06880

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.”

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