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Woog's World / So you think you want to be first selectman? Read on ...

Published 7:21 am, Monday, January 28, 2013
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Who would want to be first selectman of Westport?

Plenty of people.

We've never lacked for candidates. They come from varied backgrounds: longtime natives, sons of Saugatuck, IBMers, League of Women Voters activists, small business owners, apple growers (that was a long time ago).

The men and -- since the 1970s -- women who run for first selectman are an eclectic lot. Some jump into the race because they want Westport's government to do more. Some want it to do less. Some run because of a general sense that -- at that particular moment in time -- they can do better than the current incumbent. Others run because of a single issue, which may or may not also galvanize a majority of voters.

One reason Westporters do not run for first selectman is money. The pay is good, but being our town's first selectman will not vault you into the 1 percent. It won't even put you near what the average Westporter earns.

Another reason Westporters do not run is the perks. The actual office is austere. The housing allowance doesn't exist. You drive yourself around.

Folks don't run for first selectman because of the excitement, either. Budgets, public safety, ribbon cuttings -- those are the day-do-day duties of the job.

And no one has ever run for the position because of the thanks. As first selectman, you're a magnet for criticism. If there's a problem with sewers, traffic lights, street paving or any other civic responsibility, the first selectman hears about it.

He or she hears about CL&P issues, school problems, zoning battles -- and thousands of others too -- even though, as Westporters may or may not realize, they are out of the first selectman's hands.

But run they do. And Westport is a better town for them.

Gordon Joseloff is the latest in a long line of locals who decided -- no doubt after much soul-searching, and perhaps against their own better judgment -- that they had something to give this place.

A talent for number-crunching. A passion for public service. A vision for Westport. Tremendous energy.

Whatever it is, Gordon Joseloff joined a select group seven years ago when he was elected first selectman. Four years later he was re-elected. A ways before that, the term was two years. I can't imagine what a burden that must have been, on office-seekers and office-holders.

When his eight years are up this fall, Westport will have a new first selectman. The tone of the office may shift a bit -- every leader has his or her own priorities and style -- but the town won't be radically different. That's one of the truths of a local government like ours. First selectmen can suggest, cajole and influence -- but they cannot command, or demand, change.

Those of us who grew up here sometimes take our form of government for granted. To the rest of the country, it's quaint. We don't have a mayor, with all the power that implies, or a town manager, the way so many towns now do.

We have a "first selectman." (And second and third selectmen too.) We also have a "Representative Town Meeting," which is only one step removed, quaintly speaking, from a regular-old town meeting.

RTM members spend long hours debating local issues. Some of the stuff is mundane. Some of it is meaningful. Members vote on municipal and education budgets. They authorize contracts. They have the final say on transportation, police, fire and many other matters.

The RTM has, in the past, bought Longshore (saving it from become a housing subdivision. (And they did it in a mind-boggling two weeks, from start to finish). They bought Cockenoe Island, saving it from becoming a nuclear power plant. (The mind simply boggles.)

Occasionally the RTM ventures forth into national debates. In the Vietnam era, members passed an anti-war resolution. In the Sandy Hook era, they urged action on gun control.

The 36 men and women who serve as RTM members do it for far less pay than the first selectman. In fact, they serve for free. They spend countless hours in public meetings, in committee and sub-committee meetings, and listening to their constituents. It's a thankless task, as proven by the number of times any of us have thanked any of them.

So, too, for the members of our boards: Finance; Education; Planning and Zoning; Zoning Appeals and the rest. Like our first selectmen and RTM representatives, their reasons for running vary widely.

But run they do. And when they win, they serve. And they serve us well.

So -- at a time of rampant cynicism about our governments in Washington and Hartford -- let's look realistically at what we've got in Westport.

Thanks to all who represent us -- whether we always, sometimes or never agree. Particularly, after two terms, thanks to our first selectman, Gordon Joseloff.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.