Category Archives: Politics

Quad-Town, Bipartisan Effort Aims For Accurate Census

Among other things, the decennial national census is used to apportion seats in the US House of Representatives.

After the 2000 count, Connecticut lost one of our seats. We’d been at 6 since 1930; now we’re down to 5.

The census is also used to allocate funds for programs like Head Start, food stamps and other social service projects. As well, it provides the most accurate picture of exactly who lives where — information that’s important for businesses, scientists, sociologists and many others to know.

The census begins next year. And — if a coalition of civic-minded volunteers in lower Fairfield County has its way — it will provide a very accurate count of at least this small slice of America.

“Norwalk to Bridgeport” is a non-partisan effort. Several Westporters are involved, as are men and women in Fairfield, and the 2 cities bracketing them.

The other day, one of them talked about their work.

Deb Howland-Murray graduated from Staples in 1968. She moved away after college, but has lived here for the last 34 years. An illustrator, portrait artist and diversity educator, she’s active in a variety of arts groups.

She’s politically active. But, she says, Norwalk to Bridgeport transcends party lines. She and co-chair Sandy Lefkowitz helped organize this group to bring local citizens of many stripes together, in a cause that affects everyone.

The goal is simple: spread the word, so as many people in the area answer census questions as possible.

To do so, they’ve done things like organize a September 17 training session in Bridgeport. Attendees will learn how to make presentations about the census. Then they’ll go out into their communities — to churches, schools, civic clubs, etc. — and do just that.

Deb Howland-Murray

Norwalk to Bridgeport is also compiling lists of local organizations they can reach out to, to pass the census word. They’re creating a calendar of events, so they can attend and pass out information there.

The US Census Bureau has printed materials. But, Deb says, it’s not quite user-friendly. She and her fellow volunteers are creating a 1-page handout, with graphics.

Bridgeport and Norwalk already have “Complete Count” committees — local groups working to ensure an accurate census. Westport and Fairfield do not.

“There’s a lot of suspicion about the census,” Deb says, noting the recent controversy about asking a citizenship question next year. “What’s going on in Washington is happening there. Here, we just want to provide accurate information. All we want is get people counted. We don’t care about their politics.”

Historically, she says, “the more diverse the community, the lower the participation. That hurts those communities. They need funding that comes from accurate counts. We need accurate representation. The census affects everyone.”

Toys R Tariffs: The Melissa & Doug Connection

President Trump’s on-again, off-again tariff decisions have rattled the global economy.

Here in the US, sectors ranging from aluminum to footwear have felt whipsawed by decisions made and remade in the White House. The latest industry is a big one: toys.

Earlier this week, the president delayed a new 10 percent tariff on some Chinese imports, from September 1 to December 15. That gives toy manufacturers some breathing room, before and during the make-or-break holiday season.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein

Westport has an important dog in this hunt. Melissa & Doug was founded in 1988 by Doug and Melissa Bernstein, in his parents’ garage on Guyer Road. Over the past 31 years it’s become a highly respected creator, manufacturer and distributor of educational toys, including wooden puzzles, arts and crafts products and more.

Bernstein breathed a sigh of relief at the tariff delay. But, he said yesterday, the larger question is the entire concept of a “trade war.”

“Wars are not good,” he said. “They cause casualties: human, social and economic. Calling this a ‘war’ is not a good thing.” He would prefer to see trade policy discussed “amicably.”

Like most American toy companies, the vast majority — 85 to 90% — of Melissa & Doug’s products are made in China.

This founders did not set out to manufacture overseas. Years ago, Bernstein said, he brought prototypes to factories across in the US. No one wanted the job.

The issue was not price. Rather, it was the “massive amount of handiwork” that goes into each Melissa & Doug item. “They can’t be stamped out” — and American factories could not do it at a price that would be reasonable for consumers.

A small selection of Melissa & Doug toys.

Over the years, Melissa & Doug built strong relationships in China. Today, around 200 or so employees oversee quality and inspection there. “They work for us,” he said. “They’re not 3rd-party contractors.”

While other companies talk about moving production to other parts of the world — Vietnam and India are often mentioned — Melissa & Doug worries about losing quality control.

“We have 3 tenets,” the co-founder says. “We make educational products for children; we make them with the absolute best quality we can, and we price them as affordably as possible. We don’t want them accessible only to kids who grow up in a place like Westport.”

So — even with higher tariffs — Bernstein and his wife are committed to “not passing on higher pricing to consumers. Other companies say that if the tariffs take effect on December 15, they’ll have to raise prices by 10, 20 or 25% in 2020. We’re working very hard not to do that. We would probably absorb most, if not all, of the cost.”

They’ve already been tested. In addition to toys, Melissa & Doug produce items like chalk and markers. They’ve already been hit with several million dollars in tariffs — and have not raised prices.

Bernstein sounds a hopeful note, though. “Honestly, I didn’t think the tariffs would happen on September 1. And I think there’s a high likelihood they won’t happen on December 15. This is a game of chess, and we’re pawns. No one gains from a trade war. I think agreements will be reached.”

Besides chess, Bernstein uses another analogy to describe the last few months.

“We’ve been on a roller coaster,” he says. “It would be one thing if there were transparent discussions. But for us — and everyone in the industry — it’s been up and down, on and off, 10%, 25%, September 1, December 15.”

That’s one game the Westport toy manufacturer has no desire to play.

Cribari Bridge Disappears

Werner Liepolt — an alert “06880 reader/William F. Cribari Bridge neighbor/member of the Connecticut Department of Transportation Project Advisory Committee for a new, rehabilitated or (long shot) basically unchanged span — read with interest yesterday’s post about $40 million in possible funding for the project.

Then he noted with equal interest that the DOT has pulled (“temporarily?” he wonders) the Cribari Bridge project from its web page. (Click here for the error message.)

However, he does have 2 public documents — sent to Advisory Committee members — showing plans for the “restored” bridge. Here they are. Click on, or hover over to enlarge:

State: Here’s $40 Million For Cribari Bridge Rehab. Town: Not So Fast…

The state Department of Transportation today released a draft list of projects, under the 2021-24 Transportation Improvement Program.

Included is $20 million in fiscal 2023 — plus $20 million more in fiscal ’24 — for the “rehabilitation/replacement of state-town Bridge #01349, aka William F. Cribari Memorial Bridge.”

For those who haven’t followed the years-long saga, that’s the 133-year-old swing span over the Saugatuck River. It connects Riverside Avenue and Bridge Street.

One view of the William Cribari Bridge … (Photo/Patricia McMahon)

All projects on the list must be evaluated for air quality concerns. Because federal funding is also involved, national regulations — as well as state — must be adhered to.

The Cribari Bridge project may not necessarily be placed into the TIP. No decision is likely on the TIP until at least next summer.

First Selectman Jim Marpe said:

The town of Westport has not endorsed any plans for the Cribari Bridge, and awaits a conclusion to the CTDOT Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Evaluation.

As part of the EA/EIE, the DOT established a Project Advisory Committee, and met with this committee several times over the last year. DOT conducted a professional process, and I am confident they have taken away the community’s sentiments and concerns about the Cribari Bridge.

However, the town of Westport neither accepts nor rejects the CTDOT’s budgeted funding of $40 million over the 2 years until it is clear on the specific proposal for the Cribari Bridge, and the community agrees on which solution is the best for the town of Westport.

The Project Advisory Committee reviewed several alternatives for rehabilitation, including a no-build operation, and provided feedback to the DOT. No decision has been made.

The DOT continues to coordinate with other state and federal agencies, as well as various stakeholders, to consider specific concerns, such as impacts on historic properties.

… and another. (Photo/Katherine Bruan)

The DOT is expected to issue a preliminary environmental document early next year. There will then be a public hearing and comment period, after which the DOT will make a recommendation of a preferred design alternative. Review by the Federal Highway Administration and state Office of Policy and Management will follow, with a decision announced later.

Marpe added:

My staff and I will stay abreast of the air quality and environmental findings for the Cribari Bridge rehabilitation or replacement options. Thereafter, we will follow the development of the TIP closely. I am committed to keeping the residents and businesses of Westport informed in a timely manner about this very important project.

Bag It!

Westporters may not have noticed, because over a decade ago we were the first town east of the Mississippi River to ban plastic bags.

But a state law that went into effect August 1 mandates a charge of 10 cents for every single-use plastic bag.

In 2021, they’ll be outlawed completely.

There is no state-mandated charge for paper bags — which, by some estimates, cost up to 10 times more than plastic bags. Paper bags have their own environmental impacts too.

So although we haven’t noticed the plastic bag charge here, we’re seeing its ripple effects.

Many stores — including CVS and Fresh Market — have switched to paper bags without handles. They’re inconvenient, and perhaps a subliminal way to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

An “06880” reader reports that Walgreens is charging 10 cents for each paper bag.

Meanwhile — reading between the lines of this sign — it looks like Stop & Shop will start charging for paper bags next month.

Marpe Challenges Hatred, Urges Civility

In the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings, First Selectman Jim Marpe says:

Following the tragic events in Charlottesville 2 years ago, I stated that “there is no place for hatred and bigotry in our country,” and expressed our community’s prayers for the victims of that senseless tragedy.

Those events led to the “Hate Has No Home Here” movement in Westport and other communities. Last year, after the Parkland, Florida tragedy, I again addressed the issue of gun control and sensible gun legislation.

After another weekend of shocking headlines involving mass shootings which obviously have roots in white supremacy, and frankly, 2 more years of incidents similar to Charlottesville and Parkland, we are still faced with the challenge of inflammatory public rhetoric and hate-filled internet postings and activity.

We are fortunate that Westport is represented by national, state and local legislators and elected officials who act and speak responsibly in the face of these divisive issues.  They are committed to pursuing and enforcing responsible and effective gun control legislation, as well as condemning the racial biases demonstrated by others.

The fact that these incidents are happening on a regular basis is appalling. Each time I am asked to address them both personally and in my role as first selectman, it is done with an extremely heavy heart.

Although recent national incidents were much more horrific and tragic, the sentiment where I prompted a call to civility and respect to all Westporters after an unfortunate incident during a local public meeting last year holds true today.

I stated, “We will continue to publicly deal with issues and challenges that ignite passions on all sides, but we can’t let those passions create an air of disrespect, intimidation and bullying. I implore all Westport residents to allow their personal and public interactions to be driven by respect, tolerance and a desire to coexist in a positive manner with all of our neighbors.”

I will continue to address this issue within our community, and I will continue to denounce any form of hatred, bigotry or cultural bias.

Irving Berlin: Playhouse Production Is Nostalgic, Educational — And Very Relevant

It’s mid-July. But the set for the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” — which opened last night — evokes a snowy winter night.

(Photo/Dan Woog)

Of course. America’s greatest songwriter is well known for “White Christmas.”

Plus “God Bless America.” “Easter Parade.” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And many, many, many, many, more.

His life — from his birth in the Russian Empire, to his youth on the Lower East Side (he left school at 13), to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood, with a stop in the Army, and all the ups and downs of his personal life — is told with warmth, wit and wonder.

It’s a remarkable tale. He lived to be 101 — long enough so that his copyright on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” expired before he did.

The show is educational, entertaining and fun.

It’s also extremely timely. Berlin was an immigrant who loved his adopted country. The story behind “God Bless America” — with the Playhouse audience singing first quietly, then lustily along — gives goose bumps.

(“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” runs through August 3. Click here for more information, and tickets.)

ICE Raids: Police Chief Explains Westport’s Stance

On Thursday — a few days before ICE may begin arresting members of undocumented families, including nearby immigrants who are not targets of raids — the Westport Police Department issued a press release.

The department noted its strict adherence to the Connecticut Trust Act, which defines the circumstances and duration under which a prisoner in the custody of state or local police or corrections can be held.

The WPD added that it “recognizes and truly values the diversity of the community we serve, and seeks to foster an environment of trust…. This agency will always treat all with the respect and dignity that they deserve.”

Today, Police Chief Foti Koskinas — a first-generation immigrant from Greece — expanded on his department’s statement.

He is concerned that the lessons of history have not been learned. In another era, he says, police departments used fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators. Those experiences — and the images of them — stigmatized law enforcement. That distrust has lingered, in some cases for decades.

“Law enforcement should be the last to intervene in social and political issues — if ever,” Koskinas says.

“The primary role of law enforcement is to serve. Very infrequently, our role is to protect, and help create an environment where all members of our community can thrive. But when we do need to protect people, they must be able to trust us.”

The population recently targeted by ICE is “people we welcome into our community,” Koskinas says. “We employ them. They are our neighbors. We hold up the ideal that Westport, our state and country are places where they can contribute and enrich their lives, their families’ lives, and all of our lives. If they work hard and give their families better lives than where they came from, they can succeed.”

However, he continues, “others wearing badges then turn around and wipe that away with threats and raids. We separate families, detain and deport them. We are better than this. We have to find better ways of dealing with this situation.”

Koskinas is hardly soft on crime. Criminals will be treated as criminals, no matter what their immigration status, he notes. Anyone who puts Westport at risk — who victimizes residents and visitors — will face consequences.

However, he notes, being in this country undocumented is not a criminal offense. It’s a violation of immigration (civil) law — not criminal law.

That’s why local police departments don’t ask about immigration status, or arrest undocumented people.

To serve and protect everyone in town — residents, employees, visitors and anyone passing through — the police must have their trust. They gain it by treating everyone with dignity and respect.

Not, Koskinas emphasizes, by turning them over to ICE for family separation and deportation.

Westport Police Address Immigration Raid Fears

The Westport Police Department just issued this statement:

The Westport Police Department has recently received inquiries from members of our community concerning our policies on federal immigration enforcement, specifically the level of this department’s participation in these activities.

Chief Foti Koskinas would like to reassure the community that as a first generation immigrant himself, he is sensitive to and shares the concerns of the community at large as it relates to this matter.

The Westport Police Department is in no way affiliated with or actively participating in federal efforts at immigration enforcement.

This department strictly adheres to and trains its officers on the Connecticut Trust Act, which clearly defines the circumstances and duration under which a prisoner in the custody of state or local police or corrections can be held solely on the basis of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request.

Initially enacted into law on January 1, 2014, it is also noteworthy to mention that legislation was also recently passed updating this act, further limiting these conditions. Click here for a link to the original legislation.

The Westport Police Department recognizes and truly values the diversity of the community we serve, and seeks to foster an environment of trust in which victims of crime actively seek our assistance regardless of immigration status. As has been set forth as a guiding principle in our mission statement, this agency will always treat all with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Signs: The Lawful Sequel

Earlier today, I posted Amy Ancel’s story about the theft of legal signs for non-profit events. Here’s a re-post from 2017, courtesy of the Westport Police Department:

Unfortunately we have experienced vandalism and theft regarding temporary signs in the past. This type of behavior will not be tolerated. These crimes may lead to criminal charges such as trespassing, criminal mischief and/or larceny.

The following policy has been established by town officials, in order to provide coordination for the placement of temporary signs by Westport non-profit organizations wishing to advertise one-time-only charitable events.  Signs placed on public property advertising a private business or company will be removed. (Bold italics are mine!)

The sign in the foreground is illegal. (Photo/John Karrel)

General Guidelines for ALL Temporary Signs

  • Town property includes traffic islands and road rights of way.
  • The town may not approve, nor is it responsible for, any signs erected on State of Connecticut property. It is not advisable to place signs on State of Connecticut property (including rights of way and islands along Routes 1, 136, 57, 33, and the Sherwood Island Connector, nor on the exit or entrance ramps of I-95 or the Merritt Parkway), as the state may remove them.
  • No sign may be placed on any school property without the prior permission of the superintendent’s office.
  • No sign may be placed within the interior of Compo Beach or Longshore.
  • No sign may be placed on Town Hall property.
  • No sign may be placed on trees or utility poles.
  • No sign may interfere with traffic visibility.
  • Signs on private property require property owner approval. Signs on private property shall not extend beyond the property line or into the town right-of-way and is suggested they be removed within 2 days after the publicized event or election.

There are rules for advertising charitable events.

Temporary Signs for Advertising Charitable Events

The placement and locations of temporary signs on Town property for the purpose of advertising a charitable event requires review and approval by the Westport police chief, director of Planning and Zoning, and director of Parks & Recreation, or their designated representatives. Qualifying organizations (i.e. local non-profits) may send the attached request, including proposed locations, for the placement of temporary signs to: Selectman’s Office, Westport Town Hall, 110 Myrtle Avenue, Westport, CT 06880 or selectman@westportct.gov.

The following conditions will apply to charitable events:

  • A maximum of 15 signs are allowed for each such event. This includes directional signs.
  • The signs may be erected not more than 2 weeks before the event and must be removed within 2 days after the publicized event.
  • The size of the sign cannot exceed 2 feet by 3 feet.
  • Non-compliance may result in the removal of signs.

Please note that this press release pertains to Town of Westport roads, and not state roads, like Route 1, Route 33, Route 57 and Route 136.

Temporary Signs for Political Purposes

Political signs are considered an expression of free speech and are allowed on public property. The General Guidelines noted above apply to temporary signs for political purposes.