Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “This election is the most important in our lifetimes, and we all must go to the polls to restore the soul of America, democracy, and possibly decide the fate of cheeseburgers and apple pie”. Advocates, politicians, and opinion writers revel in declaring the monumental importance of voting at this time of year.
However, I assure you this column is not about the fate of our country. But the Connecticut municipal election today is still really important, especially because much of what is wrong in our state can be fixed at the local level.
Connecticut’s cities and towns have essentially four jobs: education, public safety, housing policy, and development. They have a lot of leeway in how they handle these responsibilities. How they pay for each of these services varies considerably from one town to another, with the state government covering close to half the budget in some less affluent municipalities. State laws set standards and some requirements for each of these areas, but the actual implementation, the part where things get done on the ground, is all local.
As a result, today you are voting on how schools in your town will spend their money and how children will learn. You are deciding what the police department’s priorities and responsibilities will be, and whether your town will view public safety purely as a law enforcement issue or as an opportunity for investing in people and our neighborhoods, with other agencies working alongside police officers to respond to mental health and other crises. Last but not least, your vote determines what can and cannot be built in your town, who can live there, and whether Connecticut can grow its economy at all.
There is one responsibility that all local governments have that does not involve spending, budgets, or funding, but that really shapes our state: zoning. Towns have the power to decide what can be built and where, and they have immense authority in deciding what any given plot of land can actually be used for.
In economic terms, this means that your local government has a strong say on the supply of office space, commercial buildings, or housing. Businesses, retail chains, or people might want to move to the town to build something, whether it’s a software startup, a grocery store, a warehouse, or a new house. It is your town, your local elected officials, who will decide if they can do it, using the zoning code. If you have ever wondered why there is no affordable housing near you, or why office space is so expensive, or why there are no grocery stores or waterfront coffee shops, or walkable neighborhoods that mix housing, retail, and office space, the local zoning laws should be the first place you look. With all the recent talk about people moving to Connecticut and the insufficient housing to accommodate them, it is the cities and towns that decide whether it will be built or not.
Above all, it is your town that decides the shape of the place you live. Towns determine where roads are laid out, their appearance, and where essential facilities are located, from schools to parks, from bike lanes to sidewalks. They decide whether to promote strip malls with acres of parking or walkable shopping districts. They determine whether local streets and roads are four-lane boulevards designed to move as many cars as possible, or slower, gentler roads with room for bikes and bus lanes. They even set how many parking spaces any new building needs, influencing whether that new apartment complex or shopping area will be attached to a giant garage or just have a few spots for cars.
More importantly, many of these decisions are set in stone, often for decades, as roads, sewers, utilities, and buildings tend to stay in place for a very long time. The deeply damaging, ill-conceived urban highways we discussed a couple of weeks ago, once built, become incredibly hard to remove. Congress or the Connecticut legislature can pass ill-advised laws from time to time, but those can be easily reversed by another vote. Deciding whether to place a new high school in the center or on the edge of town, whether to prioritize garages or buildings near a train station, or whether to allow two- or four-story buildings on Main Street might seem like minor decisions in isolation, but they stick around for generations.
In other words, your vote today might not save democracy in America or beat back the forces of darkness, but it matters immensely for the future look and feel of your city or town. It will also play a huge role in the affordability of housing in our state, the segregation of our schools, access to opportunity, economic growth, our carbon footprint, and transportation costs, among other things.
So yeah, get out and vote today. It’s a bigger deal than you might think.