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Woog's World: Westport a sanctuary (mostly) from political dysfunction

Updated 10:54 am, Monday, October 14, 2013
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I write "Woog's World" several days before it appears online and (how quaint) in print. So by the time you read this, the theater of the absurd that we call the United States House of Representatives may finally have come to their senses and decided that actually governing -- as opposed to pontificating and stamping their collective feet, screeching at the top of their lungs and saying, "Waaah, waaah, we don't like Obamacare so we're going to pretend that it's not constitutional, even though it is, and shut the government and wreck the economy and blame it all on everyone else" -- is what they were elected, and are paid, to do.

Or not.

It has become a cliche to say that Washington is dysfunctional. It is a sad fact that polls show Americans like Congress less (or dislike Congress more) than Al Qaida, IRS audits and colonoscopies. Combined.

It also says something -- and something good -- about Connecticut that we continually elect good guys (and gals) to the House of Representatives. That's particularly true of our own 4th District. From Don Irwin and Stewart McKinney to Chris Shays and Jim Himes, our congressmen have been smart, reasonable, articulate people. Republicans and Democrats alike, they have worked hard for what is best for our district, our state and our nation.

This didn't just happen. It says something positive about all of us that Connecticut does not have gerrymandered districts. That our political atmosphere is not so polarized that candidates run on the fringes, with the looniest on either side getting all the attention and just enough votes to win. That we value compromise, and understand that -- in the words of the great political observer Bob Dylan -- "the loser now will be later to win." Just as the winner now has certain rights, and many responsibilities.

Westport too has been blessed with a certain degree of political calmness lately. Sure, there are occasional spats at occasional meetings. But our town boards -- including the big ones, like education and finance -- have shown an impressive ability to work together. Members talk among themselves, making sure little problems don't blow up into big ones. They listen to their constituents, but are not swayed by the loud voices of a few. They take their advise and consent roles seriously. The result is (go figure) a government that works.

(Planning and Zoning is a bit more contentious. This November's election may be a referendum on that.)

It was not always thus. For a while back in the 1960s and '70s, Westport's Board of Education courted controversy at virtually every meeting. Members squared off over curriculums, staffing and school closings. But those were mere skirmishes compared to the bloody battles over budgets and (believe it or not) integration. Most memorable was the effort to recall Board of Education Chairman Joan Schine over (among other things) her advocacy of Project Concern, a statewide program to bring children from inner-city Bridgeport into Westport schools.

The animus spread from education to the overall town budget. Every spring, it seemed, the town was riven between "taxpayers" screaming that the proposed budget would drive them out of Westport, and "concerned citizens" screaming that cutting one penny from one program would devastate the town for the next many millennia.

Westporters still man those ramparts, of course. There are genuine concerns about taxes, and equally genuine concerns about the level of services the town provides. But the tone of discourse is far more civil these days. Neighbors do not not speak to neighbors based on letters to the editor. None of us think someone else is out to destroy Westport As We Know It.

The Representative Town Meeting is nonpartisan. It has not been rocked by warring party factions, as other town boards have. Still, as the final arbiter of town budgets, RTM members feel pressure from all sides. It is a testament to that body -- and our peculiar system of government -- that they have done their job so diligently and so well, for so long.

Interestingly, all the bodies I've mentioned -- boards, commissions, the RTM -- are volunteer. No one is paid for serving. On the contrary, the time demands -- running for office; studying the issues; going to meetings; answering phone calls and emails from constituents, fellow board members and other town officials -- are enormous. While the rest of us watch "Breaking Bad" or play Words With Friends, our fellow Westporters do the dirty work that enables us to relax.

Think about that. The men and women who volunteer their time and energy to govern us accomplish far more than the professional politicians we elect, pay -- and provide ji-normous staffs for -- in Washington.

Perhaps if our U.S. reps did not get paid during the shutdown, they'd govern too.

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.