Local Government > Federal Government?

Here’s an ironic realization: One of the most interesting observations I’ve heard about town government in Westport came while I was reporting Monday on the visit of the totem of federal government, President Barack Obama, for a fundraiser at Harvey Weinstein’s house.

During an interview with Frank Costello, a Westport resident who lives a few blocks away from Harvey Weinstein’s Beachside Avenue home, our conversation eventually evolved into an analysis of local government.

“With our town government, I think we are tackling the issues of our community in a bipartisan way,” Costello said. “I think we’re coming up with some good solutions. I think local government is working better than the federal government.”

Costello’s point refers to one of the most compelling and important traits of Westport’s town government: its lack of partisan rancor. Not counting the nonpartisan Representative Town Meeting, all of the town’s elected bodies include members who are elected through the party system. But partisan gridlock is a phrase that is hardly, if ever uttered at Westport Town Hall.

Each year, Westport Republicans and Democrats collaborate to approve a municipal budget and a school budget on time, set a tax rate and make dozens of major land-use decisions. Compared to their legislative counterparts in Washington, D.C., Westport elected officials work at a prolific rate.

There are a panoply of reasons for this trend. For instance, the logistics of approving a $188 million budget for a town of approximately 26,000 people are much more manageable than forging agreement on a multi-trillion dollar spending package for the entire country. And in Westport town officials are also generally less beholden to special interests than their federal peers, given the relatively small-money scale of local political campaigns.

Westport’s elected officials have another  key advantage over their Congressional counterparts: They seem to get along much better. If the partisan standoffs between Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, often seem to resemble the squabbles you see among the Kardashians on E!, the discourse between Republican Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner and the board’s Democratic vice chairwoman, Helen Garten, would evoke the tone of Antiques Roadshow.

Kaner and Garten do not agree on everything. Neither do Republican P&Z Commissioni Chairwoman Cathy Walsh and her most senior Democratic collegue, Ron Corwin, nor do Democratic Board of Education Chairman Don O’Day and that board’s Republican vice chairman, Jim Marpe. But those officials find common ground more often than not, and when they do differ, that disagreement does not paralyze or poison the town’s legislative process.

Ironically, the comity and productivity of Westport’s town officials does not seem to encourage much interest from the town’s electorate. Turnout for town elections is substantially lower than the participation levels for federal elections. Westport had a 65 percent voter turnout rate for the 2010 Congressional election; a year later, only 37 percent showed up at the polls for the town election.

Voter turnout in Westport could push 70 percent in the Nov. 6 presidential and Congressional elections. But many of the town’s residents might discover that if they also cast a ballot in the 2013 municipal election, the candidates they elect will get much more done, albeit in far less histrionic fashion, than many of the protagonists who star on Real World: Capitol Hill.

Residents of Westport’s Green’s Farms section gathered Monday evening on New Creek Road, a few hundred yards from a fundraiser for President Barack Obama at the Beachside Avenue home of Harvey Weinstein.
From left, are: Mikaela Dedona, Sharyn Rudinger, Molly Rudinger, Michael Dedona, Ashton Dedona, Steve Rudinger, Richard Costello, Frank Costello and Lydia Costello.

Paul Schott