Fences to Mend

One can only imagine that there have been better times to be a member of Fairfield County Council, historically speaking. An alleged pornography scandal within the former County Administrator’s office, the true nature and severity of which is still shrouded in an official SLED investigation, was bad enough to send that Administrator packing and to set off a virtual chain reaction of questions about how this county has been governed for the last two decades or more. Fairfield County, it seems, is suddenly coming unraveled like a mummy caught on a doornail. Some clear and deliberate actions are necessary, therefore, if our Council is to repair those torn bandages, right their ship and at least attempt to make amends with their constituents.

Step one is already accomplished – hiring an experienced interim with a sterling reputation to fill the Administrator’s role, if only temporarily. There can be no doubt that the recently hired consultant has his work cut out for him, but there is even less doubt in his ability to be successful – provided Council endows him with their full faith.

Step two, meanwhile, may prove somewhat more difficult.

In light of a recent Attorney General’s opinion that tuition assistance and supplemental insurance premiums were unlawful for Council members to accept, those Council members who did receive those payments should give serious consideration to paying that money back to the general fund. The Chairman told us just last week that those payments have ceased, and that’s good. But it is not quite good enough for a public increasingly frustrated at what they see as Big Government wallowing in the trough of excess.

To categorize these payments as sneaky, clandestine transactions would be unfair. These were not rumpled paper sacks of unmarked bills changing hands in dimly lit back alleys. These transactions were all done in the open, in the light of day, and, according to the Chairman, under the assumption that the policy had been thoroughly vetted by the administration and that the payments were perfectly legal. It just so happens that they were not, and now that that fact has risen to the surface, the only proper thing to do is to reimburse the taxpayers. It will not be painless, for we are not talking about only a little money. The insurance premiums for the three members are estimated to have run about $23,000 each over the years, give or take a few dollars. One of those members was also the recipient of more than $26,000 in tuition assistance, bringing his total to around $50,000. While it would be unreasonable to expect any one of them to simply draw up a check on the spot, perhaps some portion of their Council salary could be garnished to balance the books. The gesture would no doubt go a long way toward repairing their public image.

Council also has to get some sort of grip on their recreation conundrum. The debate and subsequent votes on the matter has, in recent weeks, reached the level of public embarrassment, with one Council member actually walking out of a meeting on the subject last week. The Councilwoman from District 2 correctly, we believe, summed up the situation at that same meeting when she said ‘The worst thing this Council has done this year, when it comes to spending money, was to vote for that bond issue that included $500,000 for each district to spend on recreation.’ The fuse on the recreation bomb was indeed lit in March when Council passed that bond issue with the impression that the money could be used by each Council member for their district as they saw fit. Until the Councilman from District 4 decided to use his. At that point, the goal posts moved. But believe it or not, there is a four-letter solution to the County’s recreation debacle out there as well.

Sources indicate that, among other things, it is “fun to stay” there.

If memory serves, the notion that a YMCA would be a great fit for Fairfield was floated before the public during MaryGail Douglas’s run for the District 7 Council seat three years ago. Last summer, Dr. Morgan Bruce Reeves, the failed candidate for State Senate, raised the idea once more during a June 2012 County Council meeting. But in each case the proposal was less of a plan and more of a dream, one that predated the ‘Worst thing ever’ bond issue and, in Reeves’s proposal, relied instead on funding from a 1 cent sales tax. The $3.5 million in recreation funds from the bond has changed all that, and Douglas, now our District 41 State House Representative, is bringing the Y to the forefront once more (see accompanying guest editorial). Douglas and Dr. Reeves, it would seem, were only just slightly ahead of their time, for the idea today sounds like the most promising route for the County to at least explore. The YMCA could potentially give the County the biggest return for their investment, serving more people more efficiently.

At the very least, it could give Council one less thing to worry about right now. Lord knows, as they dig into how they managed five years’ of Local Option Sales Tax funds, they could use the relief.