RTM 101: You Keep Hearing About It. What Does It Do?

The leaf blower ordinance. Wheels2U. Affordable housing.

If you follow those stories, you may know that the RTM has a hand in them. But what is “the RTM”? Who are these people, and what do they do?

Velma Heller knows. For 20 years, she was one of them. And for much of that time, she was its leader (“moderator”).

As Westport gears up for local elections this fall, Velma gives “06880” the DL on the RTM.

As a retired member of Westport’s RTM, would like to share some of the reasons you might be interested in becoming part of this unique experience in town government.

Velma Heller

For me, getting involved in our legislative body was exhilarating, an opportunity to learn and grow as I also formed lasting relationships with my colleagues.

I, like so many before me, became a link in the lineage of town legislators that helped to shape the town we call home.

Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) became the legislative body of the town in 1949, replacing the historic New England Town Meeting with a non-partisan representative form of government. It was designed to provide effective self- rule for a growing population.

The town was divided into 6 RTM districts. Each member represented 250 electors, and serving for 2 years. Over time the number of districts and representatives per district was modified to accommodate population changes. Today there are 9 districts. with 4 members per district.

To manage its many responsibilities, the RTM formed committees that study issues in depth, then report back to the full body for debate.

Westport citizens developed a form of government that represented the unique character and history of the town. It continues to this date. All Westporters are part of the tradition. What began as a new practice has become a time-honored institution of governance for our town.

Since its inception almost 75 years ago, Westport’s electors have assembled an extraordinary body of dedicated citizens to represent them: farmers, merchants, business people, corporate executives, writers, artists, architects, journalists, engineers, lawyers, educators, stay-at-home moms and dads, doctors, dentists, retirees. People from all walks of life resolve issues facing the town.

In the early years and beyond, local legislators focused on making our town a viable, comfortable community. They created town roads and drainage, and budgeted for school buildings — addressing the challenges of expansion, changing demographics and economic factors.

Over the years they directed attention and debate to funding land acquisition for town purposes such as commuter parking lots, Longshore, Cockenoe Island (to prevent a nuclear power plant off our shore), the Baron’s North property, (Winslow Park) as open space and the Baron’s South property, now the site of the Senior Center.

As the town entered the 21st century the RTM continued exercising its powers: to approve, reduce or restore appropriations; approve ordinances; approve certain appointments, and overturn certain P&Z text amendments.

Always at top of mind has been the balancing act required to address the wide range of pressing town needs that come before the body.

The RTM has shown an ongoing commitment to funding Westport’s excellent educational system through yearly budgets or building projects: conversions, expansions, renovations, reconstruction or new construction through times of contraction and growth.

Funding the town’s infrastructure, services and amenities continues to be a major focus. The RTM approves money to support administrative requests for running the town and its departments, including Human Services, Police, Fire, Public Works, and Parks & Recreation. Those requests fund the Senior Center; equipment and technology for all departments; sidewalks; a sewage treatment plant; recreational facilities at Longshore; town beaches, and much more.

In 1967, Westport’s RTM approved a plan to buy Cockenoe Island for $200,000. The purchase scuttled a plan to build a nuclear power plant a mile off Compo Beach.

In their legislative role, the RTM continues to approve ordinances reflecting the priorities of the times. These include converting the original Saugatuck Elementary School to a moderate income elderly housing facility, creating a Blight Board and TEAM Westport, a ban on retail plastic bags, a ban on smoking in public buildings, restricting infill on athletic fields, the use of fracking waste in town, and recently restricting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers.

When all is said and done, it’s the people that make a difference by participating, sharing their views and adding insight to the decision-making of the RTM. They reflect the views of the town, resonating passion and pride, offering a voice of reason, building community.  Whether serving as elected representatives, as individual members of the public airing their observations at meetings, or running for a seat on the RTM and enhancing the work of study committees, their varied perspectives enrich the discourse. Perhaps you could be one of those who contribute to the process.

In my own experience, together we engaged in hours of discussion and sometimes messy (albeit productive) debate. We built consensus, resolved issues, and at the end of the day (hopefully) agreed to disagree. For me, serving on the RTM in a collaborative, non-partisan environment, and making decisions that impacted the welfare of our town with support from exceptional colleagues was its own reward.

While COVID temporarily changed the venue of meetings to a remote format, once again in-person meetings are held at Town Hall. I encourage you to attend upcoming meetings the first Tuesday of each month. There’s something about “being in the room where it happens.”

I hope you too will be inspired to get involved, to run for a seat representing your district on the RTM. For further information on the RTM, click here. For details on running for the RTM, contact the Town Clerk’s office jdunkerton@westportct.gov or 203-341-1105. Petitions and applications for those planning to run are due in mid-summer.

(“06880” covers the RTM frequently — and all other town bodies. Please consider a contribution to help our work. Click here — and thank you!)



5 responses to “RTM 101: You Keep Hearing About It. What Does It Do?

  1. Thank you for the timely explanation! My Aunt Nancy was elected to town representative (district 1) in 1965 with 481 votes. She served two terms. The diary that I found this week mentioned the RTM with no explanation of what that was.

  2. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    My dad, Harry Scott was on the RTM, I don’t remember the exact years (we lived in Westport from 1952 – 1969) but I do remember that a big thing he was involved in was helping the town buy Longshore and making it a municipal course. His friendship with golf pro George Buck helped me get started in a life long love of golf.

    • Edward Bonham

      I would love to see Velma Heller return to District 9 as a representative. She was so helpful when I inquired about handicap accessibility sidewalks on Evergreen.

    • Harry Scott wasn’t on the RTM.
      He definitely was involved with Longshore, though.
      He served on the Town’s first (newly established by Charter) Recreation Commission from 1957 until 1963.

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    So. How’s the RTM model working for Westport these days?

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