Tag Archives: Jim Marpe

Disabilities Commission: It’s Way More Than Ramps

The Americans With Disabilities Act — signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 — had many consequences.

Some were intended. Others were not.

It opened employment and educational opportunities for tens of millions of Americans with physical and emotional issues. Curb cuts and other design changes now benefit pregnant mothers, parents with youngsters and the elderly.

The ADA also impelled the state of Connecticut to create grants, allowing towns to fund initiatives studying the best ways to promote inclusion for people with disabilities.

In 2006, Westport and Wilton formed a task force. One recommendation was followed: Today our town has a designated official for disability issues (Sarah Heath, in Human Services).

One recommendation was not followed: the creation of a permanent commission.

Until now.

Jim Ross

Jim Ross

Earlier this month, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced appointments to Westport’s new Commission on People With Disabilities, which the RTM approved in July. Members include Marina Derman, Diane Johnson, Stacie Curran, LuAnn Giunta, Tom Holleman and Evan Levinson.

The chair is Jim Ross. A successful businessman, he’s also the former head of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee.

Ross is legally blind, and the father of 2 special needs children. “I live this every day,” he notes.

He became a voice for the disabled community in 2012, when  he helped pass legislation giving students access to epilepsy medicine when a school nurse is not present.

Along the way, he  met Human Services director Barbara Butler, who told Ross that the proposal for a town commission had never been implemented.

Ross went to work. Now — with Marpe’s help, and broad public support — it’s a reality.

Westport's former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

Westport’s former director of human services, Barbara Butler, is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.

There’s a reason so many Westporters support the new commission. Twenty percent of the town’s population is directly affected by their own or a family member’s physical or intellectual disability. In a community like ours, that means all of us have neighbors, friends and fellow members of civic groups and congregations with disabilities.

“This is an exceptionally humbling opportunity,” Ross says of his post. “It’s a chance to take the ADA — a magnificent civil rights initiative — to the local  level.”

He notes that Westport — a “very socially aware town” — has already done good things. There are ramps everywhere. Compo Beach has a sand wheelchair. The Levitt Pavilion is quite accessible.

But, he adds, “this is about a lot more than ramps. It’s a 2-way conversation between people with disabilities, and the community as a whole. It’s a chance for businesses, organizations, the town and people to have a dialogue to create avenues, paths and bridges for everyone to come together.”

In many ways, Ross says, “people with disabilities are heroes. We can learn a lot about ourselves by including them, and letting them contribute to a more vigorous, dynamic environment. This is not about clubbing people over the head. It’s about everyone working together.”

Beach wheelchair sign

He mentions education, housing, transportation, recreation, employment, the arts and emergency preparedness as areas in which discussions involving people with disabilities can lead to “logistical and tactical benefits” for all Westporters.

He’s eager to get started. Ross calls the 7-member commission “a dynamite group. Everyone has a different area of expertise.”

The Commission on People With Disabilities will meet publicly the 3rd Thursday of every month. The 1st session is Thursday, January 19 (8:30 a.m.), at Town Hall.

Of course, it’s handicap accessible.

Westport Bids Tina Goodbye

Some wore suits or dresses. Others wore jeans and wool caps.

Some were politicians, social service workers, police officers and Westporters who live in very comfortable homes. Others live at the Gillespie Center.

Ushers from Homes With Hope showed down-on-their-luck folks to their seats. Clergy from 3 different congregations conducted the service. The 1st selectman gave a reading. So did a Westport police officer, who spent much of his own youth in shelters.

Over 150 people — some from as far away as Baltimore and Brattleboro — filled Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church this afternoon, for a funeral service honoring a woman some never met.

tina-wessel-funeral-program

Tina Wessel died last month. A homeless woman with a pronounced limp, she was a longtime fixture in downtown Westport.

In her life on the streets — and in the shed near the Senior Center where her body was found — she touched many hearts.

“She gave a lot of people the finger. She dropped a lot of f-bombs,” one woman said. “But look at all these people. They saw beyond that.”

They did indeed. As one woman related in remarks after the service, Tina had another remarkable side. An hour after receiving a donation of food, Tina knocked on the agency’s door.

“Here’s what I don’t need,” she said, returning some of her goods. “Can you give it to somebody else?”

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Photos of Tina Wessel, from the program today.

Rev. Peter Powell — who founded and served as the first CEO of Homes With Hope — delivered a powerful, challenging sermon.

“Tina touched many of us in ways that would probably surprise her,” he said.

He noted that many of the readings at the service mentioned bringing bread to the hungry, and giving homes to the homeless.

“She was a challenge to work with,” Rev. Powell acknowledged. “But Tina had a role in Westport — one that we all need to think about.”

Rev. Peter Powell before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green's Farms Congregational Church.

Rev. Peter Powell (center) before the funeral, flanked by 1st Selectman Jim Marpe and Rev. Jeffrey Ryder of Green’s Farms Congregational Church.

He recalled similar Westporters whose funerals he officiated at  — though one had only 3 mourners. He told their stories, and mentioned them all by name. They may have been homeless, but they were not faceless or nameless.

“Tina died cold, sick, alone and homeless,” Rev. Powell said. She — and others like her — should be remembered not because they needed us, but because “we need them.”

The town of Westport, police and Homes With Hope tried to help, Rev. Powell continued. Westport — “an amazingly generous town” — does far more for its homeless citizens than virtually any other affluent suburb in the country.

Tina did not accept some of that help. “Her reasons make no sense to you. But they did to her,” Rev. Powell explained.

“It’s not enough to love prodigiously, if people are cold or alone. We admired her pluck, her nature, her independence. But we could not find a way to house her as she wished.”

Calling Tina “an apostle,” Rev. Powell said that she has enabled us to “discover ourselves.”

When the service ended, Tina’s ashes were honored outside, in the church courtyard. It’s in the midst of downtown, where she spent so much of the last years of her life.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina's ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Mourners stood outside, as Tina’s ashes were honored in the heart of downtown.

Then everyone — social service workers, police officers, Westporters in very comfortable homes, residents of the Gillespie Center, and anyone else who knew Tina (or wished they had) — gathered downstairs. They shared food and coffee together.

And they remembered Tina.

(Donations in Tina’s name may be made to Westport Animal Shelter Advocates or Homes With Hope.)

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy -- when both were young -- were displayed on a board in the church's Branson Hall.

Photos of Tina and her brother Ludy — when both were young — were displayed on a board in the church’s Branson Hall.

The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

The scene tonight at Democratic headquarters …

(Photo/Eli Debenham)

(Photo/Eli Debenham)

… and Rizzuto’s, where Republican Town Committee treasurer Joe Sledge, First Selectman Jim Marpe, Second Selectman Avi Kaner and State Representative candidate Cathy Walsh peered at results:

republican-headquarters

(Photo/Chip Stephens)

76 Trombones, 5 Musicians, 2 Posters, 1 Painting

Exactly 70 years ago today — on October 19, 1946 — the Saturday Evening Post cover showed 5 high school band musicians.

As many “06880” readers know, Westport artist Stevan Dohanos used 5 Staples High School students as models. Seven decades later the painting hangs in Town Hall, right outside the first selectman’s office.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos' 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

Westport illustrator Stevan Dohanos’ 1946 Saturday Evening Post cover.

In 2001, David Roth was in his 2nd year as director of Staples Players. To promote their production of “The Music Man,” Roth asked graphic arts teacher Alan Dodd to recreate the iconic artwork — this time using 5 actors from the upcoming show.

There’s one girl in the painting. Roth chose Samantha Marpe to pose. In “The Music Man,” Samantha played Zaneeta — River City’s mayor’s daughter. In an amazing coincidence, Samantha’s father — Jim Marpe — is now Westport’s first selectman (mayor).

The 2001 poster is also on the wall, next to Marpe’s office. Every day at work, he sees his daughter’s image.

Staples Players' 2001 poster.

Staples Players’ 2001 poster…

Fifteen years later, Players is once again staging “The Music Man.” Once again, Roth is using Dohanos’ painting as inspiration for the publicity poster.

There are some differences between the 2001 and 2016 versions, of course. Dodd has retired; this year’s photo was taken by co-director Kerry Long, and created by graphic arts instructor Carla Eichler.

A decade and a half after the first poster, she’s able to do much more with special effects. For example, in Dohanos’ original painting the football team was reflected in the sousaphone. That was tough to recreate in 2001, so the reflection showed only the 5 musicians.

This time, Eichler reflected Jacob Leaf — who plays Harold Hill, the “music man” — in the sousaphone.

...and the 2016 version.

…and the 2016 version.

Speaking of which: simply finding a brass sousaphone for Long to photograph was a herculean task. These days, they’re all fiberglass.

Roth put out a townwide call. Finally, he found one. It’s owned by Shari Levy. In another great coincidence, her son Jon was part of the quartet in the 2001 production. She lent it to Roth for the photo shoot — and the show.

Across America, people know “The Music Man” for its 76 trombones.

In Westport, it’s all about Stevan Dohanos — and David Roth’s — 5 musicians.

That’s no shipoopi.

(Staples Players present “The Music Man” on Friday and Saturday, November 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, November 13 and Saturday, November 19 at 3 p.m. Tickets go on sale this weekend at http://www.StaplesPlayers.com.)

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Click here for “06880+”: The easy way to publicize upcoming events, sell items, find or advertise your service, ask questions, etc. It’s the “06880” community bulletin board!

Lobster Fest!

A lovely late-summer day.

Beer and wine. Music. A huge crowd of friendly, sociable people, ready to mix, mingle, kick back and chill.

And of course about 3,000 lobsters, shipped in yesterday from Nova Scotia.

Those were the ingredients for today’s Lobster Fest.

In just 5 years, the Rotary Club event has become a major highlight on the Westport calendar.

It’s the biggest block party in town. It’s Compo and community at its best.

And — best of all — it raises about $75,000, which the Rotary Club plows right back into good causes locally, nationally and abroad.

If you weren’t there, you missed a fantastic party.

And some really amazing lobsters.

lobsterfest-fresh-lobsters

The stars of the show.

Rotary Board member Rick Benson claws State Representative Gail Lavielle.

Rotary Board member Rick Benson claws State Representative Gail Lavielle.

Homes With Hope CEO and Lobster Fest volunteer Jeff Wieser pours a beer for 1-year-old Andy Wolf. Her dad, Jim, looks on amused.

Homes With Hope CEO and Lobster Fest volunteer Jeff Wieser pours a beer for 1-year-old Andy Wolf. Her dad, Jim, looks on amused.

Nearby, a slightly older youngster explored the Beaver Beer car.

Nearby, a slightly older youngster explored the Beaver Beer car.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were also Lobster Fest volunteers.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen were Lobster Fest volunteers.

As the sun set on Lobster Fest, no one wanted to leave.

The sun set on Lobster Fest, but no one wanted to leave.

At the end, not much remained of the 3,000 lobsters.

At the end, not much remained of the 3,000 lobsters.

Slicing Up Saugatuck

Today was hot and humid. But it’s never too hot for Saugatuck’s great Italian food, from places like Tutti’s and Tarantino’s.

Or Mexican (Viva’s, Cuatro Hermanos), Thai (Rainbow) or Japanese (Kawa Ni).

Every restaurant — including Dunkin’ Donuts — was represented at this afternoon’s Slice of Saugatuck.

So were stores, ranging from liquor (99 Bottles) to sports (Attic) to my favorite — not just in Saugatuck but all of Westport (Indulge by Mersene).

The 5th annual event was sponsored by the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce. Funds benefit the Gillespie Center food pantry. Slice is nice!

The line to sample Julian's pizza ran past Parker Mansion.

The line to sample Julian’s pizza ran past Parker Mansion.

Tutti's served up -- among other favorites -- spicy chicken.

Tutti’s served up — among other favorites — a tasty chicken dish.

Al DiGuido's Saugatuck Sweets scooped ice cream, on the plaza.

Al DiGuido’s Saugatuck Sweets scooped ice cream, on the plaza.

Things were quieter on the river, where Downunder offered kayaks.

Things were quieter on the river, where Downunder offered kayaks.

Bands -- rock, acoustic, even Caribbean -- played throughout Saugatuck. This group had a prime spot, at Bridge Square.

Bands — rock, acoustic, even Caribbean — played throughout Saugatuck. This group had a prime spot, at Bridge Square.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen hung out at the Black Duck.

First Selectman Jim Marpe and his wife Mary Ellen hung out at the Black Duck.

Cuatro Hermanos added a sombrero their rice and beans.

Cuatro Hermanos added a sombrero to their rice and beans.

A tae kwan do demonstration livened up Railroad Place. Shattered boards lie on the left.

A tae kwan do demonstration enlivened Railroad Place. Shattered boards lie on the left.

Carolanne Curry: Don’t Turn Hiawatha Community Into A Commodity

Alert — and worried — “06880” reader Carolanne Curry writes:

I am trying to understand how the strong and resilient community of Old Saugatuck finds itself under siege for the 5th time, by a developer who wants to build a building he shouldn’t be building, in a residential area he should be building in, and (as a topper) he wants the Town of Westport to give him public sewer access for his proposed 155 apartments on Hiawatha Lane Extension.

All this building on a nondescript street carved out of wetlands and swamps, bounded by roads, railroads and highways, so that a natural cocoon of 8 streets slowly shaped this community.

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It's accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

Hiawatha Lane is a narrow street, filled with homes that are modest by Westport standards. It’s accessible only via West Ferry Lane off Saugatuck Avenue, next to the I-95 eastbound entrance/exit ramp.

Felix Charney of Summit Saugatuck LLC is the developer with this fixation to build on Hiawatha Lane Extension. Surprisingly, despite his failed efforts, he is making his 5th request for public sewer access before the Planning and Zoning Commission tomorrow (Thursday, July 7, 7 p.m., Town Hall auditorium). This time, he is appearing with the active encouragement of the 1st and 2nd selectmen.

I’m curious how Charney and Westport Housing Authority chair David Newberg got to be “building” partners on Hiawatha Lane Extension? When in 2015 did the town, through the offices of the 1st and 2nd selectman, invite and encourage the formation of a Charney/WHA partnership? Why would WHA accept such a contentious role in further alienating residents of Old Saugatuck?

Why would the 1st and 2nd selectmen resurrect such a poorly conceived proposal for 155 apartments? It comes with the same problems that existed in 2005. There is no sewer. Has anything changed?

And why make WHA complicit in the destruction of a community that is an authentic model of affordable, workforce housing, exactly the kind of housing for which WHA advocates? Housing in Old Saugatuck is the direct result of its history with the railroad, the Saugatuck River and the construction of I-95.

Old Saugatuck is a community. Felix Charney would make it a commodity.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

A rendering of the proposed Hiawatha Lane development.

On an even more critical note, when did our Town Hall leaders plan to tell the residents of Old Saugatuck that they were no longer on the side of preserving the precious heritage and homes of the community, but had given their allegiance to Felix Charney? Was this what voters and taxpayers had in mind from their leaders?

In the David and Goliath scenario that will play out tomorrow, before the P&Z with this developer once again, the residents of Old Saugatuck call out to their neighbors, friends and supporters to come to Town Hall. Be a presence and a voice with us, and for us.

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1st Selectman Jim Marpe replies:

Felix Charney put forth a sewer extension request last year related to his proposed development that received a negative recommendation by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Earlier this year, Mr. Charney presented a pre-application proposal for his Hiawatha Lane properties that differed from the previous year by incorporating a joint venture with the Westport Housing Authority.

Westport sealHe has now presented another sewer extension request related to that latest proposal. Because that request is in process, I cannot comment on the merits of this proposal outside of public session. The sewer extension request and rationale will be discussed following the town’s standard policies and procedures tomorrow in public session. That will be the time for the public to hear more about the proposed plans, to comment, and to have an open dialogue with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The sewer extension request will ultimately be heard by the Town’s Water Pollution Control Authority in public session, which will afford another opportunity for dialogue. Because I am a member of the WPCA that will hear this sewer application, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this proposal outside of the WPCA public hearing process.


I offered the Westport Housing Authority a chance to reply. They declined to comment at this time.

Commission On Disabilities Moves Toward Reality

Over the past 40 years, great progress has been made at the federal and state levels protecting and advancing the rights, awareness and support of people with disabilities.

At the local level: not so much.

Jim Ross is well aware of the work that’s been done — and how much remains. He’s chair of the Westport Citizens Transit Committee, a group that among other tasks helps connect disabled people with transportation options.

He himself has a disability: He’s lost his vision. (That does not prevent him from working in the financial services field, building electronic equity marketplaces.)

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Jim Ross and his wife Victoria.

Ross is also involved in a new initiative. For the past 2 years, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Barbara Butler — the soon-to-retire director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — have spearheaded an effort, with a steering committee, to investigate the creation of a permanent Westport Commission on People with Disabilities.

The new group would ensure that this is a town where people with disabilities — whether physical or mental — have the opportunity and support to enjoy full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity, inclusion and self-determination.

Ross notes, “This is not about putting in ramps. It’s about involving and including people in meaningful ways.” In other words, it’s about creating policies and environments that welcome all Westporters.

“It’s a 2-way street,” he adds. “We want to help everyone here — politicians, businesses, organizations, citizens — have a meaningful dialogue about disabilities.”

Ross says that many people with disabilities excel in many areas. “They can teach us a lot,” he says. “We do a disservice to society by not having them participate fully in town activities.”

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Parks and Rec already does many things for people with disabilities. When the beach wheelchair was delivered more than 10 years ago, then-Parks & Rec director Stuart McCarthy gave Rotary president Irwin Lebish a ride.

Specifically, he explains, the commission could examine the services that Parks and Recreation provides. By looking at needs and wants, it could help the department help all physically and intellectually challenged Westporters.

In another area, he says, the commission could spark a discussion about how to provide housing for people with disabilities.

Transportation has been “very humbling” for Ross, the Citizens Transit Committee chair. “As great as our transportation strategy is for commuters, seniors and people with disabilities, we have to message it better,” he admits.

At an RTM meeting in June, Marpe and Butler took the first step toward making the Westport Commission on People with Disabilities a reality. A vote may be taken in July. No funding is involved.

Ross says that about 12% of Westporters live with a disability (including learning disabilities).

If he and town leaders have their way, that 12% will be part of the 100% of Westporters who participate fully and meaningfully in every aspect of town life.

Town Leaders Drop And Give (Much More Than) 50

On a normal Saturday, Westport’s many gyms, fitness centers and cycling studios compete for customers.

On a normal Saturday, First Selectman Jim Marpe cuts ribbons, meets citizens, maybe even takes his stuff to the dump. Police Chief Foti Koskinas oversees his cops, locks up bad guys and keeps Westport safe for all.

Last Saturday was not normal.

A number of gyms, fitness centers and cycling studios sent their clients and trainers to the Levitt Pavilion.

There, Mental Grit Fitness owner Andy Berman welcomed 300 fitness enthusiasts. Among them: Marpe and Koskinas.

Together, over the course of an hour, they banged out over 200,000 push-ups.

Andy Berman, Police Chief Foti Koskinas and First Selectman Jim Marpe assume the position.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, Andy Berman and First Selectman Jim Marpe assume the position…

Thanks to pledges they secured in the weeks before, they raised over $75,000 for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. That organization — founded, of course, by the late Westport icon Paul Newman — offers special experiences to youngsters battling serious illnesses.

This is the 7th year Berman ran his unique fundraiser. It was the most successful — and (thanks to Westport’s CEO and top cop) high-powered — yet.

...and pause for the camersafterward.

…and pause for the camera afterward.

Andy gives huge props to Crossfit Westport’s Amy Mandelbaum; Crossfit Revel’s Jay Ross and Julie Migliaccio; JoyRide’s Rhodie Lorenz, and Achieve Fitness’ Andrew Kindt for their leadership. A number of other local gyms and fitness centers also participated.

Berman was thrilled. Everyone who did push-ups at the Levitt felt proud.

There’s no report, though, on how the first selectman and chief of police spent the rest of their day.

(To contribute to Berman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp fund, email andy@mentalgritfitness.com, or call 203-733-1194.)

Andy erman and Foti Koskinas get a bit of advanced work in.

Andy Berman and Foti Koskinas get in a bit of advanced work.

Bart Shuldman: Town Leaders’ Hard Work Controls Costs

Wherever they were last week, Westporters appreciated hearing that our mill rate will actually fall in the coming fiscal year.

Bart Shuldman was in China. On his flight home, he reflected on the news:

Westport taxpayers received good news regarding the mill rate for fiscal year 2016-2017. The Board of Finance approved a 6.8% decrease from the previous year, based on the growth of the Grand List and the good work by Jim Marpe, Avi Kaner and the Board of Finance at controlling costs for the coming year.

In addition, Westport taxpayers will also pay less property tax on their cars. We should all thank Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance for their diligent work, as Westport is not like any other town in Connecticut. Many, if not all surrounding towns are experiencing either small or large mill rate increases.

Westport's 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westport’s 1st and 2nd selectmen: Jim Marpe (left) and Avi Kaner.

Westporters also learned additional good news: The town will continue to pay down debt, and also continue to pay the Actuarial Required Contribution for the town employee pension plan. I do not think most people know how important this piece of the news is to all of us.

Some background: Many years ago the town implemented 2 major employee benefit programs, a defined pension plan and something called OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits). In addition, past town leaders borrowed a lot of money and accumulated a large amount of debt.

In 2011, after a very deep recession, Westport’s debt stood at over $156 million. Our pension liability was over $186 million, and the OPEB liability was more than $84 million.

Making matters worse, for years before 2011 Westport was not funding the Actuarial Required Contribution necessary to meet the pension obligations promised to town employees. Then the stock market went through the 2009 recession, causing pension assets to decline. Westport taxpayers were on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is NOT a photo of Westport's pension fund.

This is NOT a photo of Westport’s pension fund.

Fast forward to today. With the good work of Jim, Avi and the Board of Finance, the town is in much better financial shape.  While the pension obligation has grown to over $270 million, the pension is 85% funded.

As noted above, Westport is now paying the total Actuarial Required Contribution and also making up for past underpayments. Meanwhile, the town’s debt is down to $115 million.

What might surprise many residents is that debt service, employee pension and OPEB obligations are an enormous percentage of the budget. Principal and interest cost on the town’s debt is over $14 million. Pensions cost the town over $16 million, and it appears OPEB costs over $10 million each year. Therefore, almost 20% of the town’s budget goes to decisions made many years ago, and does not fund current town needs and potential projects.

Westport residents should thank our current town leaders for doing what is needed to control costs and manage the town’s obligations.