying a court action to benefit a colleague is a bad move.

Hold government, FBI accountable


It can be numbing to think of all the ways our government has overstepped its mandate and intruded into people’s lives over the past five years. Warrantless wiretapping, illegal searches, extraordinary rendition, enemy combatants — the list is unending, and the legal justifications grow more tortured as the years pass.
The latest jaw-dropper (already pushed aside by the news of White House involvement in the firing of federal prosecutors for political purposes) concerns the FBI’s overzealous use of its law enforcement powers. Granted the right to collect private information on American citizens who were not direct targets of an investigation, the bureau went far beyond its parameters, sifting through personal data on thousands of law-abiding citizens, according to a report released last week.
It was the Justice Department’s own inspector general who shed light on the abuse, and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has declared himself “accountable” for the agency’s actions (although not so accountable that he plans to step down). The extra powers, provided in the extension of the Patriot Act and approved by Congress, were almost guaranteed to be abused, as they came with no new oversight and scant attention to limitations. Investigators simply had their way with the private information of ordinary citizens.
And there’s nothing insignificant about the scope of the abuse. An internal audit found nearly 10 percent of national security letters, a type of instant subpoena that allows the FBI to gather confidential information without a warrant, issued over a three-year period did not meet statutory requirements, and may have broken the law. With 19,000 letters issued in 2005, a number thought to be significantly underreported, there were countless cases of improper information-gathering from law-abiding citizens. This is abuse of power, and it must not stand.
The dangers of terrorism are real, and there are legitimate arguments to be made in favor of increased police powers. But if granted, these powers must be accompanied by increased accountability, and greater, not less, care must be taken that wider authority does not bring out-of-control law enforcement. Congress must hold the Justice Department and the FBI to account, demanding and providing greater oversight. And the White House, besieged on all fronts, must find a way to back the nation away from the guilty-until-proven-innocent presumption during what is, as we are constantly reminded, a time of war.

Lawmakers right to defend farm animals


The comfort and security of egg-laying hens does not, understandably, rise to the level of a crisis for most people. But while talk of rising taxes and foundering schools has dominated the state Capitol of late, the Assembly’s Environment Committee heard testimony last week on the moral and financial implications of a ban on cages for hens, and a consequent ban on the state buying eggs from caged hens.
It’s an important discussion, and one that shouldn’t be dismissed. Factory farming as practiced in this country is an abomination, and one needn’t be an animal-rights activist to believe there should be changes. The Connecticut egg industry is nowhere near the depths of other types of food production, but it’s worth exploring ways to make changes.
Advocates for the new policy point out that each caged hen is afforded less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live its life. Opponents counter that there is no scientific evidence to show that cage-free hens are happier than their imprisoned brethren because they lay eggs at about the same rate — as though that was the only criterion.
Denying an animal any part of its natural life is necessarily cruel, and the confinement at issue in this bill is hugely limiting. Natural behavior is all but impossible in a cage where the birds can not even turn around. It’s not practical to bring an immediate end to current practices — farmers say they’d close up shop immediately if the law is enacted — but it is worth phasing in a change over a period of time to a system that is less cruel, less limiting and more humane. Connecticut farmers need to stay competitive, but there are also moral issues at play; needless cruelty should be eliminated wherever possible.
The libertarian argument, that customers should be allowed to choose what kind of eggs they want without government mandates, as put forward by Agriculture Commissioner F. Philip Prelli, holds no water — few would choose to inflict extra cruelty on the animals we eat for dinner, but people buy factory-farmed chicken, beef and pork all the same. They have no choice, in most cases.
But a system that treats living things with unnecessary suffering and cruelty needs to be changed. A good place to start is to phase in a ban on unnaturally limiting cages for egg-laying hens. It may not be the average constituent’s top priority, but the way we treat powerless living things under our control says a lot about who we are as a society. If most people knew what their dinner had to go through to make it to the dinner table, bills like this would likely provoke a far greater outcry in their favor.

Electronic waste deserves attention


The life cycle of the average consumer electronics good grows shorter by the year. Wide-screen televisions beget plasma versions, new computer processors move faster and cell phones shrink every few weeks. But as the latest model ages, consumers face a quandary — surely you can’t just throw an old laptop in the trash?
The problem of “e-waste” has turned into a major environmental issue. In addition to a number of precious metals, electronics contain varying amounts of toxins including lead, mercury and chromium, among others. Discarded computers, televisions, cell phones, cameras and batteries that are sent to landfills can end up leaching hazardous materials into the environment.
The state is starting to take notice. The Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority is expanding its drive-up electronic recycling programs after demand last year far exceeded capacity — it turns out a lot of people have rusting VCRs and Commodore 64s lying around the basement. More importantly, a bill is before the Legislature’s Environmental Committee to create a separate electronic recycling agency.
While an extra layer of bureaucracy is seldom the answer to just about anything, this proposal makes sense. E-waste is a growing problem, and people seem to like their digital cameras, so there’s no sense hoping the problem will go away; the state is right to pay attention.
With the sheer tonnage of electronic goods produced and consumed in this country, the United States is considered a poor example of
e-waste disposal protocol. Aside from the dangers at U.S. landfills, thousands of tons each year end up in the developing world, where lax or nonexistent environmental regulations lead to widespread health hazards as people search for small quantities of precious metals. Far too few electronic devices are recycled, and the ecological implications are stark; as a rich state, Connecticut has an obligation to do its part. A wider recycling program for the mountains of BlackBerrys and iPods coming down the pike is a worthy endeavor.

CityTrust offers downtown promise


With downtown Bridgeport awash in redevelopment projects, none stands as large as the Citytrust apartments, where the landmark former bank is undergoing conversion to living spaces. With the future of the city resting in no small part on the outcome of various downtown, development projects the success of these apartments will go a long way toward making Bridgeport, once again, a destination.
The development team, Urban Green Builders, says apartments will be ready for occupancy by April 15. Last year, word was they would be ready by the start of the new year. That goal was missed; there’s no one living there yet. But the team behind the project must be careful not to rush to meet any artificial deadlines — it is far more important to get everything right, and make sure as little is left to chance as possible than to push too quickly and maybe cut corners.
The city obviously has high hopes for the project. At the corner of Main and John streets, the building is a sight for anyone venturing downtown the first time, and the idea of having the structure come to life again, with people coming and going at all hours, must have officials dizzy with anticipation. Together with the Arcade property, the former Read’s department store and a bevy of other projects either completed or well on their way, downtown may actually see its long-predicted comeback over the next few years.
As a template for urban growth, Bridgeport basically has it all. There are the aforementioned historic buildings, the dense downtown grid, easy access to transportation (highway, rail and air), walkable streets and, most importantly, a waterfront. Cities attempting a rebirth in other locales would give half their annual budget to get everything Bridgeport has going for it. But none of that, obviously, guarantees success — despite all the upside, downtown has been mostly barren for more than a generation.
The Citytrust project aims to change that. Once the people are there, new businesses will follow and existing markets will thrive. The public’s No. 1 city concern, safety, gets its biggest boost not through more police or tougher sentencing or longer incarcerations, but simply by having people around. Eyes on the street are the best crime deterrent in history.
And with so much riding on these projects, it is essential they are done right. Everyone wants to see people living in the landmark building, but developers can not miss anything in a rush to meet an invented deadline.

Expand bill to include water bottles


At first glance, it’s hard to get worked up about something known as the Bottle Bill. An annual rite of spring in Hartford, the proposal would double the nickel deposits for soda and beer containers, sending more money back to the state and, presumably, getting litter off our streets and parks. Whether it would actually accomplish much is a legitimate debate, but the idea of expanding the deposit to water bottles and noncarbonated sports drinks is a good one.
Promoters of the bill, which is knocked down annually by lobbyists for the beverage industry — which has no interest in seeing higher prices on its products unless they’re headed back its way — say containers without deposits are recycled about 30 percent of the time, while deposit-friendly bottles and cans are more on the line of 70 percent. If this success could be duplicated on water bottles, iced tea containers and electrolyte-replenishing sports drink holders, potentially thousands of tons of what would otherwise be garbage could be dealt with hygienically. Less litter is a good thing.
As far as the increase up to a dime for soda and beer, supporters, led by state Sen. Bill Finch of Bridgeport, say everyone would benefit. The industry would still get the unredeemed deposits from soda and beer cans, and the state would split the proceeds from water and other drinks among various environmental programs.
It sounds good, but what it really amounts to is another tax. More money for the beverage industry, more money for the state, and consumers foot the bill, as usual. Prices never go down on any widely used consumer goods, but average working families are feeling the pinch everywhere, starting with electricity rates, gas prices and, presumably, the income tax. If we’re going to raise taxes and fees, at least be straightforward about it.
But make no mistake, this is the equivalent of a tax increase. Expanding the deposit to water bottles is fine — they are, almost literally, everywhere. That move would solve the much-ballyhooed litter problem. But taxes and prices are up enough. If we’re going to add a nickel-a-bottle environmental-cleanup fee, people ought to be informed. Disguising it as a get-money-back incentive makes about as much sense as offering $500 cash back on a new car. Why don’t they just subtract the $500 to begin with?

FOI's lawfulness long since upheld


It doesn’t matter how many years go by or how many judgments are passed down — freedom of information and access to government documents remain touchy issues. Newspapers and other media push to gain access to documents deemed by legal authorities to be open to public view, while cities and towns just as fiercely pull the other way. But the law spoke a long time ago, and it’s time for this struggle to end.
It’s no mystery why states and municipalities continue to fight the tide — aside from the implications for their own authority (knowledge is power and all that), it’s also a lot of extra work. It’s much easier to say a specific group of records is off-limits to the citizenry than it is to rifle through boxes of years-old permits and applications.
But there’s also a knee-jerk tendency among too many government officials toward secrecy. When in any doubt, towns are much more likely not to comply with a request, even in the face of evidence countering their position. Nothing displayed this tendency more clearly than the Connecticut Post’s recent attempt to acquire gun-permit applications from regional municipalities. Almost all recipients hemmed and hawed and obfuscated and, in the end, flat-out rejected the requests.
This is a violation of state statutes. The Freedom of Information Commission, whose rulings serve as the standard, has decided gun-permit applications are public records. This is important for informational purposes, but also for reasons of public safety. Citizens have a right to know who is applying to carry and conceal a weapon, and that right has been acknowledged by the state.
Local communities that did not abide by that decision — and among the six asked, only one complied — will now face more hearings, and rulings that will provide the same outcome. Information that does not violate rules of financial and medical privacy should be and will stay open to the public.
This is nothing new and nothing that should come as a surprise. But that these battles continue to be fought at this late date is not an encouraging sign. As an indicator that governments aren’t just concerned about individual rights, the Post’s attempt to view emergency response plans from various municipalities also ran into trouble. There’s no personal privacy at stake here, but all the same, the tendency is to conceal. For what practical purpose would a town want to keep an emergency plan secret from the people expected to use it?
In the end, public information is to everyone’s benefit. It is when decision-making takes place behind closed doors that people suffer — governments don’t grow corrupt because too many people are paying attention. The public benefits when court issues, public employee service records and political fundraising are open and honest. The more sunshine gets in, the more people are convinced that the government works as well for the average person as it does for the well-connected. At its heart, that is why Freedom of Information laws exist.

Deployments hurt state's readiness

There’s no end to the sacrifices asked of our armed forces to fight the war in Iraq. While the U.S. Senate considers revoking President Bush’s authorization to wage the war, the fighting slogs on, with troops dying, rotations extended and breaks cut short. The armed services are pushed to the limit.
These sacrifices affect everyone, but often in unseen ways. As Gov. M. Jodi Rell made clear in her recent trip to Washington, D.C., for the National Governors Association meeting, the state is making do with fewer National Guard troops and less equipment. The people and paraphernalia are needed overseas, and so Connecticut does without.
The situation is untenable. “We’re finding that many times, the remaining equipment that is left in our state is not enough to continue to do the exercises that we deem necessary for training,” Rell said. So if an emergency hits, not only could manpower be in short supply, the state might have to get by with undertrained personnel.
A common criticism of the war effort is that our leaders ask no common sacrifice. The entire burden of what the president has called the great struggle of our time is borne by our troops and their families, while the rest of us are told only to keep the economy going strong — a trip to the mall in the flag-adorned SUV is all it takes. There’s plenty of truth to this argument, and clearly a disproportionate share is put on the shoulders of an unlucky few. But as Rell points out, the extended deployments of people and equipment affects everyone.
Connecticut is not tornado-prone, not in a hurricane zone and not often hit by mudslides or avalanches. An earthquake is not likely to shake People’s Bank’s Bridgeport headquarters. But emergencies happen, whether it’s a debilitating snowstorm (still possible this season) or an overwhelming flood (ask people who have lived in the Valley their whole lives about that one), and citizens count on their government to help them in times of crisis. It’s up to our national leaders to figure out a way to allow our National Guard to fulfill its promise while tending to its obligations overseas.
Rell said she was shown sympathy, but nothing concrete in terms of dollars or promises. This is not good enough. According to reports, about 950 of the state’s 5,000 Guard troops have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and three of six units have taken their equipment, which could include helicopters, engineering equipment and other gear, depending on the mission. Guard officials insist they have enough troops and materiel to respond to a crisis, but concede training could be a problem. That acknowledgement alone ought to be enough to spur action.

Council urged to accept Army move

It’s time for the Stratford Town Council to back down. After the town fumbled and flailed for 11 years without getting anything done at the former Army engine plant on Main Street, the Pentagon decided it had had enough, and will go ahead with development without the town. Town officials still haven’t gotten the message.
It’s been depressing watching council members and the town’s development partner, a group calling itself Team Stratford, try to reassert some semblance of control over the situation. However, the Army has made its position clear — Stratford dawdled for too long, and the owners are moving on. It’s hard to see what’s so complicated about that.
Certainly, southern Stratford is going through some turmoil. With the fate of Sikorsky Memorial Airport undecided and potentially headed for state control, the town is facing big changes. With next-door Bridgeport in control of the airport, Stratford has been reasonably secure that nothing much was going to change there; the neighbors had problems of their own. The state, though, could have major expansion and development in the plans.
Nearby at the Army engine plant site, nothing is going to be easy. The area is severely polluted, and cleanup is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars. The Army, though, is moving forward, and says it has opened bidding to companies across the country to remediate and rebuild. As one official said, it’s unclear why the Town Council still has not gotten the message.
It’s understandable Stratford is frustrated. This prime location has gone through innumerable false starts and failed plans over the past 11 years, and it is hard to imagine that the town has, after all this time, lost control of its final outcome. But the Army is not going to be swayed. And if the town wants to play a role in the development, and have a voice beyond a potential veto by the Zoning Commission, working with the Army from the beginning would be a good start.
As Army housing official Bill Birney says, “the sooner the town cooperates, the easier it will be to get this project moving for major economic development.” Unfortunately, the town appears headed in the other direction, with talk of trying to enlist the state’s congressional delegation to take action on behalf of the council and its chosen team.
That is a bad idea. It’s tough to swallow, but the Army is moving on. The best course of action is to work with the planners, try to get the best possible proposal for Stratford’s future and drop any plans for obstructionism. Given the way the project has stalled for more than a decade, this is the best chance the town will see to get something going on this long-neglected site.

Ambulance issues likely not over yet

After almost two years of investigations into alleged improper financial dealings, prosecutors declined to charge former Seymour Ambulance Association head Frank Marcucio III with a crime. It’s a relief for the town and the former official, but far from the end of his legal troubles, with a civil case and a lawsuit yet to be worked out. Despite the good news, it looks like Marcucio still has a long road ahead of him.
The probe began when state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed a civil suit in 2005 alleging misuse of funds from charities that gave money to the association. The criminal probe focused on questionable transfers from a fund for Chris Willis, an ill firefighter and ambulance volunteer; the state prosecutor said the case did not pan out. The civil suit still pending focuses on alleged misuse of association funds on personal expenses, including family vacations. These are questions that the state’s attorney’s actions do not answer, and still deserve an explanation.
At the association itself, matters have improved. Membership is up and debt is down, officials there say, and the group’s reputation is on the mend as well. After Marcucio, his wife and his brother, all with paid jobs at the volunteer association, left their positions, the group has shown resilience in returning to its previous level of stability. A future without criminal proceedings involving its former leader will benefit Seymour Ambulance.
But the matter of those unexplained expenditures has not gone away. Blumenthal’s investigation found that about $27,000 of the questionable charges on the association’s credit cards were for travel, lodging and cruise expenses for Marcucio, his family and other association members. The probe also uncovered a number of unusual bills for an ambulance association, including a charge for a dating service. While they did not figure into the criminal case, it is hoped the civil suit will provide some answers there.
Seymour could be entering a period of dynamic growth, particularly downtown, and the last thing the town needs is a lingering scandal with its name attached. For the future of the town and its residents, it is for the best that no criminal charges have been filed in this matter, regardless of the reasons behind the decision. But it is also for the best that all questions are answered and that any past malfeasance comes to light. The only way to move on is to get everything out in the open, and it is hoped the continuing civil suit will allow that to happen.

Health legislation must move quickly

As state leaders of their respective political parties, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic House Speaker James A. Amann have not had many kind words for each other lately. The gubernatorial election is over, but politics never takes a break, and although the governor unveiled a budget that was widely viewed to be full of Democratic ideals, the sniping has continued apace.
One area where there is agreement, though, is the recognition that health care in this state is in trouble, and that the first area to focus on is children’s health care. With polls showing overwhelming majorities in the state putting a priority on expanding state programs to insure more children, action is expected and necessary.
Amann said Monday that legislation to expand coverage to the estimated 70,000 uninsured children in the state should be ready by the end of the month. Any bill would have to negotiate the turbulent waters of committees and hearings in both Assembly chambers and emerge in identical form before it could be sent to the governor for a signature, a process that is never fast-paced. The sooner this gets under way, the faster a program will be put into place. People’s lives depend on it.
Legislators also heard Monday the stories of children with dental problems whose parents were unable to get them proper care because they couldn’t find dentists who could accept their government-subsidized HUSKY health plan. As reimbursement rates have stayed static, costs have skyrocketed, and even well-meaning caregivers are often unable to help. Legislators would do well to remember that dental care is a part of health care, and cavities and tooth decay can have long-lasting, far-reaching effects. It’s not as dramatic as tuberculosis or other much-feared maladies, but oral health is necessary, and too many state children do without it.
But the Assembly must not stop with children. As Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams pointed out, a full 82 percent of the state’s uninsured are adults. No one wants to deny care to children, and it is natural that young people in need take first priority. But children in need often have parents and guardians in need, and preventive care is most often far less expensive than emergency care. In addition to concerns of morality, it benefits the state’s bottom line to have health insurance cover as many people as possible.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2, is joining the fight at the federal level to widen coverage, and all help is welcome. If federal trends continue, there will be fewer and fewer subsidies coming in to help pay for state coverage, and more people will do without. As testimony in Hartford on Monday showed, many people in the state, children and adults, can’t afford to wait any longer.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Recovery on river a Bridgeport boon

For a downtrodden city lucky enough to have a waterfront, rediscovering that gift is essential to any recovery effort. Bridgeport has recognized this, making the Sound-facing spit of property on Steel Point the centerpiece of the city's renewal plans. But the city is blessed with more than just frontage on Long Island Sound; Bridgeport also has a major river.

For too long, the Pequonnock River running through the center of town has stagnated, allowed to decay as industries died and pollution festered. The river today is usually thought of only as something to cross over on the way to someplace else.

Still in its early stages, a plan unveiled this week could change that. Under a proposal by local businessmen, including Ed Piquette and former mayoral candidate Rick Torres, Fairfield University may use a converted industrial building as a boathouse for its men's and women's rowing teams. There are many questions to be answered, but any push toward bringing recreation back to the river deserves support.

Chief among concerns is the still-unfulfilled promise of a factory for British automaker AC Cars, also spearheaded by Torres and Piquette, at almost the same site the boathouse is proposed. It's been more than a year since Gov. M. Jodi Rell, with much fanfare, announced that the company wanted to make a home in Bridgeport, and that the state would help them do it.

Almost nothing has been heard since. The city deserves answers on where that project stands, whether it is ever likely to come through and why, if it doesn't, its backers should be believed this time around.

Regardless, it is hoped that the Pequonnock can again be a source of pride for the city. A future of rowers, walkers and other recreational users taking advantage of one of Bridgeport's natural gifts is something to which we can all look forward. The Fairfield University boathouse could be the first step.

Dental plan needs serious reworking

It's hard enough being poor. Besides the struggle to pay bills and stay warm, there are the indignities that go along with accepting government assistance for basic services, including health care. And as dentists around the state report, a program that is supposed to provide affordable dental care for poor children through the state's HUSKY program is falling short on all levels.

For starters, the state dramatically overestimates the number of participating providers; advocates say fewer than 100 in the entire state are able to accept the low-income patients. This leads to months of waiting for an appointment, as more than 250,000 eligible children vie for attention. Then, once an appointment is secured, there's the matter of reaching the dentist's office, as they are spread throughout the state, and Connecticut is not known for its friendliness to mass transit.

The result is a rich state with thousands of poor children who lack basic oral health care. Years pass between cleanings and checkups, small problems fester into larger ones and soon the easily, cheaply preventable medical issue turns into a prohibitively expensive debacle.

It is within the Legislature's power to do something. Because of the comparatively low rate of reimbursement the state provides participating dentists, few can even afford to accept patients through HUSKY, the Medicaid-sponsored, joint state and federal health care program for poor children. The rate is the lowest in New England, and in the lower half among all 50 states — a shameful statistic in an area of wealth.

A push for legislation last year went nowhere, but it's past time for the Assembly to act. Community clinics are overburdened, and emergency room visits for preventable dental crises make no financial sense. The Legislature should raise the reimbursement rate for dentists so they can afford to see poor patients and still pay their bills and operate a practice. Further, the rate should be tied to a cost-of-living scale so the issue does not need to be revisited every few years.

In a case like this, preventive measures are not only cheaper but much less painful for the patient. It's time to make the state dental program work in real life, not just on paper.

Treat members of guard respectfully


There are few people from which our society asks more than members of the National Guard. In addition to serving a variety of rescue and relief functions at home, they stand a greater-than-ever chance of being called to serve in Iraq. With regular forces pushed to the limit, the Guard has been used to fill the gaps. And because insurgents and improvised explosive devices don't discriminate between different services, it is a potentially deadly mission every time they are sent overseas.

But as was reported last week, more than one-fifth of the 500 Connecticut National Guard soldiers of the 102nd Infantry currently serving in war zones are owed thousands of dollars in incentive pay that is months overdue. Guard officials have vowed quick action, but it never should have come to this point. The troops have to deal with enough as it is.

Some people join the Guard as a chance to serve their country without (hopefully) going too far from home. But money often plays a major part in the decision-making process. People who volunteer to extend their duty beyond the customary 24 months are helping an armed forces that is depleted and facing an increasingly hard time attracting recruits. But these are the very people who are being short-changed their bonus pay.

With the dangers of Iraq and Afghanistan well known, just finding people to volunteer for duty has become costly and time-consuming. The Army has repeatedly lowered standards, accepting people into the service who wouldn't have merited a second look in peacetime, all to fill in for our beleaguered troops overseas. The National Guard as well has had to shoulder far more burden than would otherwise be expected.

Unlike with members of the regular armed forces, families of Guard troops are often unprepared for extended overseas deployment, and support systems for people back home can be harder to come by. They deserve the support of their government or, barring that, at least timely paychecks.

Dust complaints deserve follow-up


Bridgeport made the right move in issuing cease-and-desist orders on a pair of East End businesses causing unnecessary noise and air pollution, but now needs to follow through and make sure the problems are stopped.

As community leaders have noted, asthma is a major problem among the city's young people, and dust from the two sites has been cited as a major cause of concern. While the businesses, Bridgeport Railroad Realty and Mark IV Construction, are well within their legal rights to challenge the orders in court, the city needs to stay on the case on behalf of its citizens.

In addition to harmful dust, complaints about the sites focus on noise, smell and piles of debris. Health problems aren't the only consequence; there is also the neighborhood's image along with quality-of-life concerns. Area residents deserve to live free of blight and pollution.

Community activist Ted Meekins has sought a moratorium on putting construction dumps and recycling operations in the East End, and this is worth pursuing. But in the meantime, the city needs to take seriously the health concerns of its residents, and, once it gets started, follow up and make sure the problem is solved.

Plan will do little to change Easton


Months after a rare municipal controversy, Easton appears headed toward its long-overdue update of the town's Plan of Conservation and Development. Following a process that many residents feared could alter the face of the town, officials are ready to approve a plan that will hardly change anything.

While master plans require updating every 10 years, Easton has continued working under the 1977 version. But with town statutes forbidding commercial development, there seemed little reason to rush. With only a few stores, restaurants and gas stations that predate the anti-commercial regulations, there was little likely to change.

But state law mandates an update, and town leaders' proposal to institute so-called village districts into the master plan put people on edge. It seemed, although officials denied this, that the districts could have opened the door for development in the fiercely stable town.

They needn't have worried. Village districts, had they come to pass, would not in any way have required commercial development, and, in any case, would have been superceded by the stringent zoning restrictions. Easton was never going to turn into a strip-mall paradise.

And that is for the best. There are enough retail centers to satisfy almost anyone around here, from Route 1 in Milford to the shopping centers of Trumbull and the budding big boxes in the Valley. Easton wanted to protect itself from the commercial onslaught, and they have succeeded.

While public interest was high during the debate over village districts, with most everyone vehemently against them, debate has since returned to almost nothing. While the districts likely would not have had anywhere near the impact people feared, it is good to know people in the quiet town will still gather to make their feelings known. It would be nice to see this incident spark greater interest in public government — which, even in the absence of commercial development, still plays a key role in everyday life — but that is probably too much to ask.

As it is, Easton residents can claim victory. That 90,000-square-foot Super Stop & Bed Bath and Borders Target-Mart will have to find somewhere else to call home.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Diesel emissions due for reduction


Clean air, along with food, shelter and potable water, is a basic right. But as anyone who lives in a city can tell you, it's not a right that is distributed evenly. Black clouds of exhaust and fumes aren't just unpleasant, they're also unhealthy. A proposal from a state environmental group looks to put limits on diesel fuel, a key source of polluting emissions.

The bill, as described by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, would call for retrofitting buses and construction equipment with emission-control devices. It would require cleaner-burning fuels for equipment used in state-funded construction projects, and would require new equipment on public school buses. Some of the points are problematic because its unclear where the money would come from, but the proposal is sound.

The benefits from cutting diesel fuel are clear. People who breathe polluted air have more health problems, including asthma, chronic bronchitis and cardiovascular disease. The best treatment is often prevention, and a reduction in harmful emissions would be an important step on that path.

And there's action being taken locally. A group of city, state and federal officials today will announce that buses for the Bridgeport public schools will be retrofitted to reduce exhaust. In Seymour, concern about a truck-driving school moving into a residential area has been about more than just aesthetics — people who live there are worried about breathing in all those emissions, and have taken their argument to the town's land-use boards.

With fumes from trucks, construction equipment, power plants and elsewhere, all in a confined space, city residents are at increased risk of breathing in harmful particles. The reworked buses are a step toward changing that. Passing the diesel cleanup bill would be even more important.

Back-taxes plan makes good sense


Scraping for every dime it is owed, Bridgeport has unrolled a program that will cut off money to businesses with municipal contracts that owe unpaid taxes. It's a smart approach, and should help the city get its finances in better shape.

As Mayor John M. Fabrizi touted in his speech to area business leaders last week, Bridgeport has improved its collection on taxes and motor vehicle fees in recent years, but there is more room for improvement. And since gains in fiscal management lead to better bond ratings — which lead to easier access to loans and more capital available for major projects — it's worth pursuing if the city can recoup some of its earlier losses.

The program won't stop businesses from doing work for the city; Fabrizi said unpaid delinquents will be "working off their debt." But with $30 million in unpaid taxes in question, it's worth taking any steps necessary. Similar warnings sent out late last year netted more than $100,000 in short order, and the new round could bring in much more. If only a fraction of the unpaid money is paid, the city will end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been considered lost.

Bridgeport is getting its act together, and businesses that have contracts with the city are being held to account. It is to everyone's benefit.

Bone marrow tests should be covered


Donating bone marrow was once painful, expensive and invasive. These days, though, it is as simple as giving blood. And if a match is found, transplants have a proven record of saving the lives of people with cancer.

A pair of bills under consideration in the state General Assembly would push insurance companies to increase how much they will pay for each donation. Even though tests today costs only about $50 per person, it can be a long process to find a proper donor. The totals can add up quickly as different givers are sought, and not every prospective donor can handle the cost themselves.

State laws in neighboring Massachusetts and Rhode Island require insurers to pay the full cost of bone marrow transplants, and a similar law should be passed here. For people fighting cancer, it can be a lifesaving experience to find a suitable candidate for a donation, and the price, while seemingly nominal, should not stand in the way of anyone's chances of survival.

Close relatives often stand the best chance of matching up with a patient in need, and insurers currently cover the cost of family members' donations. But sometimes it's not so easy, and a distant relative, friend and even a total stranger could present the best available option. Under the current proposals, all these tests would be covered by insurance.

The costs associated with fighting cancer can be insurmountable. There are tests, screenings, medications, false hopes, grim prognoses and the steady stream of unanticipated daily hang-ups while people sacrifice everything just to stay alive. For a relatively small price, this is a worthy step to make those people's lives that much easier.

While insurance companies do not have bottomless coffers and not every potential remedy can be paid for, this is something that can and should be removed from people's list of worries. With tens of thousands of new cancer diagnoses in the state every year, there will be more and more people in need of every chance they can get. To think that someone could lose a battle with the disease over a test costing such a small amount ought to be enough to drive lawmakers to action.

Danaher good pick for public safety


At an office facing more than its share of troubles, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has made a solid choice to take over. John A. Danaher III, grandson of a U.S. senator and leader of the corruption probe into the office of Bridgeport's former mayor, deserves a quick confirmation in the Legislature.

Chosen to take over the Department of Public Safety, Danaher steps into a difficult situation. A recent investigation found Connecticut State Police often overlooked charges of drug and alcohol abuse, corruption, harassment and assault among the ranks, and that the public safety department, which oversees state police, responded with lax penalties for severe rule-breaking. The governor responded by increasing oversight, and it will be up to Danaher to continue to bring transparency and discipline back to the state office.

He comes well prepared. A top assistant to U.S. Attorney Kevin J. O'Connor, Danaher led the probe that brought down former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph P. Ganim on corruption charges; Ganim is now serving a nine-year prison term. He also led the investigation of Philip Giordano, the former Waterbury mayor and U.S. Senate candidate, and other high-profile cases.

From a family steeped in public service (his grandfather was U.S. senator from Connecticut, and his father is a retired special agent for the FBI), Danaher brings a wealth of experience to the job. He is the right choice to bring respect back to a troubled public safety system.

Huskies' triumph worth celebrating


For a decade and a half, the UConn women's basketball team has ended most seasons as champions of one thing or another. There have been five national titles, along with too many Big East regular season and tournament crowns to keep track of. Still, it's worth celebrating the team's latest accomplishment.

With a win over South Florida on Tuesday, the Huskies clinched the regular season conference title; they have yet to lose a Big East game this year. The team won 11 straight of these titles from 1994 to 2004, and the accomplishments came to seem routine. When you win every year, the fans only expect more.

But the last two years saw the team pushed off its customary throne. The team still had, by any standard, highly successful seasons, but the recognition that goes along with being better than all your neighbors was missing. This year, they've been unmatched, and after experiencing what it's like to finish someplace other than first place, they're back in their customary spot. After two seasons away, a return to greatness is all the sweeter.

At the start of UConn's run of national dominance, the Big East was considered a hindrance to the team's national prospects; experts claimed the team couldn't adequately prepare for the grind of March because they played sub-par teams all year. The mighty Southeastern Conference, led by archrival Tennessee, sniffed at UConn's prescribed regular season matchups. But since those days, the conference has risen to join the country's top ranks. The ascent of Notre Dame, Villanova, Marquette and especially Rutgers has provided UConn with stiff tests throughout the year, and made their season-long triumph all the more satisfying.

With a young roster sure to be just as competitive next year, the Huskies and their fans have plenty to look forward to. And though they're clearly not done with this season, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate the team's achievements. Here's hoping there's more to celebrate in the coming months.

Answers lacking on school workers


From the corner store up to multinational corporations, there are certain tenets to which every budgeted operation must adhere. First among them, it would seem, is knowing who is on your payroll and on what the organization's money is spent.

These basics have escaped the Bridgeport school system. In a stunning embarrassment for a system chronically asking for more money, officials revealed that 55 school positions, many of them teachers, were somehow omitted from the education budget. It is unfathomable that such a large number of positions, totaling $1.8 million in salary, could simply go missing.

In a massive, $214 million budget proposal, $1.8 million may not sound like much. But of the proposed increase of $17.3 million over last year's budget, a full 10 percent comes from this lack of financial discipline.

Despite a tortured explanation from Supt. of Schools John Ramos, there is no legitimate excuse for this debacle. Blaming the problem on the requirements of federal education law or the filling of vacated positions with temporary workers is not good enough. There are always complications and changing laws to sort out, and it is the administrator's job to do so.

Likewise, the school board can not escape blame. The board is tasked with overseeing the school system, including budgeting, salaries and staffing issues. With a properly functioning board, a problem like this would have long ago been discovered. The revelation comes after years of excusing the relatively poor performance of city schools on lack of funds. If only, the laments go, Bridgeport got the same money as the suburbs, everything would be different. There may be some truth to that, but how can the schools ask for more money when they can't even account for what they have? Ramos says these positions include teachers and other necessary staff members. But if 55 positions are active but unaccounted for in the school system, what else has been lost in the shuffle?

To the Ramos administration's credit, the zero-based budgeting starting this year was what led to this revelation, and it was quickly disclosed to the public, opening all sorts of (justified) complaining from parents and taxpayers. But there can be no doubt that this is a disaster for the schools, both from a fiduciary and a public relations perspective.

Bridgeport's public schools lack many things, and its students, as always, deserve better. And it is the students hurt the most by this, because it calls into questions every dime the schools ask for. Necessary programs will see more scrutiny, take more time to pass muster and have a greater chance of not coming through thanks to the school system's inability to keep track of basic financial necessities. It's an unforgiving job trying to run a school system in a poor city, a city that only provides 11 percent of school financing, with the state contributing the rest. But it's hard to find sympathy for an organization that can't even count its own employees.

Board out of line on coaching call


Football is important in Derby. The high school team has a long history of winning, and residents and city officials are passionate about the sport. But the city's school board went too far recently when it inserted itself into a debate over the future of head coach Carmen DiCenso. A record of 1-9 last season has some people frustrated, especially when they think back to the glory years when the team dominated opponents. A lot has changed, though, not least of which is the caliber of opponents in the mighty Southern Connecticut Conference, where many schools can field teams much larger and deeper than Derby's contingent.

DiCenso's supporters, including members of his team, came out passionately in his defense. The problems the team is facing, they said, are hardly his fault. But apart from the merits of their argument, the fact is that the school board should never have involved itself in the decision to begin with.

There is a process schools are to follow when tackling changes in the coaching ranks, as with any position on the education payroll. This procedure was bypassed in Derby, and time that could have been spent focusing on educational purposes was instead used for football. And with a school system with as many needs as Derby's, there are many more important matters to be discussed.

A citywide referendum in two weeks will determine whether a new middle school will be built; existing facilities are so overcrowded that portable classrooms have been budgeted. The high school's accreditation was even threatened last year over the issue. There have been a series of complaints over the schools' facilities department and questions of work on various improvements. And as parents speaking out in DiCenso's defense noted, the school system has a ways to go to catch up to some neighbors in academic standings.

So there is no shortage of issues for the board to tackle. The body ultimately decided to retain the coach for another year, but the outcome is beside the point. Without denying its emotional appeal to students, parents and fans, the decisions of the football program should not be made by the Board of Education.

MAAC tournament to benefit host city


There's something gratifying about seeing the name "Bridgeport" on national television (at least in a positive light). Last year, Harbor Yard played host to the regional finals of the women's NCAA basketball tournament, and the University of Connecticut's Huskies brought a wide audience, live and on television, to the state's largest city. This year, the men's and women's annual Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournaments will be held at the Arena, with first-round women's games starting today.

Early-round games will be shown on the Madison Square Garden network, and the men's final Monday night will air on ESPN2, allowing the nation another glimpse at the Park City. There's plenty here to offer, and fans of visiting teams will hopefully take some time, see more than just the parking lot and get to know what the area has to offer.

Downtown Bridgeport has high hopes. Much like a high-level concert, like The Who or Bruce Springsteen, the MAAC tournament has people buzzing about increased foot traffic and packed bars and restaurants. With five days of games featuring 10 regional schools, many of which have a fervent local fan base, there's real potential to boost interest in Bridgeport.

Certainly the local favorites, the Stags from Fairfield University, are aiming high. After the men's team hit bottom in mid-January with a 3-15 record, the team came back strong, winning 10 of their past 13 games. Seeded sixth, the team is looking for big things when they face Loyola in their quarterfinal matchup Saturday. The women, seeded fourth, tip off Friday at 5 p.m. against No. 4 Siena.

There is a quibble, though, and it's not a minor one. Saturday's Fairfield men's game, which, if the seeds hold up, could be the team's one and only showcase, will start at 10 p.m. It's true that the schedules are made up beforehand according to seed, and it's pure happenstance that Fairfield gets the late game. But as the home team, Fairfield is the school likeliest to draw a big crowd, and by playing the game so late, attendance, and media coverage, will shrink. An exception could and should have been made to get the home team out there earlier.

With luck, though, both Fairfield U. teams will play a few games this week, and maybe the men can find a way to make that nationally televised championship game Monday night. Either way, putting Bridgeport on the national sports map can only be a good thing.