Category Archives: Local politics

Remembering Mickey Feiner

It’s astonishing that someone lives over 100 years, and dies in obscurity.

It happened this fall to Vivien Testa. A superb art teacher, townwide director of art, and mentor to countless students and teachers; a 40-year educator who began teaching here in 1936, and a Westport resident for over 70 years, she died in September at 102. The 1st notice of her death was on this blog, 2 months later.

Mickey Feiner’s passing was similarly unnoticed. He died April 23 — just a couple of months shy of his 107th birthday.

And what a full 107 years he had!

Born on July 4, 1908 in Springfield, Massachusetts, he began his retailing career at Hartford’s fabled G. Fox. He spent the bulk of his career with May Department Stores, retiring as president of May Merchandising in 1974.

In other words: After a lifetime of working, he retired during the Ford administration.

Mickey Feiner

Mickey Feiner

He and his wife Elaine moved from Westport — his home of nearly 20 years — to Florida. He began a new career in politics, serving 13 years as mayor of Key Colony Beach. He spent 6 more after that as chairman of the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.

Then, in 1995 — around the time Bob Dole was gearing up to challenge the incumbent President Clinton — the Feiners moved back to Westport. At the age of 87 he got re-involved in civic service. Mickey served 2 years on the  Town Site Planning Committee, 5 on the School Building Committee, and 2 years as vice chair of the Greens Farms School renovations subcommittee.

I met Mickey Feiner a few years ago, at his beautiful Stony Point home. Well over 100, he was still working — as facilities manager of a Norwalk shopping center. Yet that was not even the most remarkable thing.

He wanted to show me a news story. So he headed upstairs — very steadily — and found exactly what he was looking for.

On his computer.

All of us strive for a life well spent. In 106 years, it sure seems that Mickey’s was.

I would hate for his death to pass unnoticed. It should be an inspiration to us all.

 

Jim Marpe, Board Of Ed Laud Landon

Superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon announced this morning that he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. First Selectman Jim Marpe praised the longtime educator: 

I have had the honor and privilege of working alongside Dr. Landon for a number of years, including my 8-year tenure as a member and chair of the Board of Education. Since taking office as first selectman, he and I have remained steadfast in our commitment to collaborating and forging a positive relationship with the town and Board of Education. I look forward to continuing this precedent during the remainder of Dr. Landon’s tenure and with his successor.

Dr. Elliott Landon (right) with First Selectman (and former Board of Education chair) Jim marpe.

Dr. Elliott Landon (right) with First Selectman (and former Board of Education chair) Jim Marpe.

On behalf of the Town of Westport, and as its First Selectman, I wish to congratulate and thank Dr. Landon for his dedication to the Town, its schools and most particularly, the multitude of children for whom he advocated. Through his 16-year career as Westport’s superintendent, he consistently raised the bar of excellence and has made the schools in Westport some of the most successful in the country.

His expertise and advocacy for our school system is laudable. Due to Dr. Landon’s leadership, Westport’s education system has provided and will continue to provide the necessary tools for the next generations to achieve personal growth and success for years to come. I wish Dr. Landon much health and happiness as he prepares for retirement.

Meanwhile, the Westport Board of Education released this statement:

We would like to thank Dr. Landon for leading our schools to tremendous heights during his 16-year tenure.  Westport is widely regarded as one of the top school districts in the state and in the nation, and Dr. Landon has been integral to our collective success.

 

Now, for the first time in 17 years, the Westport Board of Education will commence a search for a new superintendent, who will begin serving upon Dr. Landon’s retirement.  The Board is prepared for a thoughtful and thorough search process.  We will take the time necessary to find the right candidate to meet the needs of our students for the next generation.

 

We will conduct a nationwide search, and we will engage a search firm with a national scope that has worked with high-performing districts such as ours.  We have exceptionally high standards for the leader we will appoint, and we plan to involve the community throughout the process.  The Board will reach out to all of our stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administrators, staff members, students and the broader community for their input on the qualities they seek in a new superintendent.

 

We will make regular announcements about both our process and our progress, and we welcome your input at all points, starting today.  The seven of us can be reached at a single email address:  boe@westport.k12.ct.us.

 

In addition to thanking Dr. Landon, we want to thank all of the outstanding teachers, administrators and staff members who work on behalf of Westport’s children each day.  Our schools are thriving because of all of their professionalism, collaboration and dedication to our students. 

 

We very much appreciate all that Dr. Landon has done for our District and all he will continue to do for the next 13 months.  We look forward to the community’s participation as we search for his successor.

 

Jim Marpe: “Westport Not Immune” To Dealing With Serious Racial Issues

First Selectman Jim Marpe issued this statement last night, shortly after learning of the presence of racist flyers in Westport:

I am deeply concerned and disappointed that statements like this have found their way to Westport homes. This kind of racial ugliness has no place anywhere, and certainly not Westport.

I have always been proud to speak of Westport as an open and welcoming community, and I continue to believe that the vast majority of Westporters practice that belief through tolerance, inclusion and everyday civil behavior.

This past year has reminded us that our nation still needs to deal with some serious racial issues, and now we know that Westport is not immune.  I have asked TEAM Westport to work with the Interfaith Clergy, the Board of Education and the appropriate town agencies, to lead our community’s response to these outrageous statements and, more importantly, the behaviors and beliefs that underpin them.

Flyers like these were tossed onto lawns in Westport yesterday.

Flyers like these were tossed onto lawns in Westport yesterday.

 

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.

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.

Baron’s South To Remain Open Space

In a vote that will resound for decades to come, the RTM affirmed the Planning & Zoning Commission’s designation of the Baron’s South property as open space.

The 22-acre, wooded and hilly property — bordered by South Compo Road, the Post Road and Imperial Avenue — is already home to the Senior Center, on its western edge. But further development — for instance, of a hotly debated senior housing complex — will not take place.

A majority of RTM members — 20 — actually voted to overturn last month’s P&Z decision (4-1, with 1 abstention) designating the entire area as open space.

But 14 members sided with the P&Z. Overruling the P&Z required 24 votes — 2/3 of all members.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

The roll was called after midnight. Debate was intense but civil throughout the long evening. Many issues were raised, ranging from the importance of open space and the inevitability of more development once construction began, to the speed and propriety of one commission deciding such a major issue for the town.

Some speakers declared that the vote should be about the “open space” decision alone — not the merits of one particular senior housing proposal. The need for senior housing, however, was noted by other speakers.

The baron’s property will now remain undeveloped — an “urban forest” just steps from downtown. Was today’s early morning vote comparable to previous decisions (for example, to purchase Longshore when a developer proposed building 180 houses there — or to allow construction of the Wright Street and Gorham Island office complexes), or a missed opportunity to build on town-owned land?

Check back in a decade or two.

There are already buildings on Baron's South. The baron's Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance.   A debate will begin soon on their fate.

There are some existing buildings on Baron’s South. The baron’s Golden Shadows house is shown in the distance. A debate will begin soon on their fate.

“Conflict Of Interest” Charge Roils Baron’s South Debate

As the RTM prepares to vote this Tuesday (April 28, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium) on whether to overturn the Planning & Zoning Commission’s decision to designate the Baron’s South property as protected open space, legislators have another issue to contend with.

Westport resident Valerie Seiling Jacobs sent this “open letter” to all RTM members:

As many of you know, I have been opposed to the proposed senior housing project on Baron’s South for many years. My view has long been that the deal proposed by The Jonathan Rose Companies was unfair to taxpayers since the town will get too little in return for donating such a valuable asset. And it has always puzzled me that Ken Bernhard, who co-chaired the Baron’s South Committee and is one of the project’s prime cheerleaders, seemed so determined to push ahead with the project—even in the face of growing evidence that the project was seriously flawed and could not meet the town’s needs.

I learned today [Friday] that Mr. Bernhard has multiple conflicts of interest that were never disclosed. First, Cohen & Wolf, the law firm in which he is a principal, is counsel to the Jewish Home of Fairfield, which stands to gain a lucrative contract for services if the Rose project goes forward. In fact, in a bulletin last summer, the President of JHF touted how great the business would be for the JHF. Second, Martin F. Wolf, another senior attorney at Mr. Bernhard’s law firm, sits on the Board of Directors of the JHF.

Mr. Bernhard’s failure to disclose these connections and conflicts is especially egregious given the sensitivity of this issue and Mr. Bernhard’s past behavior. At a Board of Finance meeting in October 2012, a number of members of the public complained that the RFP process appeared to have been rigged in favor of The Rose Companies—a suggestion to which Mr. Bernhard took extreme umbrage, demanding an apology. Nevertheless, in response to concerns about conflicts of interest, the members of the Baron’s South Committee were specifically asked to stand and state whether they had any financial interest in the Rose Companies. Mr. Bernhard did not stand. His failure to reveal his firm’s interest in this project may have been technically correct — since the financial interest was in another entity — but it was still materially misleading. As an attorney and a former elected official, Mr. Bernhard should know better.

A path in Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

A path in Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

For Mr. Bernhard to have served on the Baron’s South Committee without disclosing these connections, which fatally compromised his ability to objectively evaluate the responses to the town’s RFP, violate fundamental principles of justice and fairness. This is the equivalent of a judge owning stock in a corporation that appears in a contested matter in the judge’s court. And I note that this is not the first time that Mr. Bernhard’s ethics have been called into question. In 2010, he was forced to pay a $3,500 penalty after his improper campaign contributions were discovered.

All of these facts bolster the conclusion that the Rose Companies’ proposal is a bad deal for Westport and its taxpayers. The Planning and Zoning Commission’s decision to designate Baron’s South as open space was the right thing to do. I hope that you will decide NOT to overturn that decision.

Thank you.

——————————————————————–

I asked Ken Bernhard for his side of the issue. He said:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to Ms. Jacobs’ letter to the RTM. It distresses me that the discussion about a project designed to address the needs of hundreds of Westport seniors who require affordable housing options has devolved into the kind of ugly debate endemic in Washington — specifically, don’t discuss the issues; unleash a personal attack on your opponent.

Curiously, Ms. Jacobs appears to be guilty of the very offense that she charges me with, i.e. an undisclosed bias.  She does not divulge in her letter that she is the co-chair of a political party, Save Westport Now, whose agenda appears to oppose development in town regardless of its merits. Apparently, the unanimous consensus of the RTM sub-committee to overturn the vote of her party’s candidates has given rise to her invective.

I have lived in Westport for more than 40 years and for most of that time, I have been actively engaged in the community’s affairs. I have given of my time by holding positions on the ZBA and the Board of Selectmen. In addition to serving as town counsel for 3 administrations, I have represented Westport in Hartford. Throughout this time I did, and still do, provide free legal services to many of the non-profit organizations in town. I sit on multiple boards providing my time and energy helping our friends and neighbors. It’s all been a labor of love.

The risk, of course, in being so active is that occasionally there are instances where the roles may overlap. These instances are part of life in a small town and are not considered conflicts in the forums in which these things are adjudicated. A community cannot function without this reality of professional and personal overlap of its citizens’ talents and interests.

Early springtime at Baron's South. (Photo/Judy James)

Early springtime at Baron’s South. (Photo/Judy James)

Five years ago, I was asked by First Selectman Joseloff to give more of my time to Westport by sitting on the Baron’s South Committee. The 8-person committee was made up of volunteers serving in a private capacity. None of us had, nor did we ever have, any decision-making authority.

Since that time, I have donated at least 300 hours serving on this committee, a large portion of which was spent long before there was a proposal to do anything. When a concept for providing affordable housing for seniors was ultimately advanced, the town sent out a request for a proposal. Our committee of volunteers reviewed the proposals and made a unanimous recommendation to accept the proposal submitted by Jonathan Rose. The decision to work with Jonathan Rose was made by elected officials.

The substance of Ms. Jacobs’ letter is that she claims I have a conflict of interest in serving on the Baron’s South Committee because she has learned that one of the 50 lawyers at my law firm does work on totally unrelated matters for Jewish Senior Services, an organization that has joined with Jonathan Rose to provide services if and when the project is approved and built at some time in the very distant future. (Ms. Jacobs is incorrect when she asserts that Attorney Martin F. Wolf is a senior attorney at Cohen and Wolf in that he is “of counsel,” retired from active practice years ago, and has no financial interest in it).

Ms. Jacobs would argue that I should have conducted a conflicts check with my law firm. This would have been appropriate had I been serving as legal counsel or in any other professional role — but I was not. I was acting as a private citizen in a private capacity doing volunteer work for my community. Ms. Jacobs can spin the facts and connect the dots any way she pleases, but there is no legitimate substance to her point.  Her criticism is inflammatory and its purpose is more about advancing the political agenda of Save Westport Now than anything else.

We have an important issue confronting our community, i.e. whether to preclude the use of Baron’s South for any municipal purpose, even the expansion of the senior center, or to leave open the discussion on how best to use this valuable town asset for affordable housing or otherwise. Reasonable people can disagree, and Westport deserves a respectful exchange on this issue.

——————————————————————-

In a related development, RTM moderator Eileen Lavigne Flug will recuse herself from leading Tuesday’s discussion. She is of counsel to Cohen and Wolf. In a comment on a previous “06880” story, Flug wrote:

While Cohen and Wolf does not represent Jonathan Rose Companies, it has come to my attention that Cohen and Wolf represents the nonprofit Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc. on certain matters, although not on the proposal for senior housing at Baron’s South. While I myself have no connection with the Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield County, Inc., and while I believe the connection to be attenuated since the matter before us is a zoning issue and not directly related to the proposed senior housing project, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict and any concerns about the RTM’s process and deliberations, our deputy moderator Velma Heller will be running the meeting.

Baron's South, with the baron's Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South, with the baron’s Golden Shadows house in the distance.

Baron’s South Open Space Proposal Heads To RTM

The clock is ticking on Baron’s South.

The RTM has received 4 petitions to review last month’s Planning & Zoning Commission decision that would rezone 22 acres of that prime downtown property as open space.

It has received a 5th petition too, from a completely opposite view. This one asks the RTM to uphold the P&Z’s open space vote.

The RTM has 30 days to render a decision.

This Monday (April 6, Town Hall auditorium, 7 p.m.), the RTM’s P&Z Committee will meet. Westporters are invited to speak publicly on the open space designation.

On April 20, the RTM P&Z Committee will vote on a recommendation to the full RTM. That body will make a final decision on April 28.

This is a crucial step on determining the fate of 22 acres of wooded land, just a few steps from downtown Westport. If you don’t make your voice heard — in person, or by email (click here to find their contact info; click here for your district) — you can’t say you weren’t warned.

The entrance to the Baron's South property.

The entrance to the Baron’s South property.

Parks & Rec Commission: “We Heard Public’s Beach Comments Loud And Clear”

A large crowd flooded into Town Hall tonight. A number of Westporters were ready to fight for parts of Compo Beach they believed were threatened: parking on South Beach. Keeping grassy spaces. The skate park.

What they got was Kumbaya.

Parks and Recreation Commission chair Charlie Haberstroh introduced 7 recommendations. None were earth-shattering. All seemed to come directly from raucous town meetings last year.

The basic theme: Less is more.

Here they are:

1.  No changes to South Beach and eastern area parking. 

“We heard the message loud and clear,” Haberstroh said. “It’s important to keep parking near the beach.” He noted that commissioners had parked near the proposed spaces away from the beach, and realized the view was not the same.

No changes will be made to South Beach parking. (Photo/Laurey Tussing)

No changes will be made to South Beach parking. (Photo/Laurey Tussing)

2. No changes to vehicular traffic flow.

The Compo Beach Site Improvement Committee had recommended moving the entrance to across from Bradley Street. Haberstroh said no changes would be made.

Parks and Rec director Stuart McCarthy noted that traffic flow — and safety issues — are the #1 priority for his department. After he spoke, Haberstroh agreed that fixing the current entrance (though not relocating it) could be addressed outside of the master plan.

3.  Create separate pedestrian paths separate from vehicular traffic. 

Haberstroh noted that, as a new grandfather, he feels vulnerable pushing a stroller. Other commissioners added that beach usage has changed; more people are walking than ever before. Extending the boardwalk to the cannons, and on to South Beach, is one way to help ease danger.

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all.

Compo Beach: a town jewel, beloved by all. Pedestrians don’t always have it easy, however.

4.  Constructing new bathhouses.

The current brick bathhouses were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. A new structure would meet — or exceed — FEMA flood regulations.

5.  Adding restrooms on South Beach. But no pavilion. New facilities are sorely needed — 2 or 3 “fixtures” per men’s, women’s and family bathrooms, to use the polite term. But there would be no other structures. “They take on a life of their own,” Haberstroh said.

6.  Renovating the skate park, including possible partial private funding. This is also a recommendation that came directly from the fall meeting. The commissioners heard many Westport youngsters loud and clear.

7.  Resurfacing the basketball courts.  That’s a slam dunk.

A few minutes after 8 p.m., public comment began.

There were no catcalls, boos, cheers, whistles or shouts.

It was almost as quiet as the beach in winter.

Everyone loves Compo Beach. (Photo/Stacy Waldman Bass)

Everyone loves Compo Beach. (Photo/Stacy Waldman Bass)

New Taxes On Tap Via “County Government”?

Fairfield is a county in name only. Since 1960 — when the General Assembly abolished county governments — Connecticut’s 8 counties are about as useful as your appendix. The only reason they still exist, really, is to organize our judicial system.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional "Council of Government." But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Fairfield County is not the same as a proposed regional “Council of Government.” But it would add another administrative layer to the state.

Except — according to State Representative Gail Lavielle — state legislators may introduce a new layer of taxing authority in the state. It may not officially be based on county governments (“regional Council of Governments” is the term) — but the effect would be the same.

Lavielle — who represents Westport, Wilton and Norwalk — says that if passed, SB 1 (“An Act Concerning Tax Fairness and Economic Development”) would establish a “regional property tax base revenue sharing system.”

She writes:

Each municipality would remit part of its local property taxes to its regional Council of Governments, which would in turn redistribute those funds among all of its member towns and cities, according to a formula that takes into account factors including each municipality’s population and property value.

Some towns would gain revenues; others would lose.

Lavielle says that in 2013 — when the General Assembly imposed the COG structure on all regional planning organizations — there was much discussion about its implications. The bill’s proponents assured Lavielle and others that COGs would not be responsible for property taxation issues on a regional basis, or any other level, she says.

But, she adds: “That assurance is not upheld in SB 1.”

(Hat tip: Bart Shuldman)