Newtown approaches Election Day this year with a perspective on federal and state government it did not have two years ago. Hartford and Washington, DC, do not seem quite so removed from our community life this time around; our elected representatives both in Congress and the legislature have had many opportunities to come through for Newtown, and for the most part they have done so, often expending significant political capital to secure grants and to enact legislation that directly benefited this community as it worked to recover from the tragic events of 12/14. The performance of these elected officials in the crucible of tragedy has informed our choices in the 2014 election more than the pro forma campaign promises and rhetoric.
There are few times of the year when we are reminded more of the passing of time than the end of October. The astonishing beauty of the landscape is always a surprise, even though we see it every year. We get to bask in the saturated colors only briefly, since the inspiring scene comes and goes so quickly, giving way to the next season and the next. It is best to satisfy our endless appetite for Octobers by savoring it with immediate appreciation and gratitude. So it seems appropriate that a group of people working in the town’s government, its Health District, and in the Visiting Nurse Association have chosen this time of year to invite the community to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon in appreciation, and in the presence, of two astonishing and inspiring men of medicine. Both, in their long careers, have brightened the outlook of Newtown with a brilliance rivaling any October.
The Legislative Council approved the transfer of $29,000 from contingency to contractual services last month to cover cleanup costs for private property at 31 Great Hill Road. A 3,400-square-foot home there was destroyed by fire, June 24, 2011. Neighbors have complained for three years about the unsightly mess, saying it attracts vermin, wildlife, and poses a safety hazard because of an uncovered and rain-filled swimming pool on the property. Demolition was completed last week. (See story.) It would be unremarkable, except for the fact that the town bankrolled the cleanup.
Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act has been on the books for nearly 40 years. A couple of generations of public servants have been operating under its provisions. Yet after decades of illumination by the state’s Sunshine Laws, our elected and appointed representatives in government continue to wander into the shadows, where they stumble over provisions of the act that should be well known to everyone by now.
We like to think of young adulthood as a time when the world is an exciting place in which to be. But for one out of five Connecticut residents, that world is fraught with anxieties and fears as mental health issues cloud the scene. That population includes teenagers and young adults. According to TurningPointCT.org, 14.6 percent of Connecticut high school students have had serious suicidal thoughts this past year. Count Newtown’s youth in that statistic. Suicide attempts and suicide by people under the age of 25 are not just anecdotal here. They are a reality.
Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr, conducted his first Parent/Community Forum September 18 in a packed lecture hall at Newtown High School. The evening’s topic was a question brimming with engagement and hope: What must take place for your son/daughter to have their absolute best school year? Our initial response to the question was not a direct answer but a general observation: How far we have come in how we communicate with our school officials over the past three years.
The governor’s Sandy Hook Advisory Commission has heard testimony from an array of experts on school security, mental health, and gun violence prevention in the past year and a half, but none spoke more authoritatively on the impact of sudden chaos on the orderly life of a community than Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra. She addressed the panel last Friday. Commissioners sat rapt as Mrs Llodra described what it was like in the days following December 14, 2012 to keep a local government functioning in the eye of a storm of 6,000 phone calls, 200,000 pieces of mail, 65,000 teddy bears, the spontaneous proliferation of memorial funds, cash and material donations, wave after wave of relentless media, and volunteers showing up with therapy dogs, massage tables, and professional mental health services. One impressed commissioner told the first selectman, “You have set a new standard.” Mrs Llodra’s message, however, was that what Newtown went through shouldn’t be the standard.
Hartford’s response to 12/14 took two distinct paths. Ironically, the path fraught with contention and strife — a package of stricter gun laws — was chosen quickly, by a determined governor working with the advantage of legislative majorities in the state House and Senate and political tailwinds emerging from the storm of shock and sorrow following the Sandy Hook tragedy. The second path leading to an overhaul of the state’s mental health infrastructure and services for youth and children presented far fewer political obstacles, yet has been far more difficult to formulate and launch. Apparently, it is easier to restrict something than to promote something.
After months of research and analysis, a couple of Legislative Council members, who stressed they were not working as council members, recommended to the Board of Selectmen last month that the town go forward and determine “the best path” for joining a regional emergency dispatch system. In making their recommendation, Jeff Capeci and Neil Chaudhary emphasized that the town could potentially save 30 percent of the $1.03 million it now spends by consolidating Newtown’s dispatch services with the operations of a regional service in Torrington. The pair also claimed the move could improve both public safety and response times for first responders to emergency calls. And they suggested that such regional dispatch arrangements might become mandatory in the future. While they did recognize “concerns” about the move to regionalization, they saw no reason to shelve the idea at this point.
For more than 50 years, townspeople have swarmed to the center of town to watch the Newtown Labor Day Parade. Entertaining, free, and educational at times, the floats, bands, horses, dogs, music and more work an end-of-summer magic on the people that line the streets, from the top of Main Street to the judging stand on Queen Street. It is a tradition that pulls the entire town together, erasing the divisions that make people exult in their Dodgingtown, Botsford, Sandy Hook, Hawleyville, or borough residencies. For a few hours, the first Monday in September every year, we are simply residents of Newtown.