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Mary Callaghan may have been a bit too dramatic the other day when she described what she saw at the "Miss Salt Lake County Fair" swimsuit competition.

The newest Salt Lake County commissioner painted a picture of something between a B-grade teenage skin flick and saloon entertainment in the heyday of old Tombstone. She told of girls disrobing and assuming poses to the accompaniment of loud whistles and yells.Listening to her, you could almost hear the gunshots and the tinny notes from an old piano.

She may in fact have given an accurate description of what happened in the fair's amphitheater earlier this month, but for some people it might have confused an issue that finally is getting a lot of attention everywhere from local county fairs to the lofty Miss America Pageant.

If so, let me bring it into focus. The behavior of contestants and the reaction of the crowd, whether it be hoots and wolf whistles or respectful silence, are irrelevant. The point is this: Local governments have no businesses subsidizing contests that rate women on their looks. Period.

To that extent, Callaghan was absolutely correct when she called for the county to stop supporting the annual contest - which it now does through several thousand dollars in scholarship checks - and she had every reason to sound indignant.

She also showed considerable political courage, as did her fellow commissioners, who unitedly agreed with her. "This is judging physical performance under the guise of scholarship," she said, noting it runs counter to efforts aimed at overcoming stereotypes that keep women from competing academically and in the work force.

That courage will come in handy. Beauty pageants and swimsuit contests do not tend to inspire level-headed, dispassionate discussions.

A good friend of mine, Rod Wagner, learned this 13 years ago as a summer intern with the Springville Herald. He wrote a column calling for a local pageant to eliminate swimsuits, then learned it might have been safer to advocate abolishing football in Texas or baked beans in Boston.

People accused him of having a dirty mind; of trying to ruin something intrinsically American.

Now at the Press Herald in Portland, Me., he remembers those days vividly. "I caused a little buzz," he said. "But I remember watching the contest and thinking what are we doing here? Here were all these fully clothed people sitting there watching teenage girls walk around stage in swimsuits. What a strange cultural ceremony. Who thought this up?"

Good question. Unfortunately, the origins of these contests aren't as important as the fact they have been a part of American culture for generations. Swimsuit competitions seem to be protected, more than anything, by the bulletproof shield of tradition.

The irony is that many of its defenders probably applauded a few years ago when team owner Larry Miller brought an end to "bikini night" at hockey games - a yearly spectacle in which fans were invited to wear bikinis and display themselves on the ice between periods.

Decent people were offended by that practice, yet the road between it and the more formal competitions is not long. Granted, beauty contestants wear modest suits, but there are few reasons to watch women parade on stage in swimsuits, other than the obvious one.

That's not to say the young women who compete are doing so for prurient reasons. Beauty pageants are not lewd or dirty events. But county government is right to ask what the purpose of the competition is and whether it is worthy of taxpayer support.

And it is right to question whether government-sponsored swimsuit contests send the right message to young women, particularly at a county fair where livestock and other animals are paraded in front of judges and rated for looks.

Empty Perch: Three weeks ago I described how the Eagle's Nest subdivision proposal would place a fortress of five houses on a level stretch 100 feet above the nearest road in Olympus Cove. Residents would have to rely on a tram to take them back and forth to their homes.

After the planning commission rejected the idea, the developer appealed to the County Commission, which last week refused even to consider it. That was a refreshingly clear signal that the county's hillside protection ordinances aren't open to technical exceptions.