Susan Bigelow

On Monday, Gov. Lamont announced a change that people in some very specific circles and occupations have known was coming for a while but might catch everyone else in the state by surprise. The Census Bureau has officially switched from using Connecticut’s venerable but defunct counties to using the nine planning regions, represented by regional councils of governments, as “county equivalent geographic units,” which is what is used to gather, tabulate, and disseminate census information. 

This is something that is likely to produce head-scratching and shrugs all over the state. Why, exactly, did this happen? What is a regional council of governments (or COG), anyway? Which one am I in? 

And, most importantly: does it matter?

The change, which was instigated by Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management, is designed to make the kinds of data produced by the census more relevant for real-world planning and analysis. The eight “legacy” counties, Litchfield, Hartford, Tolland, Windham, New London, Middlesex, New Haven, and Fairfield, have a certain amount of historical significance but have not had any political power since 1960. The last vestige of county government, the old sheriff system, was voted into oblivion in 2000. Connecticut is the only state in the union where counties are nothing more than lines on a map.

This can make going elsewhere very strange! In other states, we Nutmeggers may have to contend with foreign concepts like “county commissioners,” “county seats,” and “unincorporated land.” It took me years to wrap my head around that last one. Land that isn’t part of a town? Are you sure that’s allowed?

But, as counties themselves became obsolete here, the need for coordination and cooperation between towns with common interests grew. There have been regional planning agencies (RPAs) of one sort or another since the 1950s, but these became more formal in the 1960s. Councils of governments, which were meetings of all of the head elected officials of each member town, were formed in the 1970s–originally as strictly voluntary organizations. Sometimes the COG and the RPA overlapped, while sometimes a region would have only a planning agency and not a council. Some towns opted out of regional planning and COGs altogether. There were as many as fifteen different regions of varying sizes at different points in time.

In the 2010s, though, the state streamlined and formalized the structure of these planning agencies. Each RPA would now be represented by a COG, and they were consolidated down into nine regions. 

At first glance, the regions can seem very lopsided. The Capitol region, which includes the city of Hartford itself, the capital’s inner-ring suburbs, the semi-rural towns east of the river, the Farmington Valley, and even the college town of Mansfield, is by far the largest in terms of sheer size and population. Almost a million people live in this region of 39 towns. The neighboring Northeastern region, by contrast, has about a tenth of the population spread out over 16 towns. The Metropolitan region, which is basically just Bridgeport and a few surrounding towns, is the smallest geographically.

There are some odd outliers. Bristol, for instance, is grouped into the Naugatuck Valley region instead of the Capitol region. Windham, which seems to have more in common with its Quiet Corner neighbors than the towns to its southeast, is grouped with the Southeastern region. 

It’s also sometimes difficult to see how towns in some of the larger regions are connected with one another. The sprawling Capitol region is a good example; does Hartford really have the kind of gravitational pull to justify this massive region made up of such disparate towns? Does the fact that the COGs are put together by state agencies in Hartford create a kind of Hartford-centric bias? 

Hartford’s not the only region with very different towns in it. What does Sherman or New Milford have in common with Greenwich or Stamford, for example? They’re all in the Western region, but why? And why does the tiny Metropolitan region exist at all? It makes Bridgeport seem less like the largest city in the state and more like an inward-looking fief. 

A lot of it, ironically, has to do with history. Towns joined local planning agencies in the 1950s and 60s, which morphed, grew, merged, and separated over time. When everything was consolidated in the 2010s, the new regions were in large part based on the regions that already existed. 

So on the one hand, the COGs are useful groupings of towns with common interests; but on the other hand, they’re also somewhat arbitrary and weighed down with history, just like the old counties.

Hopefully, though, this shift away from using counties and towards using the COGs for statistical purposes will be a net positive. Perhaps, once the new numbers start coming out of the census, they will help us to understand ourselves better.

Just don’t expect people to have any clue what COG they’re in.

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Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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