Accountability and the Anti-democratic Movement in Lyme

Credit: Robin Breeding


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Apologists for the anti-democratic movement in Lyme have decided to normalize the lack of elections in town. They apparently intend to do so through melodrama. On August 21, for example, Claire Sauer posited in The Day that the cessation of elections benefits Lyme citizens by keeping them from “each other’s throats like the rest of the country.” Herbert Ross continued that hammy tactic in this paper in direct response to a letter of mine.

Here is the conclusion of the letter that provoked him:

A healthy democracy requires elections, accountability guaranteed by loyal opposition, and compromise between parties who offer different paths for voters to choose between. That entire commitment is lacking in the Lyme DTC and RTC and the current selectmen.

And here is his overdramatic misreading:

[Gencarella] seems to believe that a healthy democracy requires partisan combat, even when it is pursued for its own sake. He equates interparty cooperation in government with connivance or conspiracy …

In their efforts to excuse the Lyme Select Board and the DTC and RTC for limiting opportunities to vote, Ms. Sauer and Mr. Ross both employ the buzzword “cooperation.” And both starkly ignore the need for accountability of public officials. Whoever is coordinating their talking points needs to do a better job.

For a detailed review, I refer the reader to the substantive facts in my previous letter, which the apologists continue to ignore.

Since 2015, there has been only one contest for the Select Board; in four other cases, the Select Board members themselves chose their successors rather than competed in honest elections. The DTC and RTC assist this practice through cross-endorsements or by not running candidates. Eventually—and twice since 2017—the First Selectman steps down during their term, allowing the remaining two members to elevate one of themselves and to appoint a wholly unelected third person to the board. Kristina White currently occupies that dubious position.

All of this happens without the approval of voters, and holds true for the coming election.

Indeed, voters cannot have a say because there simply is no contest during an election cycle, only a preselected group on the ballot. Apologists such as Claire Sauer and Herbert Ross applaud this as a sign of political harmony rather than decry it as an affront to democracy and accountability.

I have two questions for the advocates of the anti-democratic movement in Lyme:

First, do you recognize that you are arguing against holding elections, the lifeblood of healthy democracy and the means by which officials gain the consent of the governed? Second, do you understand that you are making a case for a ruling class that has no accountability to citizens?

In addition to their fantasies of regular democratic elections devolving into untold political rancor and combat, the apologists have made several claims in favor of taking choice away from voters.

First, they contend that the current system is a praiseworthy venture, one echoing a unity of opinion shared by the Lyme DTC and RTC that renders elections gratuitous. Or as Mr. Ross explains, the Lyme parties have no “major policy differences.” That may be a surprise to Republicans who want to pay down debt and Democrats who want to increase social services, or anyone who wishes to see businesses thrive in town. But that claim also flies in the face of what at least one party says it stands for.

The Lyme RTC Facebook page currently appears defunct. The mission statement at the Lyme DTC website, however, reads as follows:

  • To support and strengthen the Democratic Party in the Town of Lyme and the state of Connecticut

  • To encourage greater citizen participation in our Town government

Would someone on the DTC—perhaps the chairwoman of the nominating committee—please explain, precisely, how supporting a Republican for First Selectman strengthens the Democratic Party?

One essential problem is that John Kiker and David Lahm, the two selectmen, are also party chairs, held unaccountable. And how, precisely, does prearranging the outcome of elections encourage citizen participation?

While they are at it, the webpage explaining town parties at the Democratic State Central Committee has a link for a petition to Expand Voting Rights. Would someone in the know please square that up with Mr. Ross’ theory that routine competitive elections are unnecessary?

Second, the apologists curiously argue that a lack of voting opportunities actually observes the spirit of elections laws. Mr. Ross reminds us that “state law requires that on committees such as Select Boards, there be diversity of party affiliation.” He conveniently forgets to add that state election rules also assume fair competitions rather than engineered outcomes. In a case of three selectmen, the state anticipates at least two competing parties in two separate contests, of which the top three vote getters are elected.

That is the opposite of what the Lyme DTC and RTC have orchestrated and is precisely why Kristina White cannot be on the 2023 ballot directly. Instead, she must appear as a petitioning candidate and without a Republican challenger. To their embarrassment, the RTC signed off on this deal. And both committees have come to this agreement at the detriment of citizens, who now have nothing to decide in the upcoming election and who are therefore removed from the process and silenced. I know that Mr. Ross will loudly and frantically exclaim “conspiracist!” at anyone who questions this highly questionable practice, but the burden is on him to prove the virtue of this impediment to voting.

Finally, the apologists assert that Lyme is too small for elections. I defer again to Mr. Ross: “In selecting candidates for office in a small community, parties may not find people willing to run, especially in the absence of major policy differences.” If that is truly the case, they should start a petition to reunite Lyme with Old Lyme. The two towns already share a school system and a zip code. Why not more to save democracy?

A major problem with Mr. Ross’ assertion is that such recruitment is, of course, the very purpose of the town parties. Why do they exist if they cannot do their job? Instead of implying that citizens are to blame for the failures of the DTC and RTC and therefore do not deserve to vote, he and his fellow apologists should hold the town committees accountable to their responsibility.

Furthermore, history itself thwarts his ridiculous claim. In 1782 — that is, during the American Revolution — the town’s population was 3792, across what is now Lyme, Old Lyme, East Lyme, and Salem. The citizens here did not ask to remain under royal rule because democracy would be such a hassle to pull off without a massive citizenry. And just two decades ago, there were elections for Selectmen and other boards when the population was smaller than it is now. So too throughout the 1900s. Forgive me for not indulging the theatrical concerns of Ms. Sauer and Mr. Ross, but I do not recall that Lyme was a hellscape of tribalism and vendettas during that time on account of Democrats and Republicans giving voters options to choose between.

Put simply, the apologists for a lack of elections in Lyme are not advocating idyllic “cooperation.” They are attempting to justify an anti-democratic movement that benefits the few at the expense of the diverse many. This movement is a recent phenomenon, but now actively fostered by the DTC, RTC, and current Select Board, all of whom seek to avoid accountability by avoiding democratic and competitive voting.

I want all of them to prove me wrong. And there is a very easy way to do it: Hold an election in Lyme.

Stephen Gencarella
Lyme, CT