65 years ago, Westport replaced its “town meeting” form of government with a “Representative Town Meeting” (RTM).
Ann Sheffer used that anniversary as the theme of her invocation at last night’s session. As Westport prepares to celebrate Independence Day — and America’s special democracy — Ann’s remarks are very instructive.
When Velma Heller asked if I would give the invocation tonight, she suggested I talk a bit about the history of the RTM and its relevance today… because the 500 or so people who have served over the years embody the traditions and values of our town.
I am one of a number of Westport families with multiple family members who served on the RTM. My father was on the RTM from 1953 until 1969, and served as moderator from 1959 to 1969. I was on the RTM from 1993 to 2005, as was my husband Bill Scheffler. That makes us one of 11 sets of married couples who have served on the RTM (though not necessarily at the same time).
But more importantly, I realized that July 16 marks the 65th anniversary of the date in 1949 when the citizens of Westport approved the change from a town meeting to a Representative Town Meeting – which made us one of only 7 towns in Connecticut to have this form of government. We are the only fully non-partisan one.
In 1999, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the RTM, we published a history of this body (it’s available here). Here are a few details that show how the RTM has evolved.
In 1949, there were 124 candidates for 26 seats. But only 4 women were elected that first year. Today, both the moderator and deputy moderator are women, a first for the RTM.
Each member was to represent 250 citizens (today it’s about 700). One commentator observed that it was “as democratic as Congress and twice as personal.”
There were notable votes over the years. My favorite, with my father presiding, was the 1972 resolution asking President Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam. It passed, 17-15. There were also many, many evenings, often until 3 am, spent debating the education budget, sewers, and, of course, dog leash laws.
I was going to add David Royce, but I remembered he was never a member of the RTM — just a wonderful gadfly who was actually arrested during one of his protests.
There are traditions that I hope you will learn about and continue. For example, RTM Rules of Procedure call for the “first right-hand seat of the left-hand section as you face the Moderator” to be left empty as a memorial to Maclear Jacoby, one of the original members, and to all deceased RTM members.
I want to leave you with the words that Gordon Joseloff wrote when he was elected moderator of the RTM in 1995:
“May those who serve in this body, and hold the responsibility for our Town, be
- Respectful of our past
- Confident of our present
- Bold about our future.”
Ann nailed it. Happy anniversary, RTM — and happy Independence Day, Westport!