A view from Glen Hill: Living up to our ‘citizen’-ship

The choice of Mike Kaelin as successor to Hal Clark on our Board of Selectmen is certainly very wise.

Hal’s service as second selectman has been outstanding, and he and Alison’s presence here will be sorely missed as they split their time in retirement between Maine and Florida. Whether presented in public meetings or one-on-one outside the sliding doors of the Village Market, Hal’s articulate explanations of issues facing our town and of decisions made or soon to be made by the selectmen offered cogent insights, and his wit and good humor would definitely enliven any discussion. He also always actively sought out and weighed public comment. Thus, those one-on-one conversations he regularly took the time to engage in might as easily have been to seek a resident’s opinion as to explain a viewpoint of the Board of Selectmen.

Those are significant shoes to fill, and Mike Kaelin is definitely an excellent choice to do so. His wisdom and well-honed leadership skills have been evidenced in, among other things, the fruits of his service as president of the Wilton Library Association’s board. He also brings to the Board of Selectmen the skills of an accomplished attorney and principal in the law firm of Cummings & Lockwood at a time when First Selectman Bill Brennan estimates that selectmen’s time devoted to legal matters has more than doubled over only several years. Mike and his wife, Carol, are longtime Wilton residents, and their four children are graduates — or, in youngest child Jack’s case, a soon-to-be graduate — of our schools.

David Frankel of Washington Post Drive wrote a letter to the editor of this paper a month ago in which he reflected upon “return[ing] respectful, civil sensibilities to local political debate.” He said, “… perhaps the best outcome for Wilton is that we all simply think back to the reasons why we moved here in the first place. Remember that it is our responsibility to take ownership and understand the issues facing our town and to treat each other as members of the same Wilton community with respect and civility as we grapple through our differences.”

Mike Kaelin is a great person to have by your side in a leadership role in living out Mr. Frankel’s eloquent words. As Mike begins his service, it is also a good time to consider our own duties as citizens. Last spring I reflected here on the word “civitas” as used in the school pledge that calls the students of Wilton’s Montessori School to be part of a “civitas community” in which they “strive to build life as if life were a work of art.”

Courtesy of information from Max Gabrielson, Wilton High School’s extraordinary classics teacher, I reported that the Latin noun “civitas” means “the condition or privileges of a (Roman) citizen, citizenship, freedom of the city.” It also means, more concretely, “the citizens united in a community, the body-politic.” The related Latin adjective “civilis” means, among other things, “courteous, polite, civil.”

One manifestation of “citizens united in community” is that they take the time to express their opinions in town votes. We are a very well-educated and sophisticated community, and our town benefits greatly from the well-informed wisdom, judgment, and insight of each one of us expressed in public life.

Data that our town Registrars of Voters Tina Gardner and Carole Young-Kleinfeld have compiled show the sad reality, though, that turnout for town votes (both annual and special) has actually gotten much worse in recent years: down to the truly pathetic single digits in the last few years versus 25% a decade and more ago, with even the recent very significant Miller-Driscoll special town vote garnering only 17%. By contrast, the 1997 special town vote on $37 million in renovations to Middlebrook and Cider Mill schools garnered a whopping 49% voter turnout. In fact, more than 60% of town voters turn out for gubernatorial elections and more than 85% for presidential, so we definitely know how to find our polling places!

The failure to vote is a missed opportunity for broad collective insight, and the failure to be informed about important town issues because of busy lives would have appalled our Greek forebears in the democratic form of government for whom their electoral duties to their city-state “polis” were central. People have given their lives for our right to vote, and people elsewhere in the world today would give essentially everything they have for that right. We owe the political process here in town no less.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.