As a commuter, Jeff Wieser did not feel a part of either Westport or New York.
He’d always been interested in government, but was not committed to party politics. The Representative Town Meeting — our non-partisan legislative body — seemed intriguing.
So in 2007 — 22 years after moving here — Wieser ran for a seat.
He won easily. “Well, it was an uncontested district,” he admits.
At his second meeting, the RTM passed a plastic bag ban. It was the first such measure east of the Mississippi River. Wieser realized the potential and power of the body.
Seven terms later, he is the new RTM moderator.
Earlier this month, Wieser took the gavel from longtime moderator Velma Heller.
On Friday — the day he retired from his 3rd career, as CEO of Goodwill of Western & Northern Connecticut — he reflected on his path to the post.
He and his wife Pat moved here in 1985, after his banking career took him to Hong Kong and Australia. Now, he says, “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
In 1989 Wieser joined the board of Homes with Hope, the supportive housing agency. Founder and CEO Pete Powell retired in 2009. A 6-month search failed to find a qualified replacement. Would Wieser be interested?
He spent 3 days considering it. When he asked Pat what she’d think if he gave up banking, she said, “It’s what you’ve always wanted to do.”
After a decade at the helm — opening more housing options, and adding services for homeless and hungry people — Wieser retired,
A few weeks later, he joined Goodwill as interim CEO. Two weeks after that, COVID hit. Good will laid off employees, and closed stores. Wieser felt he could not leave then. He stayed many months longer than he’d planned.
Now that he’s finally retired, he’ll have the time to dedicate to his new position. It’s an important one.
Wieser knows the only image some Westporters have of the RTM comes from watching contentious meetings. They draw crowds. Few people view the more mundane sessions. Fewer still see the committee work and constituent outreach that is so important, to him and fellow members
The RTM’s non-partisan mandate appeals to Wieser.
“This is the essence of democracy,” he says. “We’re a town of 28,000, and we have a legislative body one-third the size of the US Senate. But there’s no party affiliation, so we have reasoned. thoughtful debates. The RTM should be a model for any democratic institution.
“Sometimes I appreciate the RTM more than I like it. But I really do like it.”
As chair of the RTM’s Finance Committee, Wieser worked with the 1st selectman and Board of Finance. That experience deepened his appreciation for how well the town is run.
As deputy moderator, he watched Hadley Rose, Eileen Lavigne Flug and then Heller run meetings. They are the 3 most recent moderators, in a long line of effective consensus builders.
Wieser describes the moderator’s role as “herding 36 pretty intelligent cats every month. I’m supposed to guide the conversation, slow it down, keep people in line, keep the rules of order, keep the agenda in good shape, and make sure the committees are meeting.”
The moderator is not supposed to participate in debates. “My goal is to help members accomplish their goals,” he explains.
Wieser calls his style “collaborative.” At Homes with Hope he learned that nothing gets done unless everyone pulls in the same direction.
“I’m a consensus builder,” Wieser says. “I won’t rush anything through.”
Wieser’s style has served him well in his previous work. It’s helpful too at Positive Directions: The Center for Prevention & Counseling, on whose board he serves.
But, he says, he’s “clearing the decks” of other obligations, to be as effective as he can as RTM moderator.
Of course, herding “36 pretty intelligent cats” is not all he does. He and Pat enjoy living near their son Charlie — who has moved with his wife back to Westport — and daughter Casey, in Darien.
Son Teddy is a bit further away: Hong Kong.
“Life is good,” Wieser says.
He aims to keep it that way, for the RTM he now leads, and all the rest of us who — though we seldom realize it — benefit every day from it.