Torches for Sale

A government, any government, will do exactly as much or as little as its people allow. Angry citizens who blame the government for its dysfunctional behavior, for its inability to work together for the benefit of the Greater Good, for its unwillingness to compromise, are really only blaming themselves. A government is only an extension of the people, and not lord and master over the people.

The government, after all, is us. If government cannot get along, it is because we cannot get along. If the government has become derailed by ideologues who view compromise as weakness and who demonize their political adversaries into the proverbial “Other,” it is because we, too, have forgotten how to play well together.

In our society, we have at our disposal many and varied ways in which to affect our government. Every few years, we have something called ‘elections.’ In the intervening years, constituents can make their voices heard at meetings, or by simply picking up the phone and calling their elected representative. Provided a team of lobbyists in Armani suits hasn’t gotten there first, this is one’s best avenue of letting your representative know how you feel.

Failing that, there are always the pitchforks and the torches, and those have recently been selling faster in Fairfield County than at a Transylvania roadside stand. But lately, if attendance at recent town hall meetings is any indicator, those torches have begun to flicker and the focus of concerned citizens appears to have wandered as The Lawyers have landed.

In a county of just under 16,000 registered voters, 29 concerned citizens does not a movement make. Which is unfortunate, because there is, by all accounts, plenty to be moved in Fairfield County.

In only a few short months, already there has been considerable movement on the County government front, away from long-standing, often questionable and controversial practices to more above-board and commonly accepted ones. And whether the credit should go to County Council itself, to the County’s interim Administrator, to the voracious public pressure brought to bear against Council by the group calling itself “Saving Fairfield” or to some combination of the three, is not important. What is important is that, since July, the County has parted ways with an Administrator, ceased paying out $475 a month to three Council members in lieu of supplemental health insurance, ceased reimbursing another Council member for college tuition, has amended the way it credits Local Option Sales Tax money, has put its check register on line and has amended its policy of paying Council members $795 a month in un-receipted expenses. Council has also shown itself to be more responsive to questions from the public, whether or not the public has been actually satisfied with those answers.

Would any of this have happened without the public shaking their angry fists in the air and filling Council’s chambers to overflow at meeting after meeting? Probably not. Will any of these changes have long-lasting ramifications on how the County conducts business in the future if public interest continues to ebb from initial town hall meetings of nearly 200 people, to last month’s attendance of less than 90 to Monday night’s anemic turnout of 29? Definitely not.

More people need to stay more focused if they are truly going to have an impact on Fairfield County’s future. Pursuing legal action against Council members in an effort to recoup moneys paid out to them in lieu of supplemental health insurance premiums, meanwhile, may not be the best use of the public’s time and resources. In all reality, unpleasant as it is, the public is likely to spend many times more in legal fees and court costs than they could ever hope to get back from Council members. Even if they win. And the odds on that are even, at best. Although sued as individuals, they are being sued for actions committed while serving on Council, and will therefore likely have access to County attorneys in their defense. Which means taxpayers will ultimately be suing themselves.

Fairfield County has proven itself again and again to be one of the more litigious backwaters in our savagely litigious society. In the last 20 years, probably everyone in Fairfield County has sued everyone else for one thing or another. And to what end?

The Fairfield County School District is in the early stages of what appears to be a downright renaissance, and they got there not because someone filed a lawsuit, but because the public elected new leadership at the Board level. The desire to hold these Council members responsible for their actions is understandable, even commendable. But perhaps the ballot box, and not the jury box, is the best, most effective place to do so. In the meantime, resources otherwise spent on a shaky lawsuit could be used to field and fund a slate of fresh candidates in time for the next election.