As he quickly reversed himself under political pressure, Bristol Mayor Art Ward apparently was not really asserting principle when he denied a request from the city firefighters union to let its members wear pink shirts on the job to promote a breast cancer charity. When he denied the request, the mayor noted that the shirts would conflict with department uniforms and that the city already is officially supporting other charities.
But there is still an important question of public policy here, a question increasingly avoided as charities seek to use municipal government power to help them raise money. That is, which charities are to get government patronage and how is government to choose among them? Will the choices be made according to political influence, as Bristol chose according to the political influence of the firefighters union? Or is government to treat all charities equally?
The latter policy would seem fairer, but then all charities could not be afforded the same patronage that Bristol’s fire department will give to the breast cancer charity. The firefighters are to wear the special shirts for a month, but there are thousands of charities and only 12 months to the year. Apart from political influence and political correctness, what makes the breast cancer charity superior to the others? Why should government be playing favorites?
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A municipal controversy in Salisbury has raised another important policy question. A Republican member of the Board of Selectmen, Mark Lauretano, proposed starting each meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, and the first selectman, Curtis G. Rand, a Democrat, refused.
Rand explained that he wanted to avoid issues of conscience and religion. After all, the pledge doesn’t just assert that the United States is a nation “under God”; it also asserts allegiance not to the country but to the [ITALICS] flag itself, [END ITALICS] which could be construed as idolatrous. While no one could be compelled to recite the pledge as a condition of attending board meetings, some people might feel uncomfortable making a spectacle of themselves by opting out.
But a bigger problem with the pledge is that in official settings it becomes mainly a demonstration of piety. When, for example, the pledge is recited at the start of sessions of Congress and the General Assembly, are the politicians making a free proclamation of sincere belief or are they just trying to pose before their constituents as patriotic using the sort of “vain repetitions” against which Christ warned in the Sermon on the Mount?
Elected officials should not flaunt their patriotism. Their public service is demonstration enough.
As for audiences at government meetings, they might better demonstrate patriotism simply by voting. For about 75 percent of the state’s eligible adults do not bother to vote in municipal elections, 65 percent don’t bother to vote in state elections, and 50 percent don’t bother to vote even in national elections. With half the population thus indifferent to the fate of the country, pledging allegiance to the flag in public settings is a pretty empty gesture.
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As the president of the state Board of Regents for Higher Education has just scandalized the state by sneaking through some monstrous raises for his already extravagantly paid staff, Governor Malloy and the General Assembly should stamp out secrecy everywhere in education and thereby reduce the chance of more scandals. That means repealing the exemption from freedom-of-information law that is enjoyed by the University of Connecticut Foundation.
The Associated Press reports that the UConn Foundation is making secret deals to raise money for the university’s planned new basketball training center and using a subcontractor to administer licensing and media rights. How good are these arrangements? As long as they’re secret, they can’t be evaluated, much less questioned. It’s time for UConn to come clean and give up its exemption and become a fully accountable public agency.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.