Editorial / You can't serve if you don't show up
In 2007 and 2008, a U.S. Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama missed nearly half of the Senate's votes -- 46 percent of them. That wasn't as bad as his Arizona colleague John McCain, who missed nearly two-thirds of them -- 64 percent.
Few of us need to be reminded where those two lawmakers were much of the time in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election -- anywhere except under the Capitol dome.
But last we checked, no members of Fairfield's town legislature were on the ballot for president in any state.
When it comes to elective office in Fairfield, serving your neighbors on the Representative Town meeting can be one of the least glamorous positions in politics. Meetings are long, sometimes tedious, and members work in relative obscurity. Yet their votes are critical as checks against the town's administrators and some smaller, very influential boards.
And part of the job is to help resolve your own neighborhood's problems at the pothole level.
But why campaign for one of the RTM's 50 seats when, if elected, you cheat your constituents by failing to show up for meetings?
Attendance by some representatives has been abysmal.
Residents in District 4 -- almost smack in the geographic center of the town -- have gotten the poorest representation in town this year. As a group, members of the District 4 delegation this year have missed half the town legislature's 13 meetings. They've had a total of 32 absences in a collective 65 chances to show up.
Attendance among representatives of District 10 -- the southeast part of town -- has not been sterling either. They've had a total of 25 absences -- a 62 percent collective attendance rate.
Granted, RTM members get no pay. But how long would your boss keep you on the payroll if you only showed up to work three days a week?
In poorly represented District 4, Republican Richard Parker had the worst attendance, missing 11 meetings -- 85 percent of them. He was followed closely by his daughter, Stephanie Parker, who missed 10 meetings -- 77 percent.
The Parkers provided a valuable service to their constituents in not running for re-election this month.
Ironically, one District 4 member, Republican Joseph Palmer, had perfect attendance. So in that sense, one could say District 4 got both the best and worst from its representatives. Palmer noted that absence can be critical when RTM decisions come down to just one vote -- or even two.
A prime example is last spring's RTM vote to cut the school budget. The RTM approved an $800,000 cut in the school spending plan by a scant two votes at a meeting packed with an overflow crowd.
The closeness of that vote prompted school spending advocates to petition for and get a referendum seeking to restore the cut. Voter turnout at the polls was paltry and the initiative failed to get enough votes. But the election cost the town $17,000 to conduct.
A seat on the RTM can be a springboard to higher office. First Selectman Mike Tetreau was an RTM member before winning election to the Board of Finance, then winning the town's top job. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, elected a selectman this month, served in the RTM and was minority leader this year.
But they paid their dues by doing the footwork at democracy's ground level, and they and a handful of others are the exception to the largely anonymous role of the RTM member.
One contributing factor to low attendance is that finding someone to run for the office sometimes is difficult. In neighboring Westport, the RTM is nonpartisan -- candidates run as plain folks, not with a party affiliation.
But with Fairfield's partisan RTM divided between Democrats and Republicans, party leaders are loath to lose a seat, so some arm-twisting goes on just to get a warm body on the ballot. Someone who's reluctant in the first place is unlikely to suddenly be infused with civic responsibility if elected.
A representative can have a legitimate -- even life-threatening -- reason for not attending a meeting. And those absences must be excused.
But in the case of extended serious illness, a consistent schedule conflict -- or just plain apathy -- a representative could best serve his or her neighbors by stepping aside and letting somebody else do the job.