In 1997, Jack Klinge was a newly retired commuter. Looking for local activities, he discovered the Representative Town Meeting (RTM).
Elected that fall, he has not lost since. Now in his 25th year on Westport’s non-partisan legislative body, the former marketing executive is its longest-serving member.
Of all time.
The first RTM — a change from Westport’s previous “town meeting” government, which was great in theory but unwieldy in a rapidly growing suburb — was elected in 1949. Over 200 candidates vied for 26 seats.
Nearly 3/4 of a century later, competition is less keen. But the RTM — which, among other duties, approves town and education budgets, and any appropriation over $20,000; enacts ordinances, and reviews certain changes to zoning and recreation regulations — remains one of Westport’s most important bodies.
And Klinge is one of its biggest boosters.
His route to the RTM is as typical as anyone’s. He and his wife Jeanne bought a 1780 Cape on Partrick Road when he began working for General Foods in White Plains. In 1974 they moved with their 3 young kids across town, to Sturges Highway. They’ve been there ever since.
The usual amenities — the schools, beaches, Longshore, sports — kept them here. Jeanne got involved in a variety of civic affairs, including the original Levitt Pavilion.
But Jack — who invented stovetop stuffing mix at General Foods, then helped Arm & Hammer’s marketing team put baking soda in every refrigerator, and made his final name as a Topps sports cards marketing director — was less active in town.
He coached Little League baseball and rec basketball. But beyond fighting proposed developments on the Partrick wetlands and what later became Winslow Park, he was “an apolitical commuting father and husband.”
In 1997, his business — Major League Marketing, headquartered on Richmondville Avenue — was bought out. The new owners moved it to Texas. Klinge retired.
Human Services director Barbara Butler suggested he join Westport’s mentor program. A quarter century later, he still helps his first mentee — and his family.
Having taught night classes at Sacred Heart University for 7 years, Klinge joined the Westport Public Schools’ substitute list. He still subs.
But a chance comment from a friend about the RTM piqued his interest in town government. When he heard what it did — and that candidates ran without party affiliation — he was in.
He got a petition signed by 25 District 7 electors (including, he laughs, “5 Klinges”).
Klinge had no time for door-to-door campaigning. But he did fill out a comprehensive questionnaire, for the League of Women Voters guide.
Besides, there were only 4 candidates, for 4 seats. He couldn’t lose.
Moderator Gordon Joseloff assigned Klinge to 3 committees: Education, Finance, and Parks & Recreation. He’s still on them — and others — today.
Klinge has run unopposed, and against a larger field. By now he’s well known. But he takes no chances. He prints flyers, and gains endorsements.
And — always — he listens to constituents. They send emails. They stop him and Jeanne on their walks through the neighborhood. They ask questions (and offer opinions) on the golf course.
Some know a lot about town government. Others are clueless. But an RTM member’s job is to serve them all.
“I love this job,” Klinge says. “The other night, we met until midnight about the Burying Hill groin. I wanted to use ARPA funds. I said, ‘We need to do this now.'” The vote passed.
Klinge enjoys “every meeting and committee session” — some more than others, of course.
Decisions are not made lightly. Proposals like dogs on the beach and tasers for police consume months of committee and full meeting debates. Westport “never lacks for good issues,” the legislator notes.
He is proud of most decisions. Years later though, Klinge regrets that the RTM failed — by 2 votes — to overturn a Planning & Zoning Commission decision regarding senior housing on Baron’s South.
“That shut off all discussion,” he says. “We need housing for older people in Westport, and having it right next to the Senior Center would have been great.
“Now we worry about finding spots for housing all over town. That vote still hurts.”
Now, as head of the RTM Long Range Planning Committee, Klinge is trying to tie ARPA funding in to the 5-year capital forecast. “We need better, quicker decision-making,” he says. “These are the things that keep me up at night.”
They don’t keep every Westporter up, that’s for sure. Many residents — especially newcomers — know very little about the RTM, Klinge says.
Or any other facet of town government.
“Realtors don’t provide ‘RTM 101,'” he says. “I’d have kids learn about how the town works in school. Then they could teach their parents.”
As Westport changes throughout the years, so has the RTM. Fewer seats are contested, and the old civility — “convivial, congenial, lots of laughs” — has eroded somewhat.
The move to virtual meetings has not helped. Klinge misses the days when everyone sat together, in Town Hall.
Still, he says, the RTM remains “non-political. There are liberals and conservatives. But debate is still open to all points of view.”
Klinge notes one other change. Though some newcomers know little about town government, others have stepped up to run for RTM seats.
“It used to be an old boys’ club, with a few women. Now probably half the members are under 50, and we’re about half male, half female.”
He hopes the new members will keep it apolitical, while making sure the body is proactive in confronting important town issues.
And, he insists, “always putting Westport first.”
At 83, Klinge says he still has a great deal to contribute to the RTM. He’ll keep running. “I love serving,” he says. “And I hate losing.”
So far, he is 12 for 12. The end is nowhere in sight.
(Hat tips: Matthew Mandell, Eileen Lavigne Flug, Jeff Dunkerton)