Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A conversation the city ought to have


Maybe this isn't the best time to talk about privatizing government services.

It's been a long-standing conservative view that government at any level is wasteful, bloated and corrupt. Partly because that's often true, it helped lead to a lot of Republican electoral success. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," or so said Ronald Reagan.

But the country got an eight-year look at what the privatization and outsourcing of core government functions did for us. Highlighted by the disgrace that was the response to Hurricane Katrina, where we sat back and watched a city drown, many decided we really do need government for some things.

Barack Obama was elected last year for any number of reasons. On that list was the repudiation of the anti-government mantra the country labored under for the past few decades. Voters knew he supported expanded governmental authority in areas like health care and the environment, and he won anyway.

He won big in Connecticut, and he won huge in Bridgeport. Now, that same public-vs.-private-sector debate may come here.

The discussion is around a thoroughly laudable move spearheaded by the Bridgeport Regional Business Council to improve financial accountability in the city school system. Regardless of its outcome, it's an unqualified good idea to get a clearer picture of where the millions of dollars spent on education in this city go, and how they can be better used.

In other systems where such an audit has been successful -- St. Louis, for example -- millions of dollars in savings was unearthed, and that money went back into the classroom, where it belongs. Better equipment, newer textbooks, help for teachers -- these are what people expect their tax money to go toward.

Some fixes are as easy as clearing up inefficiencies. But other proposals go to the heart of a controversial question about what exactly we expect from our city schools.

As outlined by Paul Timpanelli, the head of the BRBC who has for years worked doggedly on this project, some of the savings are likely to include moving jobs out of the school board's direct control and into the private sector. Crossing guards, cafeteria workers and anyone not directly involved in student instruction could, the thinking goes, come cheaper if they were not paid with public funds. The savings could total in the millions.

The question, then, is what are the core functions of a school system: We're asking whether jobs not directly related to teaching should be performed by for-profit businesses, which, whatever else they do, exist to make money, not to serve the public.

If profit is the underlying goal, people fear, sometimes other goals suffer. In this case, that could mean safety, or nutrition.

It wouldn't have to work that way, of course. Private operators are no more certain to do a bad job than public workers are guaranteed to have nothing but the best interests of the children at heart. It's all shades of gray. But given the country's experience with privatization's negative effects, it's no wonder some people are leery.

Then there's the matter of Bridgeport as compared with its neighbors. Maybe providing meals is not a core educational function in the suburbs. In the city, where 84 percent of students in the public system qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch programs (as of 2005), the calculus is different.

No one, of course, is favoring doing away with school lunch or crossing guards or anything else. And there's no question the audit is a good idea; taxpayers need to know where money is going.
But if some of the possible recommendations give people pause, they should. This is a conversation the city ought to have.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

A step ahead at city schools


This is part of what it means to live in a poor city.

It's not just more crime, aging infrastructure and fewer opportunities. Living in a place like Bridgeport also means your kids are more likely to get sick.

A laudable program from the federal Environmental Protection Agency aims to improve that situation. It's a good idea and deserves support.

The problem in this case involves what are called "asthma triggers" in schools, which cause mold and other air-quality issues, which in turn account for many cases of childhood asthma. A leaky roof is a prime example -- rainwater soaks into the building rather than running off to the ground; the nooks and crannies the water seeps into provide a home for mold to build up, and those spores bring about asthma. That means clogged airways and difficulty breathing.

It's not that the suburbs are immune from such maladies. But in a city where schools are in use for 100 years or more, the chances of problems like this developing are many times higher. The numbers show Connecticut's largest cities, including Bridgeport, send more than three times the number of children to the hospital for asthma attacks as the rest of the state. That's a lot of lost instruction time, and one more reason why poor schools struggle with test scores compared to those in richer towns.

The EPA program looks to root out such asthma triggers before they do damage. And it has shown success elsewhere, with a 21.2 percent drop in asthma outbreaks in Hartford the year after the program started, and larger gains elsewhere. With more than 40 percent of cases centered in the state's five largest cities, it's clear where the most help is needed.

There's more to asthma than just leaky roofs. Studies have shown the closer a school sits to a major highway, with the accompanying heavy load of particulate matter in the air from all those vehicles passing through, the higher the asthma rate. In Bridgeport and places like it, schools historically aren't built all that often, and in some cases the buildings that were there before the interstates came through are still in use. In other towns, those facilities might have been replaced with something that's not a magnet for truck exhaust, and the sicknesses that can bring.

When broken down piece by piece, the challenges faced every day by students at struggling schools can seem overwhelming. But the only way to take them on is one at a time. Though it won't change the world, a program that could cut down on asthma attacks brought on by substandard facilities is worth supporting.

And we need many more like it.

The wrong choice for city commission


In depressingly typical Bridgeport fashion, an appointment that should have been a sure thing has gone sour. Mayor Bill Finch's choice to fill a vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Commission has city officials trading barbs and raising accusations of bad faith.

It was easy to see coming. Jose Tiago, owner of Tiago Construction on Seaview Avenue, has fought with zoning officials over his business, which authorities say was illegally established. Choosing him to help make decisions about other city residents and how they can use their land was bound to spark controversy.

Complicating matters further are allegations Tiago was less than forthcoming with the city's Ethics Commission, which in January approved the mayor's appointment. One commissioner later said he felt deceived because Tiago falsely told the panel his zoning issues had been resolved. Others say he may have misunderstood the question.

Ethics Commission hearings by law are held behind closed doors; there's no way to tell for certain what anyone said. It well could be a simple misunderstanding.

That's not the issue. A member of a city commission should be free of conflicts regarding the public's business. Fighting a years-long battle over what the city says was an illegal business does not clear that hurdle.
Tiago was issued a cease-and-desist order by the city several years ago for his failure to obtain a special permit or coastal site plan approval for a construction yard on the Seaview Avenue site, which borders the Yellow Mill Channel. In 2007, Tiago went before the PZC seeking to legalize the use of the property, but was denied.

It can be hard to find qualified, available people to serve on boards and commissions who don't present some sort of conflict. Realtors, builders, developers -- these are people who understand city planning, and would do well to serve on a panel like the PZC. Almost anyone who has done business in the area could potentially present a conflict, but that shouldn't preclude everyone with experience from public service.

This goes too far. Zoning rules exist for a reason, and someone who flagrantly flouted the rules over a period of years does not belong in a position to enforce those same rules, even if it does not legally disqualify him.

The city could have found someone with experience and a good working relationship with zoners. Instead, we get one more example of how progress in Bridgeport will always be a long, hard slog.

Stuck paying for bad decisions of old


No one gains if the Bluefish fold. Bridgeport doesn't need another high-profile failure, and the Ballpark at Harbor Yard is, no matter its history, a nice place to see a game.

But the bigger question is this: What is Bridgeport doing with a baseball team? As the team struggles at the gate and faces questions about its future, that's the real issue. No one wants to lose the team, because its benefit to the reputation and development of Connecticut's largest city, though limited, is legitimate. It has never been easy to lure people off I-95 from the suburbs to explore around here, and the team has helped change that.

And though there's been some success here recently -- new residents in the Citytrust building, a host of restaurant openings -- the failures loom large. Steel Point is what it's always been -- empty, with little hope for a rebirth. Luxury condo towers planned down Main Street have been drastically scaled back. And the Magic Johnson-backed entertainment complex slated for the lot across from Harbor Yard vanished in a puff of smoke.

Another highly public failure here would be, maybe not disastrous, but certainly disheartening. In a part of town beset with decay and missed opportunities, no one wants to see the Ballpark, Bridgeport's best new attraction of the last few decades, sit vacant.

We're paying for the original mistake, and that was bringing the team here in the first place. There's no good way out of it now.

The story that marked their arrival is one of the largest misbegotten notions in urban America -- the idea that a stadium and its home games will spur an economic revival and raise a city's fortunes. For every success story, there are 20 failures. But people keep trying it, and they keep succeeding.

Sometimes it takes the form of blackmail -- build us a stadium or we bolt. This is how professional teams across the country with perfectly adequate facilities find a way for their hometowns to shell out tax money for fancy new buildings. There was nothing wrong with Shea Stadium; the Mets just wanted a nicer park with more luxury suites, and therefore more revenue.

One report last year said the city and state of New York invested as much as $850 million in cash and tax breaks in the new Yankee Stadium. (Making matters worse, the team grabbed more than 20 acres of contiguous parkland for the new building, promising to replace it with an equal amount once the old stadium is knocked down. But it will be on separate lots -- some across highways and even atop a parking garage).

If anything should put lie to the notion that stadiums bring neighborhood booms, it's the story of the Yankees. This isn't just any team, it's the most successful major professional franchise in U.S. history. And the Bronx neighborhood where it sits isn't just downtrodden, it was for years shorthand for the worst kind of urban blight. The area has improved, but that's followed an overall uptick across the city, not from anything the stadium has done.

At its worst, this system is akin to taking money away from the public and putting it directly into the hands of some of the richest people in America. For misguided notions of civic pride, it keeps happening.

Economist and professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College has done as much research as anyone in the country on the effect of sports teams and stadiums on their cities. He's succinct in his conclusions, telling The New York Times recently: "All of the independent, scholarly research on the issue of whether sports teams and facilities have a positive economic impact has come to the same conclusion: One should not anticipate that a team or a facility by itself will either increase employment or raise per-capita income in a metropolitan area."

When people talk about what a project will do for a city, isn't that what we're looking for? More jobs, better pay? City morale and good feelings are nice, but if they don't correlate with improved quality of life, there's not much point. And spending public money on sports facilities doesn't reach that standard.

That doesn't mean they're worthless. But comparing the amount of public cash in this country used on sports arenas with their economic impact, it's clear there are better ways to spend that money.

Bridgeport, then, is stuck. The Bluefish have for years had trouble paying the rent, and the Atlantic League owner had to step in last year to save the team from possibly going under. Their long-term viability is highly questionable, and their overall value only slightly less so.

We don't want to lose them. But they shouldn't have been asked here to begin with.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

One number can't tell the whole story


Another failure for UConn and Jim Calhoun.

Junior center Hasheem Thabeet announced last week that he will forego his final year of college eligibility and make himself available for the NBA draft. A 7-foot-3-inch behemoth, he's projected to be among the first few players chosen. Given the NBA's salary structure, he will be guaranteed a two-year contract worth at least $2.5 million per season.

He will not, though, earn his college degree, at least not yet. If he or any player does not earn a diploma within six years of enrolling in school, he becomes a detriment to the reputation of the coach and the school. At last count, UConn's graduation rate for the men's basketball team was a sickly looking 33 percent.

These numbers are released every year just in time to give everyone excited about the sport a knock on the head. Around the start of the NCAA tournament, each school's graduation rate is held up for discussion as if all that is good or bad about a team can be boiled down to one statistic. The rates are good every year for a few outraged opinions from people who say the athletes are being treated as commodities. As soon as they have outlived their use, this thinking goes, they will be tossed aside -- and without a degree, most will have few options.

Except, as someone like Thabeet shows, it's not that simple. For one thing, it's a small sample size; a school has 13 scholarships, and most years only a handful of new players suits up. There's also the fact that nearly everyone who puts in four years on the team has a chance to make money playing basketball somewhere, college degree or no. The European leagues are packed with ex-college players not good enough for the NBA but who make a solid living -- often in the six-figure range. It's far from home and not the easiest road, but it's a living, and one that those players might not have had without four years to grow and develop at a place like UConn.

As marginal a player as Danbury native E.J. Harrison, who was backup to the backups on the 1999 national championship team, played for a decade in England. Others play in Ukraine or Australia or Israel. It's not always glamorous, but there are worse ways to spend your life.

A lot of UConn players, too, are in the NBA (13 at last count). Every one of them is a millionaire many times over, but most of them count against the school's graduation rate. If the point of the college experience is to help young people mature and expand their opportunities, it's hard to count a story like theirs as a negative.

The graduation rate is an attempt to find a shorthand look at how well or poorly a school is serving its students. And there is nothing pretty about 33 percent; it would be easy to extrapolate from that data that the focus during a player's UConn years is on everything but academic achievement. As long as the team wins and the dollars flow into the coffers, all is well.

But the reality doesn't support that view. A degree itself is no guarantee of future success, and a solid financial foundation earned by playing basketball for a living can be just as valuable, if not more.

It's partly a rationalization on the part of fans -- like me -- to play down the importance of stories that make their team and their school look bad. It's also tempting to argue the entire system is corrupt from top to bottom. There's a lot of truth in that view.

There is a lot wrong with big-time college athletics, and it's a fair argument that universities shouldn't be in the business of serving as de facto minor leagues. No one argues the coaches are pure and the system flawless.

But it would be wrong to assume you can boil down a school's morals and priorities into a simple number, no matter what it measures. Anyone who wants to rage against the system as it exists should aim a lot higher than UConn.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A changing of the guard on this page


To most of us, it's nothing but a blur of numbers.

The state budget runs hundreds of pages, each one a jumble of charts and lists detailing the collection and disbursement of billions of dollars. The totals make headlines once in a while -- a tax increase here, a deficit there -- but most of it is crafted and voted upon with hardly anyone knowing what's going on. Everyone is affected, but few understand it.

That's true of government at any level -- eyes glaze over when the talk turns to appropriations or bond ratings, but this is where much of our daily lives is decided. How much we pay in taxes, whether we'll get help on student loans, how we can lure businesses and jobs into the area -- it's all hashed out in semi-anonymous subcommittees and printed in documents few of us ever read.

What we need as much as ever are people who can make sense of it all; people who have the time, inclination and ability to wade through the press releases and cascades of numbers to translate them into real-life consequences. This week, the Connecticut Post is saying goodbye to someone who does this better than anyone else. His name sits above mine in the upper-left corner of this page each day. Editorial Page Editor Stephen J. Winters is retiring on Friday.

Before moving into his current role, Steve was the Post's editor, and before that he delved into the ways of Hartford as this paper's Capitol reporter. There he honed the abilities that continue to serve him well, and mastered the intricacies of public policy.

The media universe today doesn't offer much reward for these skills. (Try fitting a budget analysis into your average Twitter post.) Everything is about immediacy. If a major news site is 10 minutes late posting a developing story, it's considered an embarrassment.

People in government have long tried to sneak things by without anyone noticing. The bills they pass are too long and dense for the lawmakers themselves to read in full, let alone anyone on the outside. That's why it's imperative to have people keeping watch; not just reporters to track the day-to-day activities (though that's vital), but people with the knowledge and background to tell readers what it means in their lives.

This is Steve's specialty. He tells us what the comptroller is talking about; he can assess whether the mitigation package before the Assembly will accomplish anything, or if it's all just political posturing.

It's no secret this business is changing. Some of the new tools of journalism offer abilities never thought possible. Some aspects of what we do, though, don't need to be replaced. Some of it you can't get from a news aggregator. The policy wonk is not much in fashion these days, but those skills are more valuable than ever.

This isn't one of those "journalism is dead" pieces that show up every so often in these dark days for the newspaper industry. But it's a fact that when people with decades in the business step aside, the product suffers. Our knowledge suffers.

Steve's interests go far beyond government, of course. Anyone in the building with a question about, say, folk music, or the Cardinals bullpen, or what it's like to perform dentistry in a war zone, knows exactly where to go first. For me, he's been as good an editor, mentor and friend as I could have asked for.

This isn't meant to sound funereal. Steve is retiring as editorial page editor, but he will continue to write a column that will appear regularly in these pages. His office will be in the capable hands of our current managing editor, Michael J. Daly.

But his departure marks an ending, and with so much bad news about the world in general and the journalism industry in particular, it won't be an easy transition. His work is a reminder that no matter what changes, immediacy isn't everything. We will always need people to burrow into those numbers the government churns out every day, picking through the rows and columns, and checking out those subcommittee reports to get a real glimpse of what's going on.

I know when the state budget is finally printed this summer, I'll be keeping an extra copy around in case he wants to stop by and have a look at it.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The players deserve better than this


"Those cheating Huskies," read a headline in a CBS Sports column. The New York Times opened its "Meet the Final Four" piece by discussing recruiting improprieties. It's been Topic A on ESPN for two weeks.

Maybe my lifelong fanhood for all things UConn should stop me from weighing in on this. To me, it doesn't change the fact the men's basketball team is being wronged.

The charges were treated like blockbuster news. Yahoo led its sports page with the headline: "UConn broke rules." Never mind that on the first day of journalism school you're taught not to convict people in the story; the NCAA decides who broke the rules, not a news outlet. This was different; from the beginning, the tales of recruiting misdeeds have been assumed to be true before the official probe even starts.

UConn fans are livid. They -- we -- are smart enough to know this kind of season doesn't come around all that often. After so many close calls and great teams that fell short, this is not a fan base that takes Final Fours for granted.

But instead of talking about basketball, everyone -- players, fans and coaches -- has been asked about improper phone calls or who paid for what hotel room. It's bad enough for those of us who do nothing but watch, but the players deserve none of this.

Two years ago, this same team couldn't get out of its own way; this year, they've been ranked No. 1 in the country. It's a remarkable story, and one that has been wholly overshadowed.

Even worse, the explosiveness of the charges is illusory. The story hinges mainly on what the coaches knew about the activities of a former team manager who was working to ingratiate himself with recruits. His activities alone are against the rules, but if the coaches knew nothing about it, they can't be held responsible. If they did know, that's a problem.

It is not, though, an earth-shaker. No players were paid off. No one altered anyone's test scores. Rules are rules, but there is an enormous difference between the way the alleged violations have been reported and what they entail. In no way are they important enough to overshadow the players' accomplishments.

There's a reason it's happened this way, and it's pretty simple. Coach Jim Calhoun can be a jerk, and a lot of reporters can't stand him. This is no secret -- a top state columnist wrote a piece not long ago laying it all out for everyone to see.

Being a jerk isn't against the rules. But it does carry a price. When something like this comes along, the reporters and columnists who shape the news not only don't put the story in proper perspective, they pounce.

There is not a single top program that hasn't been caught up in something at least as serious as the UConn allegations. (Anyone outraged by this story should save his righteousness for the NCAA itself.) But when a coach makes time to be buddies with the media -- not the local guys who cover the team day to day, but the national writers and broadcasters who drive the conversation and determine how long a story stays in the public eye -- everyone is just as happy to look the other way.

In UConn's case, we get weeks of phony outrage, as if the fulminating wasn't a thinly disguised excuse to take shots at a guy who makes their jobs tougher.

The people who pay the heaviest price are the ones who make it all possible; guys named Jeff, Stanley, Hasheem and the rest. They'll only get one shot at the Final Four, most of them. And though they've done nothing wrong, they're tarred as cheaters.

Some people blame Calhoun for that. Given the facts at hand, I blame the people who don't seem to realize their grievances are not the story. No one cares whether the coach is nice to you. But thanks for making a week with UConn in the Final Four more pain than pleasure. I wouldn't have thought that was possible.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Monday, March 23, 2009

No sense arguing with pitchfork carriers


Everyone loves a scapegoat. And Chris Dodd is a convenient target.

But his current controversy puts Countrywide mortgages and his 2007 Iowa move to shame. He, along with some rich, previously anonymous AIG executives who live in Fairfield County, is at the top of the nation’s enemies list for, so the charges go, letting the people who ruined the economy collect huge bonuses, paid for by the government, and then lying about it. Off with his head.

What he’s actually guilty of can be limited to a poor explanation of his actions. But that hasn’t stopped the mob.

It started more than a month ago when the Senate passed the Obama administration’s stimulus package. As The Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 14, "The giant stimulus package that cleared Congress Friday includes a last-minute addition that restricts bonuses for top earners at firms receiving federal cash — including those that already received it — more severely than the Obama administration’s previous pay limits."

That last-minute addition — to retroactively limit executive bonuses at companies the government bailed out — was put into the Senate version of the bill by Chris Dodd, the guy we all hate so much.

But that addition didn’t make the final version of the bill. Once it went into the House-Senate conference, where they reconcile each body’s version to create a common bill to send to the president, its effect was nullified. "The administration is concerned the rules will prompt a wave of banks to return the government’s money and forgo future assistance, undermining the aid program’s effectiveness," the Journal reported at the time. "Both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who heads the National Economic Council, had called Sen. Dodd and asked him to reconsider."

The administration thought the provision would backfire. The president was not going to sign it with the retroactive limit on bonuses. So, at the administration’s insistence, the final version of the bill allowed for AIG, and anyone else covered in the bailouts, to pay their agreed-upon bonuses. Which they did.

(Incidentally, the argument that these bonuses represent sacrosanct "signed contracts" that must be honored lest we tumble into a socialist quagmire is ridiculous. When it’s workers, not executives, on the other end, companies break contracts all the time. Why is it every union from here to Alaska has been told to renegotiate its terms or else? Aren’t those contracts "sacred"?)

This has been part of a long-term trend. Since last year, when the economy went into free fall, at least half the political world has designated as villains Dodd and his House counterpart, Barney Frank. Those two, the argument goes, are to blame for the recession because they ran their banking committees for two whole years before the world collapsed.

The Obama administration, especially its Treasury Department, simply picked up this thread. When the outcry over the AIG bonuses exploded, the blame was put on someone already on the receiving end of misplaced outrage. Dodd had moved to limit the bonuses, but instead was blamed for enabling them. Maybe there’s some nefarious reason why he would have inserted a strict pay-limiting amendment only to weaken it, with no outside pressure, later in the process. But no one has come up with anything.

Coming so soon after his benefits on a pair of mortgage deals and the grumbling about his missed service while he ran for president, these incidents are taking a real toll. Republicans desperate to find Democrats to blame for the recession smell blood.

And in the past week, Dodd has been less than clear about the time frame and sequence of his actions. He’s been reluctant to point fingers at specific administration officials. But muddled explanations don’t justify outrage, and the legislative record is clear. You don’t need to think Dodd is a saint to think he’s being unfairly blamed here.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Expecting more from public figures


This didn't have to be a big issue. If University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun had kept his temper in check, this story would have gone nowhere.

He didn't, of course, and now his insulting response to a question at a post-game news conference has become the talk of the sports world, and beyond. It's about far more than salaries and deficits -- it's about basic decency.

The issue is not whether Calhoun should, as his questioner suggested, give back some of his salary in light of the state budget crisis. No one in a position of authority -- the athletic director, university president, governor, etc. -- has asked him to, so there is nothing for him to refuse.

This is also not an issue of whether his salary is justified. The university pays him what it thinks he is worth; if he disagreed, he could go somewhere else and maybe make more money. Both sides entered into his contract with a full understanding of how the system works.

Most of Calhoun 's job is based on one thing -- winning basketball games. On that score, his success may be unsurpassed in the entire country. That UConn is in the upper echelon of programs -- alongside North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, etc. -- would have been unthinkable before he arrived in the 1980s. Every other consistently top program has a tradition of greatness. Calhoun had to create UConn's tradition, and he has.

And the impact is hard to measure in dollars and cents. The bottom line shows the athletic department brings in far more money than it pays to run a basketball program, whether from ticket sales, sports paraphernalia or TV rights. What it can't measure is how many more students have chosen UConn over other schools because of the winning sports teams; or how much extra money alumni donate because they like what they see on the court.

It's true not all his players graduate, but a significant number go on to successful careers, in basketball or otherwise.

Then there's the change in the university's wider reputation. Its academic standards and physical infrastructure are dramatically improved from a generation ago. At least a small part of the credit should go to its highly visible athletic successes.

There are many budget items that drain significant funds from the state and university -- Jim Calhoun 's salary is not among them.

But another part of his job is to be the public face of the university. And no matter how much money he brings in; no matter how much positive publicity he creates for the school and the state; no matter how much he gives to charity, he has responsibilities. High on that list is basic decency.

If he didn't like the question, or he didn't think it was appropriate, there are ways to handle that without resorting to saying, "Shut up." Calhoun has never been known for his diplomacy, but that doesn't mean the state doesn't have the right to expect better.

Workers, players better off organized


You can blame the unions and public employees if you want to. But when there's only one group of people that can feel remotely secure in their employment, I have a hard time taking them to task.

At every level, the call is for concessions. Teachers should forego raises, union contracts must be renegotiated, city workers need to sacrifice benefits. The story in Bridgeport City Hall is the same one in the state Capitol. The inference is that public employees are feeding off the rest of us, and it's time to take it back.

No doubt there are some lazy, good-for-nothing public employees who are wasting time and money. But there isn't a workplace in America that can't say that.

There are changes that should and likely will be made to make the system fairer and more transparent. But a crisis like this brings outbursts against the very idea of collective bargaining, and the protections only available to a lucky few. It's a system that treats workers as disposable that needs reform, not the one that offers a safety net.

Today, in businesses across the nation, people who work for a living watch grim-faced executives hold daylong, closed-door sessions secure in the knowledge they aren't talking about anything good. The jobs shed so far haven't slowed the economic plunge, so everyone knows worse is coming. And it could be any day.

Meanwhile, people who have been able to negotiate a modicum of security over the years are held up for ridicule. The autoworkers are blamed for Detroit's troubles, much like homeowners are said to be responsible for the mortgage crisis.

Surely some people took advantage of the housing bubble, and took what they could and ran. But most people didn't. A mortgage is like any contract; it has two parties, and usually only one is well versed in how the system works. If a lot of people ended up borrowing beyond their means, it was often because they believed the hype about all-powerful markets.

So now, in a situation where the news gets grimmer day by day, in one industry after another, we're told to take out our anger on the one group of people lucky enough to enjoy some security. Organized labor exerts only a fraction of the influence it once had in this country. But it's no coincidence that the only people it still covers are those best equipped to ride out this economy.

Missing in the debate about Jim Calhoun and his salary is the question of the performers themselves, and what they are worth. The coach is the mainstay -- the only link between the greats of years' past and the current product. But no one pays to see Calhoun roam the sidelines, entertaining as that can be.

It's the players who produce the value. Without them, there's nothing. But of the billions of dollars spent in this country on college sports and their marketing, they end up with a pittance.

An athletic scholarship is not to be minimized -- a lot of people would pay dearly for the opportunities it can provide. But at a total value of, say, $120,000 over four years, it doesn't come close to matching the value produced by even an average player on a successful team.

If the coach is paid $1.6 million a year, how much is the point guard worth?

Some players will go on to successful basketball careers after college, a (very) few of them in the NBA. But for many, this is it. They fuel a multibillion-dollar enterprise and see the equivalent of a few pennies tossed their way. If they find a way to profit and get caught, they risk being banned from the sport.

The solution is uncertain, but people who make big money in this business should hope the players never organize themselves.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Dodd may face trouble, but from whom?


Whether he deserves it or not, Chris Dodd will be fine. He's taken a beating for a year, and almost all of it could have been avoided. Whatever his reasons, he hasn't handled his problems with much dexterity. The infuriated reactions from his constituents were entirely predictable.

But as his poll numbers drop and he gets ready to run for re-election next year, he lacks the one factor that could give him real trouble -- an opponent. Without much in the way of a Republican bench, it's hard to think who could step in and give him a real race. And without a viable alternative, he'll cruise to re-election, regardless of his approval ratings.

Plenty of people are exhausted by politics, and have no desire to jump into thinking about 2010 already. The president has barely been in office a month, after all. But this is the time any opponent would have to get a campaign under way, and start the long process of fundraising and building up name recognition.

People who forecast elections for a living have been surveying the field, and say there's nothing to see in Connecticut. Writers for The Washington Post, Roll Call magazine and elsewhere say it's no more than a middle-of-the-pack contest -- not an absolute lock, but nowhere near the most competitive in the country (look to New Hampshire or Ohio for that). Since no more than a handful of Senate incumbents lose most years, Dodd is in good shape.

Surely someone will arise to challenge him, but the possibilities are slim. The Republicans have three recently defeated ex-congressmen running around, but whether any of them would be willing to put his name on the line in what might be a futile cause is unclear. All three of them -- Chris Shays, Rob Simmons and Nancy Johnson -- are out of Congress because the voters rejected them, and are not all that well-known outside their respective districts.

There are Republican leaders in the state Assembly, but they face huge hurdles over name recognition. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield is the son of a former Congress member, but that was two decades ago.

A number of analysts say the only Republican who could give Dodd a real contest is the one who's likely to run away with her own re-election campaign next year -- Gov. M. Jodi Rell. If she has any interest in running for Senate, she's keeping it quiet.

In electoral danger or not, watching Dodd flail about these past few months dealing with questions about his mortgage refinancing deals has been frustrating. It's hard to figure why he couldn't have put all this to rest a year ago by making everything public. Also, his decision to temporarily move his family to Iowa in a quixotic bid for the presidency had predictably negative repercussions. He was elected to serve Connecticut, and people expect him to be here.

He's also emerged, along with Rep. Barney Frank, as a flash point for Republican anger over the economy, but that's hardly his fault. Any Democrat serving as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee during this mess would have been vilified.

It's all the more infuriating because his accomplishments are already forgotten. Dodd took unpopular stands against the worst excesses of the Bush years that deserve to be recognized; instead, they've been subsumed by all the unforced errors. He was the most passionate, eloquent voice in the Senate arguing against the idea of granting retroactive immunity to telephone companies that may have broken the law by helping the government eavesdrop on Americans. If they want to be exonerated, let them prove it in court, Dodd reasonably argued.

He lost that battle, but deserves credit for having fought it. Instead, while waiting to find out his opponent, all anyone wants to talk about is his mortgage rate.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Still time to start mending fences


It was not a good way to start a campaign.

Former state Rep. Jim Amann made news not long ago by agreeing to take a newly created job with the state Assembly. As an adviser to the House speaker, the Milford resident was slated to earn a six-figure salary while he began his campaign for governor. In the midst of a budget disaster, the move didn't go over well.

Amann quickly reconsidered, reasoning (too late, it turned out) that voters wouldn't take kindly to this sort of thing during a recession. His "everyone does it" defense didn't win him any converts.

The Democratic primary next year will be among people most state residents have never heard of, and Amann can safely assume all this will blow over before anyone gets around to thinking about it. But he might want to start before then dealing with another nettlesome issue -- the left wing of his party can't stand him.

It dates back, as does so much else, to the 2006 Senate race. After Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary, most of the party's leadership decided such matters were best left up to the voters, and duly supported their chosen candidate. But a number of high-profile Democrats, like then-state Sen. and current Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, stuck with their man. Amann was part of the second group.

No one needs to relive that campaign, but it's worth remembering what is was and was not about. People weren't mad at Lieberman because all his views didn't match their own; it was not an ideological purge of centrists; it did not prove there is no room for Iraq war supporters in the Democratic Party (there shouldn't be, but that's beside the point).

Lieberman was targeted and eventually lost his party's support because he refused to acknowledge his opponents had a point of view worth considering. He said people who disagreed with him were helping "the enemy" or "the terrorists." He took demagoguery to Dick Cheney-ish levels. And he used dishonest arguments to push his support for the war, all the while defaming his opponents as being insufficiently concerned with Americans' safety.

That was why the Senate primary attracted nationwide attention. There were and continue to be centrist Democrats in both houses of Congress, many of them far to the right of, say, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican. They have not been targets of any "purges."

This was all more than two years ago, so it should have sunk in by now. At the time, Amann was among Lieberman's most vocal Democratic supporters, making appealing comments like, "Shame on all of us if we allow a shrieking minority to hijack the primary." That's how you win people over!

When some Ned Lamont supporters floated the possibility of taking on Lieberman backers in primaries of their own, Amann was just as accommodating, vowing to "crush" any challenger.

Unfortunately for him, Amann shows no signs that his comprehension has improved. "When I hear fellow Democrats trying to punish another Democrat just because he has differing views," he said in a recent interview, "I realize why we haven't won the governor's office in 20 years. We should remember that our strength is our diversity; our weakness is division."

Punishment for divergent views. Can he still think this is what it's about? If he does, who would want him as governor?

With Attorney General Richard Blumenthal out of the picture, the Democratic nomination is wide open. Amann has plenty of time to prepare his campaign, though with Rell's popularity it might all be pointless anyway.

And though the core of Lamont supporters isn't large enough to decide the primary by itself, its members can have a serious impact. They proved that in 2006.

But this time, if the primary doesn't turn out right, no one should expect relief from the Connecticut for Amann Party.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Let occupants stay on waterfront land


Whatever the city of Bridgeport is going to accomplish on Steel Point, the all-but-abandoned spit of waterfront land east of the Pequonnock River that has forever been the target of large-scale development dreams, it won't happen soon. In the meantime, the city should let people who are putting the land to use go about their business.

For more than a century, the Pequonnock Yacht Club has made its home on Steel Point in Bridgeport. It has done nothing to deserve its unceremonious ouster, which was reiterated recently as the club approaches its planned exit date in November. Seeking only an extension of a few months to keep disruptions this year to a minimum, club officials say they were denied.
The city has given no indication as to why.

The problems concerning Steel Point development over the years are too numerous to mention, but high on the list is the fact that the city bulldozed scores of homes and businesses to clear a path for a project that has never been built. These homeowners and businesses paid taxes and helped make Bridgeport what it was, for good or for ill. Far from seeing the folly of such a course of action, though, the city wants only to continue on that course.

Here's a suggestion: Wait until something -- anything -- other than a fence is built on Steel Point before kicking anyone else out. The plans as they existed as recently as a few months ago are finished; nothing resembling them will ever be constructed. A replacement proposal is in limbo.

Until there is something concrete -- actual, physical concrete -- on the peninsula, the yacht club should be told it can stay in its current location if it needs the time. Bridgeport won't give up its Steel Point dreams, but it also won't make anyone else pay for decades of disastrous outcomes.

If nothing else, at least someone should get some use out of this land.

Steel Point news more of the same


At Steel Point, the city of Bridgeport's longest-running disaster movie, the script has changed.


Tempting as it would be to write off this latest permutation as a consequence of a crashing economy, such a conclusion would ignore the last generation of city history. Through good times and bad, every boom and bust, Steel Point has remained constant -- an overgrown, uninhabited, decaying symbol of everything the city is and is not.

The latest news involves Manhattan's Midtown Equities, the primary developer since 2005, assuming a minority investment role as RCI Marine, of Miami, again takes over leadership. The plan remains, as ever, to convert the waterfront peninsula into a mixed community of boating slips, retail and housing.

Apparently, the splashy performance delivered by Midtown a few years back that said "The time is now" has been declared inoperative. It's no surprise, but it's no less embarrassing.

The new plan, such as it is, would begin with a full-service marina, adjacent stores and restaurants, and a wraparound boardwalk. Without question, the developer will come up with some beautiful artistic renderings of gleaming buildings and pristine throughways. If the city could make money off the mountain of depictions these past 25 years of projects that never were and never will be, there'd be no worries about any budget deficit.

At one time, the new neighborhood was to be based around thousands of homes, mostly of the luxurious variety. When the economy looked promising, observers worried about a lack of affordable housing, and the possibility of creating an insular, upscale community in the heart of a downtrodden city. In the most recent plan, housing of any kind has been put off indefinitely.

Local leaders say they're optimistic the scaled-down version can work. Though the chances of seeing any development there often seem further away than ever, the slow-and-steady route has found some success elsewhere in the city. Residents can only hope.

Disappointment at engine plant again


Of all the local development projects to fall apart alongside the national economy in the past year, perhaps the most disappointing has been the plans for the former Stratford Army Engine Plant. Just when it looked like the project had momentum and a real shot at moving forward, the ground fell out from under it -- again.

Now, another deadline has passed with nothing to show. The 78-acre site on a prime piece of riverfront property remains as it has been for years now -- decrepit, nearly vacant and devoid of promise.

When the U.S. Army took back control of the site from Stratford officials after more than a decade of inaction, the assumption was that the full force of the Pentagon's clout would get a project going in short order. And that's the way it seemed to be going, as plans quickly coalesced for a massive film production and entertainment complex, taking advantage of a surge in state movie-making brought on by favorable tax deals worked out in Hartford.

But that's as far as the plan has progressed. The completion of "Hollywood East," as the complex was to be known, seems further away than ever.

Officials say there is still time to get a deal in place by the middle of the month, but the recent history is not promising. Amid an acrimonious fallout, the project's former backers have watched one deadline after another pass without making any progress.

This is a piece of land considered key to Stratford's economic future. Adjacent to Sikorsky Memorial Airport and situated near the mouth of the Housatonic River, the location has been touted as the future home of great things almost since the day the engine plant closed more than a decade ago. Local officials have been reluctant, for example, to place the town's animal shelter in the neighborhood on the belief that the economic viability of the town could one day be centered in the area.

Maybe that will still happen, but nothing is certain. Even without the public falling-out amongst the development team chosen for the site, the dismal economy could have put a halt to the plans on its own. There simply isn't much market for this kind of mega-project these days, as neighboring Bridgeport can attest. The market may turn around and the plan could again become viable, but no one knows when that is likely to happen.

For now, Stratford is stuck with something it never wanted to see -- its own version of Bridgeport's Steel Point .

Bridgeport again on the losing end

What is left to say about another letdown in Bridgeport? A developer comes to town promising big things; city leaders envision a long-awaited turnaround. Instead, there's nothing but a dusty, empty lot. Same old story.

This time it was a celebrated visit from NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson that set the process in motion. Since his playing days ended, Johnson and his development company, Canyon Johnson Urban Funds, have delivered multimillion-dollar projects in the kind of inner-city neighborhoods other businesses wouldn't touch.

So when he came to Bridgeport and toured a development site in 2007 with then-Mayor John M. Fabrizi, the excitement was palpable. On a lot used for parking adjacent to the stadium and arena at Harbor Yard, the investment team talked about a massive complex involving homes, retail and entertainment. Visions of Bridgeport's rebirth as a consumer destination, as well as millions of dollars annually in tax payments, ran rampant.

Then, for a long time, came silence. While the developers and investors tried to attract retail tenants and get the project on solid footing, the national economy collapsed underneath them. What had looked so promising quickly turned into a debacle.

So no one was all that surprised recently when word came out the project was dead. The dreams of a hotel, movie theater, townhouses and retail were out the window. Along with the continuing inaction at the former Remington Shaver factory and Steel Point , Bridgeport is 0-for-3 on large-scale developments.

City officials have more immediate concerns, of course, like closing a budget deficit before the fiscal year ends. But there's no point minimizing this loss. Donald Eversley, the city's economic development director, said the Canyon Johnson proposal "was never a project as far as we were concerned." That comes as news to everyone paying attention the last few years.

The development focus returns, then, to smaller-scale deals, like the continuing rehabilitation of downtown office buildings into apartments and the growing chain of new restaurants on Fairfield Avenue. If there's a positive spin on the economic calamity, it's that these projects continue, albeit slowly, even through the slowdown.

If Bridgeport is ever to become self-sufficient again, it likely won't be on the strength of one or two mega-projects. Slow and steady is about the best city residents can hope for these days.

Sewer system at center of debate


Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch took office about a year ago with no way to know about the fiscal time bomb about to go off in his city. Years of easy credit and questionable mortgages were just beginning to yield the mountain of foreclosures that has hurt the entire country, and devastated places like Bridgeport.

As part of his election campaign, Finch promised a return to budgetary honesty. The recent past, he charged, had been rife with one-time budget items filling the gaps. It wasn't, he said, the right way to plan for the future. He was right then, and today, even as the budget situation deteriorates, he's still right.

That's why he's on dangerous ground with a plan to allow connection to the city sewer system by a development in Monroe. Under the terms of a proposed deal, the campus of a new Jewish Home for the Elderly on Main Street in Monroe would hook into the Bridgeport sewage system, already shared by Trumbull. There's nothing wrong with the idea, but Bridgeport must make sure it doesn't get fleeced in the process.

Finch is reportedly negotiating a one-time payment to the city in the $2 million range to compensate for use of the city's sewage system and treatment plants. That's money the city could desperately use as it tries to cover a $20 million budget gap, but it does not take into account the long-term outlook.

A smaller, regular payment makes more sense. Just as budgeting one-time payments for land sales does not make for sound accounting, this deal would do nothing for the city in future years, when the need could be just as great. The city could be in effect giving away its services for the foreseeable future.

A deal must also be contingent on a clear understanding of the scope of development. If Bridgeport decides its system can handle the Jewish Home, that should not be a green light for further development in Monroe to hook into the sewer lines without increased compensation.

The other issue, which the city denies is a problem, is capacity. There is no question that separating stormwater from regular sewer lines is in Bridgeport's long-term interest, and though it's not an issue likely to win many votes, it's the type of infrastructure upgrade the city needs to become and stay competitive.

It is worrying, though, to see questions arise about limited capacity, even if this project doesn't pose a problem. What will happen if development finally happens at the end of Main Street, at the former Pequonnock Apartments site and, most of all, Steel Point? Those and other projects represent quite a few new toilets flushing into the system. The city must make sure it has an adequate answer to that question.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Move ahead, but recall how we got here


Of course he's overhyped. Of course the expectations are too high. Of course he can't change the world overnight.

That's not what matters. President Obama has already changed this country for the better by one simple fact -- not just who he is, but who he isn't.

In 2004, there were many Democrats who couldn't make themselves overly excited about John Kerry, but still worked their hearts out for him. He lost, but not because his party didn't support him.

For many, Kerry promised the political version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. (The real oath doesn't say that, but the sentiment is the same.) The first thing Kerry would do, and the reason he won the support of tens of millions of people, was make George W. Bush the former president.

Obama won where Kerry lost, partly because Bush had four more years to convince everyone his party was bad news. As Obama takes office, there's a reason people talk about the challenges he faces in apocalyptic terms.

Even with all we're facing, though, the worst course of action would be to pretend we don't know how we got here. We're in this situation because the former president and his party made decisions, every day for eight years, that led to this. It wasn't incompetence to blame, though there was plenty of that. But if we decide to simply start fresh and try to forget, we'll be guaranteeing it will all happen again.

Everyone who makes that kind of suggestion, even if it's Obama himself, is wrong. If we don't have an honest reckoning about possible criminality committed by our government these past eight years and hold people responsible, nothing will change in the long term. It's not enough to say we've seen what can happen and will stop it in the future. Without consequences, there will be no deterrent.

So that means prosecuting people who broke the law by, for instance, torturing people. To say they only did it to protect their country is a fine defense, if a judge and jury want to believe it.

But it must come before a court, not be decided on some cable talk show.
Saying we need to "move forward" is demanding the questions not even be asked. The new attorney general and restaffed Justice Department can't preclude any investigations, because they don't know where the evidence will lead. If controversial cases go to trial and are decided in court, that's how it should be. But we can't pre-empt them.

Obama had most of his Cabinet approved with no fuss, but his choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, has been held up because a Texas senator wants an assurance that he won't pursue punishment against government torturers. We need to look forward, not backward.

How did we get here? A U.S. senator is telling the administration it has to rule out the idea of investigations, let alone prosecutions, when members of the recently departed administration have already admitted to torture. This isn't "24." We're supposed to be better than that.

(Incidentally, has there ever been a more harmful TV show in history? It's a fact that government interrogators have said they were inspired by the show's blatant torture, which is always presented as the only way to protect us from evil-doers, even though nearly every expert says it's not only wrong, it's counterproductive. They also have the worst writers in the business, but that's another story.)

It goes without saying that no one who was tortured in real life had been convicted of anything, or even formally charged. And torture barely scratches the surface of all the wrongs -- illegal spying, politicizing criminal investigations and all the rest -- committed in our names since 2001.

It would be nice if the election of Barack Obama was a cure-all. Just by him being in office, we're a better country than we were a month ago. But it's not enough. Unless we face these issues now, find out as best we can everything that happened and where laws were broken, we can look forward to having these same discussions the next time a Democrat is elected to clean up a Republican mess.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 330-6233 or at

City's chances come and go quickly


It's hard to avoid the feeling Bridgeport missed its chance. The window of opportunity was narrow, but it was real. For a few months there, with the economy chugging along and housing prices soaring, and the demand for luxury accommodations spiraling upward, the city had a chance to fill a void in the local market.

The rest of Fairfield County had outpriced the population. Bridgeport, it was thought, could become the home for people who needed to live in the area but had to forget about anything between here and New York. And maybe the city could snag some of that luxury overflow, as well.

Projects that had hung around the back burner suddenly attracted attention from big-name developers. Fallow land was slated for condominium towers, brownfields were to be cleaned and marinas prepared to take root in the Sound.

The scene today looks a bit different. Barely a peep has been heard about the various mega-projects around town, and the smaller-scale deals have nearly ground to a halt, as well. A nationwide housing collapse will do that.

The first real sign of trouble came in what was shaping up to be the first new housing construction downtown in decades. The corner of Fairfield Avenue at Lafayette Circle not too long ago was nothing but grass, but on the site sprang the makings of an 84-unit condo complex, to be built, its backers said, without using any public money. This was Bridgeport coming into its own.

It hasn't worked out that way. Despite a deal last April where the City Council granted the right to sell the condos at a lower rate to entice buyers, the building has for months sat half-finished. There's been no sign of construction restarting, and it's safe to say the active winter weather is not helping matters.

It's not that there hasn't been progress downtown -- the stretch of Fairfield Avenue next to the condo construction has refashioned itself as a destination for new restaurants, and work continues on a number of vacant buildings undergoing a retrofit for housing.

But there, too, the reality is a long way from the promise. The Citytrust building is occupied, but the retail and restaurants slated for the ground floor have not panned out. Work continues at other buildings, slowly -- even the boarded-up disaster at 333 State St., at the corner of Lafayette Boulevard, has seen some activity in recent weeks.

But it's the large-scale projects that look to be on life support, or worse. At last report, the condominium towers and marina to be built at the end of Main Street, next to Seaside Park, were stalled by a dispute over oyster beds in the Sound. In the interim, with the economy falling apart, the market for high-end housing in a neighborhood of decrepit buildings and a total lack of services has not grown.

Then there is the site that brought former NBA star turned high-powered developer Magic Johnson to the city. Next to the Harbor Yard complex, the lot was going to feature movie theaters, an 11-story hotel, thousands of square feet of retail and dozens of residences. For a time, a top concern was that the complex would turn inward, away from the city streets, and do little to help the surrounding neighborhood draw foot traffic. Today, it appears not much of anything will happen there.

Finally, of course, is Steel Point. A few decades ago, a long-gone city administration bulldozed a neighborhood, including dozens of houses and tax-paying businesses. In their place, the city has been granted some awfully attractive artist renderings of what the Bridgeport skyline could look like in some alternate universe.

It's not the fault of city leaders the housing market died, and priorities have taken a drastic turn. Now City Hall is trying to close a budget deficit before the end of the fiscal year, with no one talking much about what the revenue stream will look like the following year, or the year after that. It won't be pretty.

For a city that has suffered a generations-long run of bad luck, it's hard to think the opportunity to turn things around hasn't come and gone. The next time the stars align could be far in the future.

Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor at the Connecticut Post. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@ctpost.com.