To the editor
Westport’s recent “woes” over whether to make a town position elected or appointed are all in vain and show that town is missing the larger point.
All one needs to do is look at current headlines and lose track of which of our elected officials are alleged thieves, and which are alleged drunk drivers. Does anyone expect that if the select board appoints a town official, that the board will make a better selection than voters? (That is, the same set of voters that put the select board in place!)
If anything, this will just lead to a multiplier effect of bad decisions: Voters send in mediocre selectmen, they make mediocre appointments. This is easy to see right now: most town committees are filled by local retirees, not people with any sort of relevant expertise. There was an exception — the sidewalk advocates. And in the end they were treated terribly. Some grand solution over “appointed” vs. “elected” is much ado about nothing. The real problem is the voters!
A common explanation/complaint is that the “same few hundred people” always go to town meeting. Elections are a popularity contest amongst the “good old boys,” Highly-qualified “newcomer” candidates never win. This is part of the problem, and perhaps structural if there is no way to vote by absentee ballot in the town meeting format.
But an even deeper problem that compounds this is that a good chunk of Westporters who should be voting are not. Why? Because they are too busy working — in Boston, Hartford, New York, etc. Call them summer folks, call them “skukes,” whatever — these nonresident property owners foot more than their fair share of the town’s bills. Yet they have no say in how their tax dollars are spent.
An irony here is that the longtime locals deride the nonresident owners of multimillion dollar properties that keep the tax base nice and fat. Without waterfront assets, Westport would rank somewhere around Dighton or Berkley in terms of any type of value or significance — another backwoods for apple picking or buying firewood. Waterfront properties pay the lion’s share of the taxes, and their owners (many seasonal, who don’t even use town resources such as the school system) are basically subsidizing the year-round residents. The “locals” accuse the “skukes” of a variety of things. We should instead be thanking them for a subsidy check! Without out-of-state owners to shoulder the tax burden, what would the tax rate be? Dighton and Berkley have tax rates 25-30 percent higher than Westport.
Yet nonresident property owners do not vote in town elections — apparently it was turnip season when “no taxation without representation” was being shouted back in the 1760s. Should people who have the biggest stake in town be denied the right to vote? It seems crazy, but this is changing. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “Nonresident voting has continued to attract election law interest as the seasonal homeowner population grows — drawing more attention to property taxes. In some communities in Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Wisconsin, seasonal residents, with support from apartment owners and businesses, have launched taxpayer associations to protest perceived property tax inequities.”
In Westport, allowing nonresident property owners (or, as some prefer, “skukes”) to vote might just be the best thing for us. If they can afford big houses on the water, they must be doing something right. Or, at least bring sense enough to the voting pool such that qualified people are elected over accused criminals.