The Taxman Winneth

Generic city hall council chambers - nicer than ours, I think

For an hour or so last night, I got to see democracy in action – or more accurately, republicanism in action. The elected representatives in my beloved new home, West Haven, met to discuss what has become a contentious issue in town: Should the current tax collector’s position move from being largely ceremonial, with a salary of $7,600, to a full-time position with a salary over $50,000.

As in everything political here, Democratic Party infighting infused the debate. The current collector, an elected official,  is a partisan of the faction loosely tied to the old mayor and united in its opposition to the current one, John Picard. Not surprisingly, Picard and his supporters opposed the creation of a full-time slot and called for a professional tax manager to run the office, as the council had approved more than two years ago. Since then, however, the tax collector and Picard could not agree on a candidate or even who had the ultimate power to fill the manager’s position.

I know, this all sounds a little trivial, and surely irrelevant to anyone outside of West Haven. Hell, a lot of people who do live here probably don’t care, as long as the taxes are collected and nobody screws up their payments. But that was a large part of the debate: The incumbent collector had not rectified past problems in the office, and some people at the meeting suggested things had gotten worse.

NOT our tax collector, and NOT a medical courier

I was fascinated as the evening unfolded. A few citizens and council members spoke eloquently. Others talked like they were getting ready to turn a boozy bar-room argument into an out-and-out brawl, perhaps highlighted by the woman who called the tax collector an idiot. In his defense, the gent said he was a “go-to guy” during his 32 years at Sears, and a “pit bull” when given a task. Commendable, and perhaps proof he is not an idiot, but also maybe not an argument that he is qualified for the full-time position, as the Picard partisans repeatedly denied.

(Fran, the tax man, also took umbrage at newspaper reports that called him a “medical courier.” He is an independent subcontractor, he asserted, a businessman. Whose business happens to be shuttling around medical reports and test samples. You know, kinda like a medical courier does… I also loved it when one council member asked if he was prepared to work full-time hours for his proposed full-time salary, as opposed to, say, conducting his like-a-medical-courier-yet-not business. Absolutely, he said, and I was ready for him to punctuate it with “Cross my heart and hope to die.”)

Along with the name-calling, there were multiple rude comments from the audience, some sotto voce, some less sotto. Two council members seemed to impugn each other’s character a bit, and one guy burst into a singing birthday greeting to another council member. At one point, I wrote in my notes, “Is this Mayberry?” and I wondered if all local government is reduced to these moments of tomfoolery, or if my new hometown is unique.

The other thing that hit me: The bad blood and backbiting were between members of the same party! It’s no wonder the ideological divide in Washington between conservatives and those-who-are-not-conservatives leads to the dirty politics and gridlock we’ve seen the last 15 years. Then again, maybe the familiarity found in what is basically a small town, no matter what the Census figures say, breeds its own kind of political contempt.

I vowed, before the big move back East, to get involved in local politics wherever we ended up. Maybe even run for office. I think last night soured me pretty well on the latter. Even without the acrimony, there is this fact, brought up last night: After doing a day job, local elected officials put in long hours to keep the town running, with only a meager stipend to compensate them for their time. They obviously are not in it for the money. But the local intraparty bickering shows some of them are in it for the power, real or perceived, and at times the chance to reward their friends. (Though some of the council members who supported the tax collector said cronyism had nothing to do with their votes. Most, however, said nothing.)

So, did republican democracy work? Hard to say. During the time I was there, everyone who spoke opposed making the position full time. The final vote was 7-6 in favor of making it full time. But some of the council members’ arguments for that stance were stronger than I had thought going in, when I had largely taken the Picard faction’s position. So, mob rule was thwarted, perhaps for the good. Our representatives, at times, do look at a bigger picture we might not see. Or else the anti-Picard forces just had the simple advantage of numbers, as they will again when the new council is sworn in next week.

I might go to future meetings, just to see if last night’s was an aberration. I hope so. Of course, the average citizen is not privy to what goes on in the back rooms, where it seems – at least here – many deals are made. Maybe the public comments are just a formality (one almost undermined last night by a last-minute switch in the starting time from 6 pm to 5). Even so, I will be less inclined to bad-mouth local pols, as I have in the past, unless they do really stupid/harmful things. Most of them do seem to care about the town. Some of them might be in over their head, but at least they’re trying. You might want to go to a meeting where you live some time, just to see your officials in action. Or run for office yourself, if you think you can do a better job. But please, keep it civil out there, willya?

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~ by mburgan on December 3, 2009.

2 Responses to “The Taxman Winneth”

  1. And herein lies the dilemma: If you don’t participate, you can’t change things. However, why would you want to spend the limited time on earth with people who are back stabbers?

  2. or simply self-serving, small-minded, or going through the motions? The body language and lack of participation by some of the council members suggested they would rather be anywhere else…

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