In 2005, Jim Marpe found himself on the Board of Education.
He’d spent 28 years with Accenture, retiring 3 years earlier as a senior partner. His career had taken him to Chicago, Copenhagen, then New York. That final move in 1989 brought Marpe, his wife Mary Ellen and daughter Samantha to Westport. They came — as so many do — for the schools and amenities.
In retirement Marpe played golf, enjoyed his boat and traveled. But growing up in modest circumstances in Canton, Ohio, his parents had always emphasized giving back to the community. And Accenture had always emphasized lifelong learning, he says.
So when Republican Town Committee chair Pete Wolgast asked if he’d be interested in a suddenly vacant seat on the Board of Ed, he was intrigued.
Marpe put his management and financial talents to use, in an area that accounts for 2/3 of Westport’s total budget. He was elected to 2 subsequent terms, and served as vice chair.
In 2013, 1st Selectman Gordon Joseloff announced he would not run for a 3rd term. Marpe realized this was a chance to apply his organizational and management skills in another meaningful way. He also hoped to repair what had become a difficult relationship between the Board of Education and Town Hall.
He and running mate Avi Kaner won. Instead of 8 schools, Marpe now oversaw 16 direct reports. Each ran a “different business. Even the Fire Department is very different from the Police Department,” he notes.
His job was to “keep people out of their silos.” Monthly staff meetings brought all department heads into the same room. He met regularly with each head and deputy. His goal was to create a team that served the town in a coordinated way.
He inherited “high-quality people, who understand Westport.” His job was to coach them, and help them reach their potential.
Marpe has decided not to run for a 3rd term. Now 74, heading toward his 2nd retirement, he looks back on nearly 8 years of accomplishments. He and his administration have made their mark in areas like the Downtown Plan and Implementation Committee, Baron’s South, Senior Center, Longshore Inn and golf course, First Responder Civilian Review Panel, pension reform, sustainability, the new combined Public Safety Dispatch Center, Greens Farms railroad station, even the town website.
He has kept the mill rate remarkably stable, despite economic volatility at the state and federal levels.
But nothing could have prepared the town’s chief executive for a year like 2020.
Responding to COVID — a global pandemic that quickly became very local, with Westport the site of one of the nation’s first super-spreader events — demanded every tool in Marpe’s box.
He gathered and analyzed hard data. He made tough decisions, like closing beaches and the Senior Center. He communicated complex ideas to jittery residents, with empathy and understanding.
In the midst of all that came protests over racial injustice. A month later, Hurricane Isaias knocked out power for many Westporters, for up to a week.
Marpe is proud of his team’s responses to those events. But he also cites less-noticed accomplishments.
Working with Jim Ross and the Commission on People with Disabilities opened his eyes, and expanded his thinking. That propelled his push for greater accessibility at Compo Beach.
A new walkway and bathrooms were controversial. But, Marpe says, “when I see someone who’s physically impaired enjoying a picnic or sunset there now, I get emotional.”
His strong relationship with Police Chief Foti Koskinas, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey and Connecticut Anti-Defamation League director Steve Ginsburg (a Westport resident) helped the town navigate the Black Lives Matter and subsequent Asian-American protests.
When he came into office, Marpe admits, “I didn’t expect to encounter things like that. But they’re a part of the job, just like cutting the ribbon at a new business opening, and seeing how excited people are to open up here.”
Not everyone is happy with how everything works in Westport, he knows. “But if someone contacts me with a reasonable request, and I can help solve their problem, and along the way make the community better, that’s my job.”
He feels grateful for the opportunity to get to know a broad swath of Westport — people he might not have met, businesses and organizations outside of his own interests.
“It’s fascinating what makes up Westport,” Marpe says. “Not a lot of communities our size have that tapestry. My appreciation for this town grows every day.”
Marpe served on the Homes with Hope board since the 1990s (along with many others, like the Westport Weston Family YMCA, Westport Rotary Club and Greens Farms Congregational Church). He is awed by the work these organizations — and so many others — do to make life better for overlooked or marginalized people.
At the same time, he appreciates the town’s long commitment to the arts. (His wife Mary Ellen is the former owner and director of the Westport Academy of Dance.) As 1st selectman, he created the new positions of townwide arts curator and poet laureate.
For the past 7 years, Marpe has been on call 24/7. While on the golf course — even on rare vacations — his phone rings. The recent birth of his grandson made the decision to not run again a bit easier.
His successor will face many challenges. A bureaucratic morass at the state and federal levels has prevented Marpe from moving forward on Saugatuck River dredging.
“We have to do it,” he says firmly. “If we don’t it will silt up, with real consequences for what makes Westport unique, even among shoreline towns.”
He worked across the aisle with Lieutenant Governor Bysewiez and state legislators Will Haskell and Jonathan Steinberg to address traffic issues at the Post Road/Wilton Road/Riverside Avenue intersection downtown, and Main Street/Weston Road/Easton Road near Merritt Parkway Exit 42. “Unfortunately, that’s still the way I found it,” he says.
Plans for Baron’s South will be revealed in 2 or 3 months. But finding the best use for the Golden Shadows building on the property remains a challenge.
And of course, debate continues on the fate of the William F. Cribari Bridge.
But Marpe is excited for the future of Westport. “Downtown feels good again. It’s still the heartbeat of our community — along with Saugatuck, our other ‘downtown.'”
When he hands his swipe card to his successor 7 months from now, what advice can he give?
“Getting into this office involves political activity,” Marpe says. “But once you’re in, it’s about management, like metrics and budgets, and leadership — people skills. It’s the same as any business.
“But what’s different from running a business is that this is a democracy. Boards and commissions have a lot of say. You have to work with those leaders and members. They’re part of the process.”
He’s pleased to have a strong relationship with the superintendent of schools, Thomas Scarice — a goal when he first ran for 1st selectman, in 2013.
Back then, Jim Marpe had never heard the word “coronavirus.” He did not know the name “Isaias.”
Seven years later, they are now 2 parts of his long, and very impressive, legacy.