Woog's World: As Westport elections loom, questions abound

Labor Day marks the “real” beginning of election season. Before then (conventional wisdom goes), people are too distracted by summer to focus. As ballots loom, voters begin sifting through the issues and candidates, then make informed choices.

If only.

The Westport election landscape seems oddly quiet. This is a local election only — for selectmen, Board of Education, Board of Finance, Representative Town Meeting and others — which may make it seem “unimportant.”

In many ways, local elections matter at least as much as state and national ones. Decisions made in Town Hall — on taxes, transportation, zoning and schools — affect our daily lives in ways that votes in Hartford and Washington often do not.

The men and women making those decisions are our neighbors and friends. We see Jim Himes occasionally, Senators Murphy and Blumenthal rarely, and President Biden and Vice President Harris never. If we call or email, our words are filtered through layers of aides.

But we see our local officials every day. They’re in the supermarket, at sports games and school plays, pumping their gas. We call them by their first names. When we call them on the phone, and they pick up.

They’re just like you and me, with, of course, the added responsibilities of keeping our mill rate down, our school system up, our streets safe and our beaches clean. The only ones paid for any of this are our selectmen (and only the top dog draws a real salary). The rest are volunteers. We should thank them daily for their service.

Yet the fact that they are largely volunteers does not let them off the hook. If anything, it adds to their responsibility to do the right thing for themselves, their constituents and our town. Along with that comes the responsibility to let voters know where they stand on the issues, so we can make informed choices when we vote.

In that spirit, here are some questions the candidates should answer. They can address them at candidate forums, in their mailings (and the always-helpful League of Women Voters’ guide), by phone or email. If you like their answers, great. If you don’t, well, don’t vote for them. And if they sidestep, evade or provide wishy-washy responses, that says something too.

So, to the candidates for the Board of Selectmen: Where do you stand on the Cribari Bridge? Should it be torn down and rebuilt, renovated a bit, or left alone? If you favor a new bridge, what’s your plan for traffic through Saugatuck and on side roads? If you’d like to keep it low, how will we pay for the needed renovations when the state hands it over to us?

In a related vein, how would you handle our ever-increasing volume of traffic? Much of it is on state roads, but it’s our town’s mess. Can you get the Department of Transportation on board? What’s the police department’s role? Do you see traffic as a quality of life issue, or simply an unsolvable fact of life?

What’s your vision for downtown? Should we tweak it slightly, or go all in for a full reimagining? Should — or can — town officials try to influence the type or mix of retail, restaurants and more on Main Street and nearby? And what about Church Lane? Should we keep it closed, or open it up moving forward?

If you think those are controversial subjects, how about this one — affordable housing. How do we solve the state’s well-intentioned, but quite flawed, 8-30g regulation?

How do we make sure we do our part, in the face of a mandate that supersedes safety and traffic guidelines? How can we provide housing opportunities, in the face of appalling inequities, without losing that indefinable (and very squishy) “character of the town”?

How can we maintain open space and historic structures, yet meet the needs of changing demographics and an increasingly fractured housing market?

Those are just some of the issues the new first selectman or selectwoman will face. Other questions — equally complex — confront our town boards, commissions and RTM.

I don’t have the answers. If I did, I’d be solving problems, not simply writing about them. But they are questions that must be asked, and answered, if Westport is to continue to grow and flourish.

We are fortunate that so many intelligent, committed people run for office. I am sure they have thought about these issues, and many more.

As residents, we deserve to hear their views before we make our choices. As citizens of this community, it is our responsibility to weigh those answers before we vote. Finally, of course, it is our obligation to actually cast ballots. Otherwise, we have absolutely no right to complain about any decision any town official makes.

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 danwoog06880.com.