Guest Essayist: J. Eric Wise

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According to Aristotle, “the first society to be formed is the village. And the most natural form of the village appears to be that of a colony from the family…” The town of my childhood, Detroit, was a colony founded by the French in 1701. One of my forebears by the name of Parent was among the first of 40 families to settle there in 1707. My grandmother, Blanche Parent Wise, was also the first – and last – Republican woman to sit on the Detroit city council from 1952 to 1960. Greenwich, Connecticut, where I live today, began as a colony founded in 1640 by a group of Englishmen that included daughter-in-law of John Winthrop, the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and author of the famous “city on a hill” sermon.

While the Town of Greenwich, population 61,000, is old, its modern charter arrived in 1975. The charter is filled with provisions for budgets, elections, flood control, health, home rule, ordinances, parks and recreation, zoning, parking, public works, sewers, a board of estimation and taxes, a town council, selectmen (think mayors and deputy mayors), and a town clerk. 

As this litany of charter provisions shows, a town or city touches almost every aspect of the daily life of its people. Whether you are driving on a road, visiting a park, waving to a policeman directing traffic, taking in the bustle of your local commercial district, or simply parking your car, you are working with your city government and your city government is working for you.

A city government is always busy making a great many households into one community, into its own little “city on a hill” as John Winthrop would have said. A city government not only must do all these things – imagine a world without police or firemen, or in the case of Greenwich, public beaches! – it must also pay for them.

Thus the first article of the charter of the Town of Greenwich provides for the Board of Estimate and Taxation (or BET), which is responsible for the “proper administration for the financial affairs of the town.” The BET consists of 12 members elected at large, who serve without pay for a term of two years. The Town of Greenwich may not borrow without the approval of the BET.

The AAA rated Town of Greenwich has a highly successful financial record. The Town of Greenwich 2019-2020 Budget reflects operating costs of $389,620,369 (about $6,400 per capita), authorized general debt of $39,981,000 and authorized sewer debt of $7,250,000 (altogether about $800 per capita). The debt represents general obligations of the Town of Greenwich backed by its “full faith and credit.” This means the Town of Greenwich has made a commitment to use its future taxing power to pay for bonds issued to meet current expenditures.

In the Town of Greenwich, executive power is held by the First Selectman. All administrative functions – police, fire, highways, sewers and other public works, building inspection, parks, recreation, law, human resources, parking services, fleet management, information technology and purchasing for such purposes, fall under the direct supervision and control of the First Selectman. A Board of Selectmen consisting of the First Selectman and two other Selectmen appoints the various heads of department on the recommendation of the First Selectman.

But there are important duties of a First Selectman that are not found in the charter. Fred Camillo, a Republican candidate for First Selectman in the Town of Greenwich, when asked about the responsibilities of a First Selectman, said “The First Selectman is the voice and face of the town, and is the person who sees to it that the public welfare is protected, its finances secure, with its future road map charted.”

Camillo, who currently represents the 151st District of Connecticut in the Capitol in Hartford, added, “The First Selectman also has to keep an eye on Hartford, and have a solid working relationship with the governor and a good rapport with the various state departments and agencies as well as legislature.”

In addition to an executive, the Town of Greenwich has a deliberative body called the Representative Town Meeting, or RTM for short. Like a city council, the RTM exercises the ordinance making powers on behalf of the people of Greenwich. A highly democratic body, the RTM consists of over 200 members, and meets regularly to conduct town business.

In addition to the First Selectman and the Board of Estimate and Taxation, the Town of Greenwich elects two Selectmen, five members of the Board of Tax Review, a Tax Collector, seven Constables.

Not to be forgotten are the volunteers. According to Camillo, “Volunteers are extremely important. They reduce the tax burden and foster a spirit of pride, which is very helpful.  Greenwich is unique in that people take their civic duty seriously. In fact, the civic involvement is second to none. I travel all over the state, and I have never seen the level of civic involvement that I have seen in Greenwich. As long as I can remember, it has always been there.”

This apparatus of leaders, departments, appointees, employees, and volunteers works to deliver the essential services needed for living well. It requires the hard work and dedication of a great body of people, many of whom perform their jobs for no compensation, out of a sense that a town is a kind of family.

When city government does not work, when a town ceases to be a family, the results can be catastrophic. In 2013, Detroit, once one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. More than ten times the size of the Town of Greenwich, Detroit had saddled itself with more than 400 times the debt. Years of overtaxing and underservicing had driven the population down to less than half of its peak. Detroit had gone from being a “city on a hill” to a city in a very deep hole. Just how deep? A suspension of representative government occurred in Detroit; an unelected Emergency Manager took over power to operate the city as the city marched into a Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Eric Wise is an attorney practicing in New York.

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1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Thank you for the essay. Great examples of how a town, village, city works or does not work.I too was born in Michigan, but the western side south of Grand Rapids. Now I live in Louisiana, long notable, ah, make that infamous, for political “intrigue” as the Founders called it. A way that local government works, but does not work well is the Good Ole Boy network in some southern towns or States. Louisiana being the poster child.

    In our Parish we voted a tax increase to improve the roads. Some roads were indeed improved, but many remained the same before the money was exhausted. The primary reason the funds ran out was not that the Parish under estimated the repair costs, although that was part of the issue. The main issue is city and parish counsel members redirected to road work to “roads” that we in fact private roads of family, friends, etc.

    The exploitation was so egregious that even Louisianians could not withstand it and pretty much voted the whole counsel out of office. So in the end the representative system worked.

    PSD

    Reply

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