Budgets: 2. Drama: 0.

Something was missing this week, when the RTM considered Westport’s 2 budgets.

Rancor.

On Monday night, the legislative body unanimously approved $79 million in town spending for 2015-16. That’s a 2.51% increase over the current year. Included in the funding: $37,714 previously cut from the Transit District.

Last night, the vote was again unanimous: $111 million for the Board of Education. That’s a cut of $300,000 from what the Board of Finance approved in March; it’s up 1.8% from last year.

RTM members praised Jim Marpe’s administration, the superintendent of schools and  Board of Ed for the care and scrutiny with which they prepared their requests.

 

Westport sealBudget season in Westport used to be high drama. Proponents claimed that every dollar was sacrosanct to the future of Westport. Opponents shouted that massive cuts were needed to avoid fiscal ruin. Invective would spew. Referendums were threatened (or actually held). Things got ugly.

And the next year, the same thing happened all over again.

Budget season has been quiet for a while now. A couple of elements are at work.

Selectmen, the superintendent and Board of Ed have been prudent and honest in their requests. They’ve worked closely with the Board of Finance to understand what’s realistic — and the Board of Finance has worked hard to understand realistic requests.

All sides have tried to balance the all-important (and very elusive) concept of “quality of Westport life” with the economic realities of the 21st century.

Political posturing has been replaced with true bipartisanship.

Westport Public  SchoolsNo one in Westport threatens a government shutdown. No one wants to sequester funds. No one panders to a special set of constituents or supporters. That’s the way democracy works. Or it’s supposed to, anyway.

We haven’t heard a lot of names of local politicians lately. Many Westporters don’t even know who is chairman of the Board of Finance (John Pincavage) or Board of Ed (Michael Gordon). One is a Republican. The other’s a Democrat. Together, they and their boards govern effectively — and without egos.

The Board of Finance sets the official mill rate 2 weeks from today. A minimal increase is expected from the current 17.94.

 

This Old House #10

Tom Ryan and Dan Herman were the 1st readers to identify last week’s house as #5 Old Hill Road.

They’re right — sort of. The present structure at that site — opposite the old patriot “training ground” at the intersection of Kings Highway North and Old Hill — was built in 1944. The structure in the photo — part of a 1930s WPA project to document century-old homes — burned almost to the ground in 1943. It was rebuilt looking as much as possible like the original. Click here for the photo, then scroll down for comments.

Here is this week’s house. Like the others, this WPA image will be part of a Westport Historical Society exhibit on the changing face of Westport’s homes. But organizers need to find out where it is.

This Old House - May 6, 2015

The back of the photo gives no location. It says only: “Known as ‘William Lanier Washington House'; Squire  David Coley.”

Coley is a famous name in Westport. Washington is a famous name everywhere.

If you think you know where this house stands (or stood — it may have been torn down), click “Comments.” The more information you can provide, the better.

 

How Our Gardens Grow

You can see the Westport Garden Club‘s work all over town.

In the early 1970s, Ginny Sherwood asked fellow members to reclaim a 3-acre landfill on Imperial Avenue. Her vision of a refuge along the Saugatuck River came true. Today, Westporters love the hidden-in-plain-sight beauty of Grace Salmon Park.

It’s a delightful spot for a walk, picnic or simply a few moments of peace and quiet.

Over the years though, the land has flooded. Vegetation has been lost. It needs improvement.

The Garden Club will once again help. Members are recommending which plants to save, and which native species to add. They’ll provide volunteers to do the labor, and keep Grace Salmon Park looking great.

To accomplish this — and so much more — the club needs funds. They raise money the best way they know how. This year’s annual plant sale is set for Friday, May 8 (9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) at the Saugatuck Congregational Church.

Among the Westport Garden Club's many activities: keeping the Compo Beach entrance looking gorgeous. Members were hard at work recently. (Photo/Ann Pawlick)

Among the Westport Garden Club’s many activities: keeping the Compo Beach entrance looking gorgeous. Members hard at work recently (from left): Roseanne Mihalick, Jane Eyes, Jenny Robson, Debbie Tiede, Lori Meinke, Sue McCabe. (Photo/Ann Pawlick)

The Garden Club is one of those organizations whose work Westporters constantly admire, even if we don’t know it’s theirs. They’re responsible for — among many other things — planting, weeding, pruning and mulching sites like the Compo Beach entry and marina; Adams Academy; the Earthplace entrance; the Library’s winter garden near Jesup Green; various cemeteries, and the Nevada Hitchcock Memorial Garden at the Cross Highway/Weston Road intersection.

We also owe the club thanks for what we don’t see.

In the 1930s — just a few years after its founding — the Westport Garden Club persuaded the town to ban billboards on all local roads.

The prohibition still stands.

So on Friday, buy a plant to support the Westport Garden Club. For nearly 100 years they’ve made our hometown look beautiful — just like home.

Westport Garden Club logo

 

Molly Procter Earns Duke Of Edinburgh Award

Valedictorian. Eagle Scout. All-America.

Those are teenage honors that everyone knows, and understands.

But the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award? Not so much.

What a shame.

Molly Procter is a Staples High School sophomore. She’s been hard at work on the project. She’s not looking for press or praise — but she deserves both.

Its website calls this “the world’s leading youth achievement award.” That’s debatable. But no one can dispute its rigor.

Molly Procter volunteers at the Senior Center.

Molly Procter volunteers at the Senior Center.

Established in the UK in 1956 by (duh) the Duke of Edinburgh for people ages 14-24, the award has spread to over 140 countries. It recently became available in the New York area.

The Edinburgh Award includes 4 “sections” that each candidate must complete: Volunteering, Physical, Skills and Expedition. There are bronze, silver and gold levels.

Molly began working toward her bronze in August. She’s about to complete it. She is believed to be the 1st Westporter to do so, and one of the first in the tri-state area.

For the Volunteering component, Molly has worked at the Senior Center almost weekly since November. She fulfilled the Physical part by playing junior varsity volleyball at Staples.

Her Skill is her passion: art. She studied with renowned Westport artist Roe Halper twice a week since November. Molly’s work was included in an exhibition of students’ work at Roe’s home in April.

The Expedition was an overnight trip that participants do in small groups after 3 training sessions. It includes orienteering, hiking 15 miles in 24 hours, and camping outdoors without a tent. Molly completed that challenge in late April.

The Award process provides opportunities to give back to the local community; empowers participants, and builds leadership, teamwork, confidence and self-esteem in young people.

Molly’s ceremony is set for tomorrow (Wednesday, May 6) at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. No, the award will not be presented by the Duke of Edinburgh — aka Prince Philip.

It will be given instead by his son, Prince Edward.

(For more information on the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award — including how to participate — click here.)

Molly Procter, surrounded by her art.

Molly Procter, surrounded by her art.

Wondrous Westport

Definitely, the forsythia look fantastic. For sure, the cherry blossoms are spectacular.

But it’s not only flowers and trees that make a Westport spring so special.

Yesterday — near Indian River Green, just south of the train station on Saugatuck Avenue — alert “06880” reader Scott Singer spotted a couple of beautiful birds.

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler

“A seemingly boring little pond by the side of the road has turned into an Audubon Society member’s dream (I am not one, but I own one of their books),” he writes.

“The amazing treasures of Westport are all around, if we simply take a moment to look closely.”

Common grackle. (Photos/Scott Singer)

Common grackle. (Photos/Scott Singer)

 

Remembering Priscilla Stampa

Staples High School Class of 2010 graduate Max Stampa-Brown writes:

Priscilla Rose Stampa of Westport died on April 26. She was 60 years old, and an incredibly talented actress, seamstress, designer, friend, wife, and lover of life.

She was also my mother.

Priscilla was born in Naples, Italy.  Her father — my nonno — is a Renaissance man, and an accomplished voiceover actor. Her mother — my nonna — is a kind Irish woman and schoolteacher. My mother was the eldest of their 4 children.

Priscilla Stampa

Priscilla Stampa

My mother graduated from NYU with a BFA in acting, and pursued a successful acting career in New York City as well as regional theaters around the country.

While at NYU she met and collaborated with a young playwright named Tony Kushner. After working closely for many years, they co-founded the theater group Heat & Light Company. She played pivotal roles: producing, designing and managing. They debuted many of his plays.

My mother met my father, Michael Brown, in 1980 in New York. They were smitten with each other, and married in 1991. I was born a year later.

My parents moved me to Westport when I was a little boy. They left the bohemian streets of Greenwich Village to give me a rich life of education, and greener pastures.

Leaving the city for Westport was not easy. My parents often told me that the silence was maddening at times. Neighbors waving to them felt foreign and strange. But this washed away quickly as the multicolored leaves, falling snow and Compo Beach cannons won our hearts. Westport even made a town activist out of the hardened New Yorker that was once my mother.

Michael Brown, Priscilla Stampa, Max Stampa-Brown and Elvis.

Michael Brown, Priscilla Stampa, Max Stampa-Brown and Elvis.

During the dispute over moving the YMCA to Baron’s South my mother, along with other disgruntled Westporters, co-founded the coalition Save Barrons South. It was an uphill battle, but my mother prevailed. She continued her activism by watching Channel 78 for town board meetings (and reruns of the Candlelight Concerts).

As I became more interested in the arts, my mother proudly and quietly followed me around from project to project. She became resident costumer at Coleytown Middle School, eventually moving up to partner with Marjorie Watt as a Staples Players designer, seamstress, artists’ voice, and friend of all students.

Though all of my Halloween costumes were custom-made, it was not until I was older that I realized just how amazing her career was, and just how many gifts she had given me. My parents never forced me into theater or music, even as I found out gradually what my mother did for a living.

When I truly grasped the breadth of her work and her influence on my creative psyche, I was astonished. I was in my teens when I understood how extraordinary my mother was. I’m deeply grateful for the conversations we had. I value the words we shared. Not many sons are lucky enough to be so honest and transparent with their mothers about our world.

She created costumes for Staples Players until her last show, “Sweeney Todd,” this past March. If you saw a show at Staples from 2006 to 2015, chances are she and her partner Marjorie designed the spectacular costumes you marveled at onstage.

Priscilla Stampa (left) and Marjorie Watt (right) work on Michelle Pauker's Staples Players costume.

Priscilla Stampa (left) and Marjorie Watt (right) work on Michelle Pauker’s Staples Players costume.

My mother prompted me to be curious about culture and the changing world around me. Together we watched “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and Broadway and off-Broadway shows, returning to the world she loved so much as she gently guided me into it to begin a career of my own.

When my father and I weren’t screaming at the Jets for losing another game, my mom was quoting Chauncer, Yeats, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Moliere, Pinter. She had a deep appreciation for literature, and creative minds who noticed the tiny details in life.

One of her favorite activities was waking up at 6 to watch the sunrise over Long Island Sound in front of our home on Saugatuck Island. She always had a hot cup of tea waiting for me when I finally got up.

We are so very happy to call Westport home. She was my very best friend and my champion. I will miss her very much.

There is a service for her this Saturday (May 9, 1 p.m., Unitarian Church, 10 Lyons Plains Road). There will be Sondheim and Shakespeare, for sure. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in her name to The Public Theater of New York City or Westport Arts Center.

Max Stampa-Brown and his mother, Priscilla.

Max Stampa-Brown and his mother, Priscilla.

Despite Closing, There’s Plenty Cooking At Mario’s

When Mario’s closed last month, hundreds of loyal customers lost a lot: A favorite restaurant. A meeting place. Tradition.

Over 50 employees lost something much harder to replace: Their jobs.

The story of how that happened is coming out now. It’s not pretty.

A former employee emailed me some details. Others who worked at Mario’s agreed with what the worker said.

Mario's, the day after closing. (Photo/Gene Borio)

Mario’s, the day after closing. (Photo/Gene Borio)

According to the email, on April 16 — 12 days after the restaurant served its last meal — a handful of employees were invited to meet new owner Vincente Siguenza to talk about employment. The meeting was set for 9 to 11 a.m.

“The place was cold and dark, with no heat,” the email says. Siguenza did not appear. The former employees thought it might have been a test of their interest.

He finally arrived at 11. “He casually walked into the side room, where everyone was sitting anxiously. It was almost like the first day of school, meeting your new teacher,” the email says.

The meeting lasted 15 minutes. “He stated (while looking at his phone the entire time) he did not know what they were going to do in regards to staying closed or reopening. In so many words, he stated that if they go forward with Harvest” — the new restaurant in the old place — “no Mario’s employees would be hired.”

Dinner was packed, before Mario's closed.

Dinner was packed, before Mario’s closed.

Siguenza told employees to leave their resumes. Only one person had one. “In this business, with the longevity most of us have, it’s word of mouth,” the email writer notes. “One person stood up and said, ’35 years at Mario’s is my resume.'”

Two longtime employees “stormed out,” the email writer says. Siguenza “had the rest stand in line like cattle to sign our names and contact info on the back of the one resume.” Two days later, the writer says, the resume still sat there.

“Many of these employees supported their entire family on their earnings from Mario’s,” the email says.

After that meeting, the writer adds, “the remaining employees huddled outside on the sidewalk, and hugged and cried.”

Three employees have since found work at 323 Restaurant. The others have not been so fortunate.

I called Siguenza this afternoon, to get his side of the story. He began by saying, “I’m not ready to open up. I’m still looking at getting the building into compliance.” He had been hoping to reopen — with the name Mario’s — around Mother’s Day. After 5 or 6 months, Mario’s will transition into Harvest Wine Bar –similar to Siguenza’s restaurant of the same name in Greenwich. Harvest offers modern American custom cuisine with Asian, Latin and Mediterranean influences, plus an extensive wine list.

Harvest Wine Bar & Restaurant in Greenwich. (Photo collage/CTBites.com)

Harvest Wine Bar & Restaurant in Greenwich. (Photo collage/CTBites.com)

“I have no employees yet,” he said.

I asked directly: “Will you hire any former employees?”

“I don’t know if I can hire any of them,” he said. Then he paused.

“Probably not.”

Why not?

“No specific reason,” he said. “I have to put the new staff through training at my other restaurants.”

I asked again: If he’s reopening as Mario’s, why not hire Mario’s staff?

“It’s not that I don’t want them. I’d never say that,” Siguenza said.

“But this is Mario’s in name only. It’s not the same service or menu or wine list. It’s completely different. The only thing remaining is the name.”

He added, “The kitchen staff before was used to one style of cooking. This is completely different. They need a new type of training.”

Mario's matchesSo why is he reopening as Mario’s — but not Mario’s, really — and then closing after a few months to renovate, before reopening once again as Harvest?

“It will take a while to get all the approvals” for Harvest from Planning & Zoning, the Building Department and others, he said. He plans to work on the paperwork now, while operating as Mario’s. Once his permits are in hand, he’ll begin renovations.

Former employees plan a rally — with, they hope, “many loyal customers” — on opening day of the “New Mario’s.”

Westporters Urge Restoration Of Transit Funds

On Saturday, I posted a plea from a Westporter who can’t drive. He’s looking for help getting to and from the library.

Westport TransitCoincidentally, tonight (7:30 p.m., Town Hall auditorium), the RTM votes on whether or not to restore money cut (in a 4-3 vote) by the Board of Finance from the Westport Transit District budget.

The $37,714 would pay for marketing ($20,000) and a professional staffer ($17,714).

Some Westport residents have decried the cuts.

Jim Ross, chair of the Citizen’s Transit Committee, said:

These funds are critical not because of the amount but the formal recognition that transportation issues and policies in Westport requires a dedicated, transit focused support and budget. Congestion, parking, commuting, shopping, pedestrian safety, pollution and so much more affects each of us living and working in Westport.

Westport Transit District bus

For far too long, we have relied on the generous volunteer efforts of well-intentioned but inexperienced and time-constrained citizen-advocates to do the job of a transit professional. They have no administrative budget, no staff support, not even a closet to store the transit budget/operational materials that they pay for out of their own pocket. These funds, requested in the first selectman’s budget, are a small but critical  first step in addressing, in a meaningful and intelligent way, Westport’s long term and 24/7 transportation issues, planning and operations.

Marketing dollars go to printing schedules, train station/social media/ internet/print media advertising, as well as special transit-related events like the transit kiosk at the Senior Center, ridership surveys and the occasional free commuter coffee at the train stations.

Westport transit issues and operations are a 24/7 reality. With the growing impact of Metro-North, I-95, parking/traffic congestion, pedestrian/driver safety, downtown development and air quality — not to mention general town productivity and quality of life — the part-time staff can bring a continuous focus and transportatio -expertise to bear on the challenges. It is simply too big and impactful on our town and citizens to relegate this to well-intentioned citizen-volunteers.

A Westport Transit District bus, at the YMCA.

A Westport Transit District bus, at the YMCA.

Stephen Rockwell Desloge — president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association — also weighed in:

One of the 6 primary Planning Directives of the Downtown Master Plan is: Improve Traffic Flow and Parking Management. …

There are currently approximately 1600 retail employees who work downtown. If one assumes that at any one time 40-50% of employees are working per shift, an average of approximately 650-800 employees commute to downtown every day. During peak shopping seasons, this increases to about 1200 employees. The addition of 50,000 square feet of new retail space will increase the number of commuting employees to an average of 1200 daily, with peak season approaching 1800 employees.

Parking is a perennial problem for employees and shoppers in downtown Westport. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

Parking is a perennial problem for employees and shoppers in downtown Westport. (Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

The challenge that the town faces is to substantially increase the number of employees who take public transportation and decrease the number of employees who drive downtown every day. Westport has to stay ahead of the curve on this issue…

This effort takes a substantial and sustained long term marketing effort and a dedicated staff person to assure that every possible avenue is being pursued to achieve the goals as set out in the Downtown Master Plan. The WDMA asks that the RTM approves this $37,000 expenditure.

Darcy Sledge added:

I have been a Westport resident for 25 years. My husband and I used the commuter bus for many years. It was an integral part of our decision to settle in Westport. My husband and I both commuted to NYC , and the bus was a way for us to come and go at different times so that we could juggle our family responsibilities.

Now I am a realtor. I can say with experience: The commuter bus has always been a valuable asset to the town of Westport. It is a huge amenity! It affects resale value, not just for a specific house, but for the town — especially given the waiting list for parking sticker.

This is something that the town needs. Please do not cut funding for this important amenity for our working professionals.

Transit is just one of the funding requests the RTM will consider tonight at Town Hall. If you want to be there, the only way is to drive.

Or taxi or Uber.

Staples Students Are Complete SLOBs

Today was as sweet as it gets.

Staples students could have celebrated the spectacular weather by going to the beach. Playing tennis, golf, frisbee or with each other. Studying for AP tests that start tomorrow, even.

Instead, over 100 boys — and 80 or so parents — spent the day on community service projects all around Westport.

The Staples Service League of Boys — SLOBs for, lovingly, short — headed out to the Bacharach Houses, Gillespie Center, Compo and Burying Hill Beaches, Wakeman Town Farm, Linxweiler House, Powell House, Project Return, ABC House and Earthplace.

They wielded tools...

They wielded tools…

They weeded, planted, mulched, picked up garbage, painted and cleaned.

...got dirty...

…got dirty…

They worked long and hard. They did manual labor, and learned some skills. They worked side by side with their parents, and a few siblings.

...picked up garbage...

…picked up garbage…

It’s all part of SLOBs’ ongoing commitment to their town. So far this year, they’ve contributed more than 2,300 hours of service.

And how did you spend your day?

...filled and hauled wheelbarrows...

…filled and hauled wheelbarrows…

...learned new skills...

…learned new skills…

...took down branches...

…took down branches…

...bonded with their parents...

…bonded with their parents…

...and siblings...

…and siblings…

...and left the town far better than it had been just a few hours earlier.

…and left the town far better than it had been just a few hours earlier. (Photos/Emily Prince)

Gentlemen (And Ladies): Start Your (Very Quiet) Engines!

Westport celebrated “Greenday” — actually “Greenweekend” — with festivities at Wakeman Town Farm, WeGreen awards, Earthplace nature walks and much more.

Including the 3rd annual Electric Vehicle Rally.

Art Cohen's hybrid BMW i8 drew many admiring  glances.

A hybrid BMW i8 drew many admiring glances.

Several dozen EVs — and their drivers, navigators and admirers — assembled at the train station. They compared EV notes, munched on free food from Steam (quaint imagery there, no?), then embarked on a silent ride to Wilton.

Robin Tauck (center) lent selectmen  Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (left) her 2 electric vehicles last year. Kaner liked driving it so much, he bought this Tesla P35D model. It goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds -- not that anyone does that on local roads. On the right is Westport Electric Car Club president Leo Cirino.

Robin Tauck (center) lent selectmen Jim Marpe and Avi Kaner (left) her 2 electric vehicles last year. Kaner liked driving it so much, he bought this Tesla S P85D. It goes from 0 to 60 in 3.1 seconds (not that anyone does that on local roads). On the right is Westport Electric Car Club president Leo Cirino.

PS: The weather was perfect all weekend long. Despite all we’ve done to her, Mother Nature threw us a bone.

Two of the clever license plates seen at the Electric Vehicle Rally today.

Two of the clever license plates seen at the Electric Vehicle Rally today.