The 1st selectman’s office is not usually a place of controversy. And the 1st week in office for a new 1st selectman is usually a time for feel-good, passing-of-the-gavel photo ops.
This was not a usual week at Westport Town Hall.
Last Friday, recently sworn-in 1st Selectman Jim Marpe named Bob Zappi — his former campaign manager, former Republican Town Committee head and a business marketing executive — as his operations manager. A similar position existed under Republican 1st selectmen Doug Wood and Joe Arcudi, but had not been filled for 16 years under Democrats Diane Farrell and Gordon Joseloff.
The position — paying $125,000 a year — was immediately criticized. Westporters wondered why it was needed; why Marpe had not mentioned the idea during the campaign; why he appointed a political friend and not an experienced municipal executive to the post, and why the position was never advertised.
Yesterday, Zappi withdrew his name. He also resigned as “transition leader” for the 1st and 2nd selectmen.
He said that “the discussion has been focused more on me rather than the benefits that this new leadership style would bring” to Westporters. “The outcry from the Democrats was predictable and expected. After all, it has been 20 years since a Republican was elected First Selectman.”
Zappi noted, “I believe competition is healthy and that 2 viable parties are better than one and that my contribution to the political process was positive for Westport.”
Marpe said, “In my enthusiasm to get going for Westport, I moved quickly. The opportunity to take advantage of Bob’s 30 year track record of helping Fortune 500 companies enhance their organization and operations was compelling.” He cited Zappi’s “proven abilities, knowledge of town government and the people who lead it.”
Marpe added that the appointment was “viewed as partisan in nature, which was never the intention. Given the perception Bob felt that he could not make the contribution he wanted to both Westport and my administration. Therefore, he has chosen to withdraw. This action is a testament to Bob’s character and devotion to the Town of Westport.”
Marpe stressed that he and 2nd Selectman Avi Kaner will fulfill their promise of “bi-partisan consensus…Further reorganization will reflect that commitment. Our broad-based support during the recent campaign clearly demonstrated the desires of Westporters to put the town ahead of politics. We appreciate your continued support as we work together to move Westport forward.”
As I said, quite an unusual week for Westport.
I like Jim Marpe. I said so the day after the election:
He and his running mate, Avi Kaner, are true Westporters. In everything they’ve done — politically, as well as through their many volunteer activities — they’ve put the best interests of this town first.
They’ve built up enormous reservoirs of good will and respect, among a broad swath of voters. The results prove that. This is a Democratic town — in terms of registration numbers — but their win shows that many voters crossed party lines because they liked what they’ve seen, and heard, from these 2 Republicans.
Jim and Avi will work tirelessly for this town. They will do it by working with Democrats, with Save Westport Now members, with independents, and with anyone else who is willing to work with them.
The intense criticism from Democrats and independents over Zappi’s appointment resulted, I think, because it followed so swiftly all the talk of bipartisanship — and because it happened so quickly, without any indication that such a job was even under consideration. Some of the criticism was intensely personal — more vituperative and nasty than I’ve heard in a long time.
But some Republicans, too, felt the appointment was rushed and poorly handled.
The timing of the appointment may not have been great, but the timing of its resolution is. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. We’ve got a 4-day weekend. Most of us will relax, enjoy time with friends and family, and give thanks for the many blessings that surround us in Westport.
Jim Marpe has 4 years — minus 1 week — to move our town forward, utilizing the talents and energies of every Westporter. I’m betting he will, and that this is the roughest week he’ll have as 1st Selectman.
If so, we’ll all be thankful for that.