Questioning Our Candidates

In November, Westport voters will elect a new 1st selectman.

The Republicans have already chosen Jim Marpe. The Democrats meet tomorrow. The 3 names most frequently mentioned are Ken Wirfel, Jonathan Steinberg and Helen Garten.

To get a sense of who these would-be 1st selectman candidates are, I asked a few simple questions. Here are their responses. The Democratic candidates are listed in reverse alphabetical order because — well, I’m a Woog. The Republican candidate is listed last, because he is unopposed.

Ken Wirfel, former member, Board of Finance

Main reason I’m considering running: I’m passionate about Westport. Westport is just recovering from the fiscal crisis and needs someone who can secure its future. We need a first selectman who can share with us a vision how we can assure the continued excellence of our school, retain our talented workforce and allow our seniors to remain in place if they so choose.

Main reason I considered NOT running: I consider the other announced Democratic candidates my colleagues and friends. I want to run a campaign that is respectful of their abilities and desires to serve the town, while setting myself apart.

Major problems facing Westport: Labor contracts and union plans. Many will come up in the next 4 years. We’ve got to end most defined benefit plans and “bend the curve” on others by lengthening service years and extending retirement age before eligibility for benefits.

Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem:  Deer population.

Ken Wirfel on the roof of Fenway Park, during a Yankees game.

Ken Wirfel on the roof of Fenway Park, during a Yankees game.

First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Kiss my wife and children. Meet with all department heads and engage in a thorough review of goals and responsibilities. Meet with chairs of all RTM committees, town boards and commissions to assess whether they are receiving timely and adequate information from town departments.

5 Westporters I admire:  Alan Nevas, retired federal judge; fount of common sense and decency. Michael Szeto, retired from IBM; currently teaching at MIT’s Sloan School; passionate about education and American competitiveness in the global economy. Michael Kassen, president of AIPAC; a tremendously decent, thoughtful, moderate guy playing a major role at a time of Middle East threats. Keith Stein, involved in numerous community activities; quiet, unassuming guy; great dad, son, husband, brother, athlete and cook. Barbara Butler, director of human services; if Westport’s government has a soul, it runs through her department; she constantly affirms my belief that government can be a force for good in our community.

My favorite places in Westport: My wife’s backyard garden, a beautiful respite from the rest of the world. Compo at dawn, for years part of my early morning bike route before a commute into New York.

My favorite places NOT in Westport:  Nantucket; British Columbia; open water anywhere.

If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…:  Planning road trips to college hockey games in Boston next year.

If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…:  A Life Well Lived. You Deserve Westport. @KenWirfel

Jonathan Steinberg, State Representative

Main reason I’m running: I love this town and I’m excited by the prospect of making it an even better place to live and work. I’ve worked hard on Westport’s behalf on the RTM and in the State Legislature, and I know I have the experience and perspective to be an effective leader.

Main reason I considered NOT running: Campaigns require an all-out commitment. My family has always been very supportive, but running for office takes a toll on family life. I strive to maintain a balance, because family matters so much to me.

Jonathan Steinberg

Jonathan Steinberg

Major problems facing Westport: The good news is we are not facing major problems. But we’ve all noticed a change in the tone of public dialogue lately. There’s a tendency to form factions and fight, rather than work together. There’s so much good about Westport, and so many good people who want to move the town forward, but there’s an increasing lack of civility and willingness to see the other side’s point of view.

Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a problem: There’s a big myth about fiscal problems in Westport. Westporters should not be misled: The town is in fine shape financially — better off than most municipalities, with a Triple-A bond rating. We simply need to plan well for future employee pension and healthcare obligations, and be resolute in contract negotiations.

First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Get around town as often as possible as part of a continual effort to engage Westporters on what’s on their minds. Perhaps I’ll start with a big “brown bag lunch.”

5 Westporters I admire: Barbara Butler: no one has done as much for Westporters in need, always with grace, compassion and good humor. Dick Harris, an environmental hero. Ann Sheffer, whose commitment to the arts has kept Westport in the forefront of cultural excellence. Allen Raymond, who has been in the middle of many of the biggest Westport moments, from the Longshore acquisition to the new library and Y. My parents: my father took great care of the health of generations of Westporters — and made house calls, while my mother’s “best books” lecture at the library is always SRO.

My favorite places in Westport: A serene spot in Salmon Park with a beautiful view of the Saugatuck. The library, hub of activity and information where there is always something stimulating happening. Any of the ball fields on a Saturday morning. And of course an intimate, state-of-the-art movie theater on Main Street (okay, it doesn’t exist — yet!)

My favorite places NOT in Westport: Madison Square Garden for a playoff game; Portofino, Italy on the quay at sunset; wherever my daughters are living at the time.

If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: doing my best for Westport as its state representative.

If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Westport is a great place: amazing amenities, a strong sense of community, a tradition of giving and helping. I’m proud to call it home.

Helen Garten, Board of Finance vice chair

Main reason I’m considering running: I love Westport, and I think I have the skills, experience and energy to make a difference.

Main reason I considered NOT running: I am not a politician!

Major problem facing Westport: As is true for many communities, the long-term cost of Westport’s employee retirement benefits — pension and retiree medical — could eventually crowd out other funding needs. The solution is to craft a sustainable benefits package that protects our taxpayers and treats our valued employees fairly. Westport is already ahead of many towns in pension reform, but we still have a long way to go. Getting there will require skill, creativity and consensus building.

Helen Garten, awarding medals at a Special Olympics event.

Helen Garten, awarding medals at a Special Olympics event.

What’s not a problem: Westport has not been, and is not, in financial trouble. To the contrary, we came through the recession with services funded, taxes reasonable and reserves strong. That’s why we can plan for the future now.

First thing I’d do after being sworn in: Hold the first of the revived First Selectwoman’s Brown Bag lunches. There is no better way to share ideas and learn what Westporters are thinking.

5 Westporters I admire: Allen Raymond, who has done more for Westport than I can mention. Katy Goldschmidt, who inspired me to get into and stay in Westport politics. PTA parents, whose tireless efforts keep our schools great. My husband Michael, who has no idea what he’s in for if I do run for first selectman but will never complain. Dan Woog, who runs the most lively and interesting blog I know of. 🙂

Favorite places in Westport: Compo Beach, particularly in the off season. The Westport Public Library, our downtown anchor. The  Saugatuck River behind my house, which is beautiful in every season.

Favorite places not in Westport: Fort Sewall in Marblehead, Massachusetts where I grew up; Cuttyhunk Island; the Princeton University campus.

If I was not running for first selectman, I’d be…: sailing to Bermuda (seriously!).

If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say..: although we seem to disagree on almost every issue, we all care passionately about our community.

Jim Marpe, former chair, Board of Education

Main reason I’m running for 1st selectman: I love Westport. I’m excited at the prospect of using my unique background in both the private and public sectors to make our town even greater. I saw the impact I could make as a public servant on the Board of Education, keeping Westport schools world-class while improving efficiency in a non-partisan matter. My consensus-driven approach will help enhance our services, protect our “crown jewels” and make it easier for our seniors to stay in Westport.

Main reason I considered not running: The time I spend with my wife and daughter, and the time I dedicate to various community service activities, are very important to me. The 1st selectman’s job is more than full time, so I face giving up significant portions of family and community service. Fortunately, my family is excited about the positive differences they believe I can make.

Jim Marpe at the Rotary Club, of which he is a long-time member.

Jim Marpe at the Rotary Club, of which he is a long-time member.

Major problems facing Westport: Westporters are concerned that many “crown jewel” services and amenities are showing wear and need attention. Seniors want to “age in place” but worry about property tax increases and housing options. Employee pension and benefit costs must be restructured to still make our community an attractive place to work, but at a cost taxpayers can afford. We must seek cost efficiencies through technology, restructuring operations and greater cooperation between the town and schools. We must revitalize our ability to attract and retain businesses that are appropriate to our town’s character.

Biggest thing Westporters talk about that is NOT a major problem: The amazing number of community service organizations and their dedicated, tireless and creative staff and volunteers who do an extraordinary job of filling the gaps that government cannot or should not fill. Westporters are an engaged, well-intentioned, civic-minded group who care about their neighbors and the direction of the town.

First thing I would do after being sworn in: Meet with every town department head to identify their key challenges and opportunities, and agree on the top objectives for the coming year and their impact on the budget process. This will lay the groundwork for quickly developing a 4-year strategic operating plan. Simultaneously we will aggressively develop strategies for upcoming labor and pension contract negotiations.

5 Westporters I admire and why: Allen Raymond, who has dedicated most of his 90 years to Westport through public office and leadership of many community organizations. Joanne Woodward, through whose leadership we still have our iconic Westport Country Playhouse housed in a modern yet familiar facility, with an expanded mission. Al DiGuido, whose Al’s Angels and its dozens of volunteers demonstrate the impact an individual can have on a community and the lives of children. Paul Green, who through his “Nevah Surrendah” organization and his commitment to exercise has educated and motivated Parkinson’s disease sufferers to fight back, and inspires us all. Mary Ellen Marpe, my wife, who besides putting up with my late evening meetings and erratic schedule has made her own impact on Westport through 11 years of operating the Academy of Dance, and now having a leadership role in ITNCastalCT.

My favorite places in Westport: Ned Dimes Marina at sunset on a summer evening. Getting a haircut at Compo Barber Shop. Any restaurant, diner, deli or bar that is locally owned (outdoor dining appreciated). Westport Country Playhouse; the “Staff Recommends” table at the library. Longshore golf course; coffee and conversation at Mitchells. Walking my dog in Winslow Park, at Compo and Burying HIll in winter. Shopping at the Farmers Market and Double L Farm Stand. Wakeman Town Farm.

My favorite places NOT in Westport: Anywhere with vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms; a sailboat or motorboat on Long Island Sound; Manhattan; Boston; Chicago; Tuscany.

If I was not running for 1st selectman, I’d be…: continuing to work with the Family Y, Rotary, Green’s Farms Church, Y’s Men, Stamford Symphony and the Riedel & Cody Foundation. I would spend more time with my wife and daughter, and walk my dog more often. I might even lower my golf handicap.

If I was tweeting about Westport, I’d say…: Love Westport. A creative, sophisticated, caring community in a unique setting; world-class schools; activities to match every interest.

15 responses to “Questioning Our Candidates

  1. Ann Marie Flynn

    Dan….thank you so very much on having the candidates speak so openly. You took them to a wonderful depth with your questions. We are seeing many sides of them…usually not made visible to us. It’s appreciated.

  2. John Hartwell

    Looking forward to hearing from all three Dems at tomorrow evening’s DTC meeting

  3. Tom Feeley

    Thanks, Dan and all the contributors…should be exciting!

  4. Great stuff…thanks to the candidates for their responses and to Dan the Man for making it happen.

  5. Bart Shuldman

    Great job Dan. You do get a good sense of their thoughts, concerns and personalities of these candidates. It should be a good election tackling the challenges of $100 million+ OPEB Liability, $50M pension obligation, $130m+ debt and $200 million budget–almsot $400 million and growing.

    One thing that truly surprised me, was a comment by Jonathan Steinberg who has also been voting to represent us in Hartford. Jonathan said when asked about Major problems facing Westport:

    “The good news is we are not facing major problems. But we’ve all noticed a change in the tone of public dialogue lately. There’s a tendency to form factions and fight, rather than work together. There’s so much good about Westport, and so many good people who want to move the town forward, but there’s an increasing lack of civility and willingness to see the other side’s point of view.”

    Leadershiop means understanding what the issues are, which the other candidates say we have to adress, understanding the different opinions, and work to solve them. But if you cannot see the issues, how can you lead? if you believe we have no problems then it raises a different concern–one of the person who is running and how much he knows, and how can he lead?

    For me, it was shocking to read.

  6. John Hartwell

    Bart — lumping long term commitments together with annual operating costs makes no sense. And Jonathan didnt say we have “no problems”, He just believes they arent “major”. He rightfully pointed out our triple A bond rating and says we need to “plan for future…obligations”, which Helen believes “could eventually crowd out other funding needs”.

    We clearly have to be prudent going forward as we have been in the past, but the sky is not falling and there’s no need to panic. Westport has survived the Bush recession and is in very good shape financially, with manageable debts and a terrific economic base to build on.

    • Bart Shuldman

      John–thanks for your response. Clealry two different opinions, but you seem to agree by mentioning another candidate, that our liabilities could ‘crowd’ out our funding needs. She seems to know so I would call that a major issue.

      Lets not forget most liabilities will continue to grow as our employees in town get older. If we do not change the contracts, we will feel the effects of an aging work group whose costs skyrocket. Just think how much costs will rise as the employee and their spouse who retire and get older receieve the medical insurance we promised–both–not just the employee. Westport is on the hook.

      Lets also not forget we have financed our way thru the recession by using the low interest rate environment. What happens when Bernacke takes his foot off the gas pedal of econimc growth? What hapens to our budget when interest artes rise 100, 200 or 300 basis points. Not today, but say in 5 or 7 years.

      Do our senior citizens like our high taxes? Do they see a way out of this? Do they think it is major issue? I bet you they do.

      The econimic base you speak about are the residents. We have faced continued rising taxes and OPEB and pension liabilities that are escalating. We have mainatined our AAA rariung due to the residents paying their increasing tax bills, not Westport controlling costs.

      For soemone running for office not thinking this is major, is quite telling to the residents of Westport his politics and policies. Thanks to dan we get to se it early. I also hope we get to look at his voring record in Hartford.

      Never did i say the sky is falling. What I am saying, lets avoid it with the major issues we face.

      • Bart — I quoted Helen’s response because “could eventually” is not much different from Jonathan’s “need to plan for…future obligations”. Both imply that there’s a potential problem, but that the problem can be managed.

        Jim Marpe, by the way, gives higher priority in his response to “services and amenities showing wear” and “aging in place”, and then says that we must restructure public pensions and benefits with employee needs in mind (“make our community an attractive place to work”). In your mind, does he “understand the issues”?

        Of course pensions and benefits could be a major problem if not addressed, but in fact every candidate knows this and they all pledge to give it their attention if elected,

        You and I can have differing opinions about where we’re headed, but the bond markets recognize what we’ve done so far and have given us their highest risk rating. They’re saying we’re basically in good shape, that we have no major problems. I agree (I’d be a fool not to, they’re the smartest people in the universe. Just ask them)

        • Bart Shuldman

          I will stick to my concern that Mr. Sternberg does not think our financial issues are a major problem. I would ask those such as senior citizens if they agree.

          As for AAA ratings you should know that is based on the fact the residents can pay. However, if you judge our towns success I would question it. OPEB, rising pension costs are all waiting to cause issues. And it was the dialogue that Mr Steinberg says it an issue, that allowed these major concerns to be brought forward. My guess he would rather just do what was done in the past, just cover it up and say we have no issues.

          The good news we have the statements above to start judging the candidates. Two years ago major changes in town governance was voted by the residents due to what I will call the major issues. We can continue to see that progress and KUDOS to Dan to start the necessary dialogue by the candidates.

  7. Bart — please read carefully. Jonathan says the problem is that we “form factions and fight, rather than work together”, which for most people would include dialogue. And from that point you leap to pure speculation, what you “guess he would rather do”. Why don’t you ask him directly rather than taking shots from the sidelines?

  8. Luisa Francoeur

    Dan, you asked great questions! The responses to the questions indicated where similarities and differences lie among the candidates. We are lucky to have good candidates from both parties; they are all thoughtful individuals.
    Thank you !

  9. Bart Shuldman

    John. Looks like Helen got the nod. Do you think Mr. Sternberg will primary?

    • Tom Feeley

      No way! Because as John has said:
      Jonathan says the problem is that we “form factions and fight, rather than work together” Forcing a primary would be just that…forming a faction.

      • John Hartwell

        Helen got the recommendation of the DTC Exec Committee. The official party endorsement will come at a meeting scheduled for July 18th where all DTC members get to vote.