Members of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council voiced strong objections to a bill introduced in the Legislature to dissolve the existing council and replace it with an equivalent panel whose chairman would be appointed by the governor.
The bill would also require that all of the council’s existing members either be reappointed or replaced.
Considering the experience of the council’s current members, said chairman Jim Cameron, “there would be a tremendous learning curve for a whole new council, however well intentioned those commuter-members might be.”
In his weekly column for the latest Darien Times and other Hersam-Acorn newspapers, Cameron described receiving a threat from a state lawmaker to squelch the council:
"Shortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy," Cameron wrote, adding that he'd treated Republican governors no differently. Then came the threat:
"A Malloy confidant, a senior state senator from Fairfield County," Cameron wrote, told him, "'You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up.'" Cameron said his response at the time was "'Bring it on.'"
Cameron wrote that he views the current proposal as that threat coming to fruition.
The existing council has 15 members representing commuters who use Metro-North Railroad’s New Haven Line, its New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branches, and Shoreline East, which runs between New London and New Haven.
Meeting in Stamford’s Government Center, council members supported the bill’s proposal to expand its membership to include future commuters who will be using the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, but argued the council as it's currently configured functions well.
The proposed bill, No. 6363, calls for eliminating or reconfiguring 28 state boards and commissions committees, including the Commuter Council, as part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to “streamline" the state government.
“We don't operate at any cost to the government, and I don't think that we deserve to be ‘right-sized,’” said Cameron. “I think that we've been rather effective in our advocacy for 26 years.”
Council member John Hartwell said it was a positive that the proposed legislation calls for expanding the body’s jurisdication to include the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line.
"Whoever wrote this language sees enough value that they want to expand it statewide,” Hartwell said. "They're not looking to get rid of the council, they're looking to expand it.”
Also, Hartwell said, the legislation identifies council members as “commuter advocates,” which goes beyond the council’s existing defined function to “analyze what the railroad is doing and make it more efficient.”
A negative, Hartwell said, is that the council would lose "self governance," because council members would no longer be able to choose their chairman.
"(The legislation) says that somebody else is going to replace our chairperson, whomever we decide to choose, with someone that they decide to put in place. I think that is unacceptable. Completely unacceptable," Hartwelll said.
Council member Jeffrey Maron said the proposed reconfiguration of the council does not meet any of the governor's criteria for streamlining government. The council, Maron said, is "quite active" and is not duplicative of other boards.
Council member Rodney Chabot said it is good that the proposed reconfiguration of the council would expand its oversight to include the future New Haven-Hartford-Springfield line, but as far as changing anything else, "we've been working beatifically."
Council member Dave Hendricks said what the council's members probably cherish the most in its current form is independence and being able to maintain objectivity.
Cameron said the council needs to start an "education campaign" to let state lawmakers and its commuter constituents know what impact the proposed bill would have on how the council functions. "Then I think we should come up with an alternative.”
The meeting concluded with the council selecting a four-member sub-committee to prepare a response to the bill to be submitted to the legislature.
David Gurliacci contributed to this article.