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Out of the Woods / Make big-time political visitors pay their own way

Published 5:50 am, Wednesday, August 29, 2012
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Westport taxpayers have every right to complain about paying for the police and fire overtime costs for the exclusive private political fundraiser held at film producer Harvey Weinstein's waterfront estate on Aug. 6.

This may seem like a minor issue; it is not. It has potential national implications for presidential fat-cat fundraisers across the country this year and in the future.

Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, who has been vigilant in protecting taxpayers' money, was rebuffed by the Democratic National Committee when he asked for reimbursement for the nearly $15,000 spent by the town for Obama's private fundraising visit to Westport.

The DNC reply, signed by Amanda Howe, its chief operating officer, stated: "All such decisions, including their impact on costs incurred by federal or state or local governments, are exclusively within the control of the appropriate government officials. Should there be a question about the allocation of expenses among the cooperating authorities, we assume it should be directed to the U.S. Secret Service."

The Secret Service made it clear it would not get involved.

A sampling of Westporters' opinions on the controversy was published in this newspaper Friday. Most interviewed agreed the Town of Westport should not pay the bill, and others brought up the inconvenience of traffic jams and other inconveniences to the public that a presidential visit entails.

When I spoke to Joseloff over the weekend, he told me that he had been contacted by officials from other cities across the country who were equally concerned about shelling out taxpayers funds for fundraisers benefiting both Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Some observers may feel that an affluent town like Westport can afford to pay for such partisan gatherings, but that is not the point. There is a principle involved here -- that the costs of private campaign fundraisers should not be underwritten by local taxpayers anywhere in the U.S.

Joseloff also wrote to Weinstein seeking reimbursement from the Obama for America campaign, but the letter was returned because the Hollywood mogul apparently receives his mail in his New York City office. Nonetheless, Joseloff should be commended for his low-key but dogged determination to recoup the money. And it may not be over yet.

Maybe some high profile Democrats in Westport should contact the DNC to find another way (maybe a Democratic Political Action Committee) to return the funds to Westport's treasury.

Wouldn't that be a brilliant public relations gesture for the Obama team's image of a man who cares about individual taxpayers? That also could set off a chain reaction across the country in this era of Big Money in politics.

I should mention that when President Bill Clinton visited Westport three times in the 1990s -- also to raise money for campaigns -- the town then paid the bill for overtime for cops and firemen. That did not make it right. It's just that now, in times of recession, townspeople are much more aware of how their tax dollars are being spent.

One Westporter, Charlie Kniffin, summed up the issue best when he said: "I think it's ridiculous. The money means a lot more to the town that it does to the DNC."

Where do we go from here?

Another resident interviewed in the Westport News survey said: "There should be a follow through on the political side, and not leave the town to pay for it. Money doesn't fall from trees, after all."

As others have pointed out, $15,000 is a drop in the bucket for the campaign, considering that tickets to the event sold at $35,800 apiece

Some Democratic or Republican candidate for Congress should grab this issue now and run with it. That would be an act of rare political courage. Do I have any takers?

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at wklein11@aol.com