Town Hall Still Closed. Attorney Asks Why. Officials Respond.

In mid-March, the coronavirus swept through Westport. In just 48 hours nearly every institution — schools, stores, restaurants, the YMCA, the library, Town Hall — closed to the public.

Gradually — if partially — they’ve all reopened.

Except Town Hall.

Employees, residents, and the many folks who do business every day there have had to find new ways of operating.

That does not sit well with one “06880” reader. A real estate attorney, he used to be in and out of Town Hall nearly every day. Title searches, transactions, deeds — the daily work of home purchases and sales must go through the Town Clerk, Planning and Zoning, Building and Conservation Department offices.

For nearly 6 months, those offices have been shut.

On March 11, flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced the latest COVID-19 news. The next day, Town Hall was shut.

“To record a $6 million sale, I have to make an appointment,” the attorney says. “But only certain times. You can’t do it at noon. That’s their lunch hour.

At the appointed time, he says, “they come outside. You give them the documents. They go inside, then come back out and hand you a receipt.”

Once, he says, he was told to put a notarized document in a drop box. It was quarantined for 24 hours. Then it got lost. “I’ve never heard of COVID being transmitted by paper,” he says.

He’s frustrated too to call with a question, and be told, “I’m working from home. I don’t have access to those files.”

It’s not only Westport, the attorney says. Weston, Norwalk, New Canaan, Darien — those Town Halls are closed too.

“It’s not right,” the attorney says. “With all the buying and selling going on now, there has to be a better way.”

I asked town officials to reply. Operations director Sara Harris says:

“While it may appear that Town Hall remains ‘closed,’ it has in fact never been closed. Town Hall staff members have been working in Town Hall every day since March 11, with services available to the public by appointment only.  Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we have maintained a citizen- centric approach to accessing all town services. Complaints regarding access to Town Hall have been minimal, and those concerns have been mostly due to misunderstandings of available services. We appreciate that residents have been patient and understanding during this challenging situation.

Sara Harris in her Town Hall office. A painting of the old Town Hall — now Jesup Hall restaurant — hangs behind her.

“Before COVID made its way to Westport, the staff in Town Hall were preparing and planning to offer all town services in case Town Hall needed to be closed to the public for health reasons.

“We devised an operational approach that allowed services to continue. That meant a mixture of staff members working from home (those who utilize cloud-based software for the majority of their work), some coming in on an alternating schedule to allow for social distancing, and some needing to be physically present to do their job.

“We are proud to say that all services continued to be offered to the public during COVID. These have been handled via telephone, email, or the use of the exterior drop box for paper document submission or payments. The Town Clerk and other departments have been hosting appointments for those services that require a face to face transaction, such as marriage certificates or notary.

“There are approximately 20 departments operating in Town Hall or Westport’s other facility buildings. Each have very distinct services and processes. As a result, some staff have worked in-person, remotely or on an alternating schedule.

“Additionally, as witnessed with the overall economy, we also struggle with staff who have childcare or other competing priorities that make it more difficult for some to be physically present. At various times, department office phones may not be answered, and callers are requested to leave voice messages. I have instructed all departments to either answer phones, respond to voice messages or forward them to the appropriate office within 24 hours.

“Regarding the comparison with private business such as stores, banks, gyms and restaurants: Town Hall has in fact been functioning similarly, and for a longer period of time.

Town Hall is closed to the public. However, employees are available by phone and email. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“Phase II of our ‘reopening’ strategy is to allow additional appointments to take place in one of the larger conference rooms in Town Hall. We anticipate that this phase will begin later this month, along with some physical improvements to coincide with its implementation, including erecting partitions, removing carpet, etc. Public access to the building will still be somewhat limited.

“Phase III, which we expect in the spring, will include major renovations to allow increased control of traffic into Town Hall. These changes are currently under design and are expected to require a budgetary appropriation due to the complexities of the older building design, ADA compliance, layout, and security and egress concerns.

“With the completion of Phase III, we anticipate that the building can be reopened to members of the public wishing to conduct Town business. We do, however, intend to continue to restrict access to some sections of the building, both for security purposes and to uphold best public health practices.”

Town Clerk Patty Strauss adds:

“The Westport Town Clerk’s Office is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Phone calls are answered directly by a staff member, and in- person appointments are arranged to meet customers at the rear entrance of town hall to conduct business that requires in-person attention. Customers may call to make an appointment for deeds with conveyance, marriage licenses, certification of documents and many other types of transactions where face to face customer contact is necessary. These instructions are located on the town clerk’s web page.

(Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

“Westport land records are indexed back to the town’s incorporation date of 1835. The index to these records, and many other collections housed in the Town Clerk’s office, is available for searching online 24/7 FREE.

“Due to COVID, online viewing of land record documents is free of charge. Land record images are online back to 1974. Requests for older documents not imaged are emailed to the Town Clerk’s office. Orders are filled within 24 hours or same day delivery by scanning the document instead of post mailing, free of charge.

“The Town Clerk’s office has recorded 3,952 documents since March 11. No other complaints have been raised, so there is no reason to assume an adjustment to the current searching/recording procedures should be made. However, we are open to any suggestions to better service our customers and, at the same time, keeping customers and the staff safe.”

17 responses to “Town Hall Still Closed. Attorney Asks Why. Officials Respond.

  1. Access denied is access denied no matter how you paint it.

  2. Notwithstanding the Operations Manager’s word salad response (love that the old campaign slogan “citizen-centric” was even thrown in) many have laughingly observed that the Administration finally found a way to keep icky residents out of Town Hall.

    • I have to laugh…word salad.🥗
      Morley hit the name on the head.

      Thankfully, no one from Norwalk City Hall has said anything like that to my knowledge.

      Other thoughts from post and comments…
      What’s with the quarantine of paper work and documents?
      The building department paperwork in a box outside?
      No one answering the phone or at least clearing out their voice mail on a daily basis?

  3. In the late Spring, I was outside the Fire Dept HQ (where the Building Dept is) and I saw there was a box full of documents for building plans that were left for pick up. In the span of 30 mins, about 3 different people approached the box. Each person had to take out almost every piece of paper and hold it up to their face to look at the details and put them back inside until they found their proper one. Not sure if this is still the way things are going, but it seemed like the most unsanitary way to handle and process documents for the recipients.

  4. I engage with different departments of town hall almost daily and appreciate being able to do everything online. Public records should be easy to access and free and now they are. I’ve called a few different offices for assistance since COVID and they’re always there and are always helpful. I’m sure that all departments are working on better ways to manage the flow of necessary paper documents as the pandemic wears on and suggestions from public users on ways to do that will be more helpful than pointing out inconveniences.

  5. I went to town hall yesterday, trying drop off voter registration forms, as a new resident of Westport. I was surprised to find the doors locked, when school and gyms had reopened!! It seems exposure in schools and gyms could be much greater than at town hall. In any case, I sat in the parking lot, called the office, and spoke with a woman who answered the main number. She transferred me to the “person who handles voter registration.” After being transferred, I got a recording and could not leave a message- the mailbox was full!!! So, I called back. The same woman answered, surprised when I told her the mailbox was still full, as she said the office notified the person in charge of “voting,” a day prior!!! Less than 2 months from election day, this is completely unacceptable, especially in such an important election year. Westport leaders- I hope you can do better than this!!!

  6. I thought it was only Norwalk City Hall was closed.
    Norwalker’s and other business people are also getting frustrated that it’s still closed and only appointment only,.
    People are inside working and from home to keep it running as smoothly as possible.
    City Hall, will as per the Mayor said October 1st will open back up to (maybe) normal hours. I suspect that is subject to change. I’ll believe it when I see it happen.
    I now see from Dan’s post it’s also the surrounding communities.
    City Hall is open for appointments. To keep some face to face interaction rolling, i.e to pay taxes in person and some information. There’s tons of information signs on sandwich boards at the front door and at the tax window.
    Norwalk designated two large windows, to the left of the front door and set up a desk, computers, files, credit and debit card machines.
    Norwalk City Hall used to be Norwalk High School just as Westport Town Hall was Bedford Elementary School. I’m surprised they didn’t do something similar and rearrange Town Hall to have windows for some face to face contact.
    I’m surprised Westport Town Hall lost the attorneys notarized document. Yikes!

  7. Voter registration can be done online.
    https://voterregistration.ct.gov/

    The forms can also be mailed in or placed in the dropbox at Town Hall.

    • Harris- Thanks for your comment, but you can only register to vote online if you have a CT driver license, which I can’t get until my appointment with the DMV in late October- the first available appointment! I know you can register to vote in CT on election day, but with COVID I was hoping to avoid that! I know I can drop the papers in the box, but I wanted to hand them to someone. I’ve heard many accounts of the box being overfilled and not checked regularly. Regardless, they shouldn’t have a full voicemail mailbox when they were asked to clear it!!! Laziness, and unconcerned for new voters, which there are many as the housing market has been booming since COVID.

  8. Town Hall Official: “We are proud to say that all services continue to be offered to the public during Covid”
    The Public: “We are frustrated and can’t get needed services in an efficient manner”
    These guys make the DMV look good!

  9. Doctor’s offices and large medical complexes have figured out how to handle the safe entry and exit of patients. Yes, appointments are needed and you are screened ahead of time and/or as you enter. You call when you arrive and are either escorted into the office immediately or are told to wait in the lobby until the office confirms that you can proceed on your own to the office/exam area. The lobbies and/or waiting rooms are set up with chairs that are kept appropriately distant. Masks are required. Hand disinfectant is provided upon entry.

    At this point, it seems that Town Halls can certainly crack open their doors further and still maintain reasonable safety for all plus provide better efficiency for those who need or prefer in-person visits.

  10. I TRUST THERE WILL BE NO DELAY IN MAILING VOTE-BY-MAIL BALLOTS TO THOSE OF US WHO
    FILED AN APPLICATION FOR THEM. WHEN WILL THEY BE MAILED?

  11. When I spoke to someone in the Registrar’s office, @Caryl Beatus, I was told they would start mailing out absentee (and COVID absentee) ballots October 2.

  12. The fact that town hall is still closed is bad enough, but the reply from Sara Harris is outrageous!
    Town Hall has had six months to put a process in place that allows for a functioning and open town government – if clinics, stores, restaurants, hair salons, supermarkets, businesses and even schools have been able to figure this out, how can you legitimately say that it will take another six months and “major renovations” requiring budget appropriations” for town hall to open the doors to the people it serves?
    Extremely disappointed with Westport’s Town govt on this one.

    • The response from the Administration to a resident fits a familiar pattern: Often when a resident raises a concern about some aspect of town government, the first thing that comes back is an officious declaration that the alleged problem not only does not exist but is actually the opposite. To further humiliate the resident, it is then usually inferred that he or she is just a silly person who “misunderstood” something which, of course, our betters in Town Hall firmly grasp. This is quite often followed by some kind of stigmatizing type statement which makes it clear that the resident is the only one (or one of an inconsequential handful) who has complained about the non-problem problem. To properly silence the resident – especially when others are copied – the above mentioned is sometimes followed by a lot self-praise for all that is allegedly being done on behalf of the resident.

  13. This is absurd. I agree with Mariana Servin. Almost every other business in town, in CT, and in the country has opened up with appropriate social distancing and provisions to make this work. Government officials – remember, those people to whom we pay their salaries – don’t feel it is important to also open the way they should? We’ve figured out a way to open our schools – are our teachers and kids somehow less important or less immune to the virus? I’d suggest that we cut pay to anyone working in town hall for as long as they continue to have their door closed. I am sure that would result in the doors opening pretty quickly. I just don’t understand how these town departments get away with with this.

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