Tag Archives: Velma Heller

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!)



Jeff Wieser: New RTM Moderator Builds Non-Partisan Consensus

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.

Jeff Wieser, at the Westport Goodwill.

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.

Jeff Wieser (left), his wife Pat (center), their children (back row), with grandchildren and daughter-in law, at the Westport Library.

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.

RTM Changes: Velma Heller To Hand Over Gavel

In November, Westport elects a new 1st selectman.

We’ll need a new Representative Town Meeting leader too.

After 20 years on the RTM — the last 4 as moderator — and following a long career in education, Velma Heller looks forward to more time with her family.

Heller — who will be 85 next month — and her husband Garson have 3 children, 6 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.

“This is a good time to do it,” the leader of Westport’s legislative branch says. “I’ve really enjoyed this role. It’s been an exciting journey.”

Velma Heller

Heller’s first RTM race was in 2001. She’d just retired after 17 years directing student teachers through Sacred Heart University’s College of Education — which followed a 31-year career with the Westport Public Schools, as reading specialist, Greens Farms Elementary School and Continuing Education principal, Bedford Middle School vice principal, and town-wide director of curriculum.

Her son Grant had been on the RTM; so had her husband.

“It’s your term to serve,” Grant said.

She ran as a write-in candidate, and won. She was re-elected 9 more times. She was chosen as deputy moderator, then moved into the top spot when Eileen Lavigne Flug stepped down to become assistant town attorney.

Heller declined to cite any highlights of her 2-decade tenure. “I put great effort into everything,” she says. But the former educator especially enjoyed chairing the Education Committee.

“I’ve made many friends, and developed wonderful relationships,” she says of her tenure. “This is my RTM family.”

In November she’ll have more time to spend with Garson, and her biological family. Their son Grant lives in Westport; son David is in Simsbury, and daughter Julie is in New York. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are all over the country.

“06880” joins Velma Heller’s many friends and admirers in saying, “Thank you for your long, great service to Westport!”

RTM January Meeting: Code Of Conduct Committee, Police Review Board

This is Peter Gold’s report on the January Representative Town Meeting. He is an RTM member writing for himself, and not in an official capacity.

No votes were taken at January’s RTM meeting, which saw the announcement of a new special RTM committee, the first reading of an ordinance to establish a civilian police review board, and the announcement of a new town clerk to replace the retiring Patty Strauss.

While RTM rules already require RTM members to conduct themselves in a manner above reproach, Velma Heller, RTM moderator, noted that the start of a new year is a timely occasion to take a step back and review RTM practices. She appointed a special committee of 7 RTM members to see if there is room for improvement, and to clarify expectations regarding conduct at public meetings and in written communications.

The committee is charged with developing a Code of Conduct that articulates desired behaviors that embody the RTM’s values and principles as an organization. The Code of Conduct will cover topics such as Freedom of Information Act issues, the general use of email and social media, and commonly accepted standards of decorum for participation in public discourse, whether in person or on line.

A proposed ordinance was introduced to establish an elected civilian police review board. It would receive, investigate and make recommendations on complains regarding the police. The ultimate decision on any complaint will remain with the chief of police.

Click here for the full text of the proposed ordinance (immediately following the list of upcoming RTM meetings).

The proposed ordinance will be reviewed at upcoming public meetings of the RTM Public Protection and Ordinance Committees. It will be debated and voted on at a subsequent RTM meeting, most likely in February or March.

If the proposed ordinance is adopted, the elected civilian police review board would replace the civilian review panel recently appointed by First Selectman Marpe. That panel reviews and provides feedback on documented complaints regarding the police that are investigated by the Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. Unlike the proposed ordinance’s review board, it can not investigate complaints. Also unlike the proposed ordinance’s review board, Marpe’s panel also reviews complaints regarding the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services.

Marpe also announced that Jeff Dunkerton, the assistant town clerk in Danbury, will replace Patty Strauss who recently retired as Westport’s town clerk.

Unsung Heroes #172

RTM member Lauren Karpf writes:

Over 55 years ago, Velma and Garson Heller moved with their children to Westport. They have been giving back to the town ever since.

Velma was elected to the Representative Town Meeting 20 years ago — as a write-in candidate. She has been an RTM member ever since. Her committee work included Education, Public Protection, Long Range Planning, Ordinance and Employee Compensation. 

Velma Heller

She chaired the Education Committee for 9 years, served as deputy moderator for 4 years, and been RTM moderator since 2017. Wrangling 36 members — and working with nearly ever other town board and official — is as difficult as it is thankless. Velma has done it with grace, tact and intelligence.

A gifted educator, Velma spent over 30 years in the Westport school system as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, vice principal, principal, irector of curriculum and staff development, and director of supervision and evaluation.

She then joined Sacred Heart University as a student teacher supervisor and adjunct professor. She worked for 15 years as a full-time faculty member in the Graduate Education Program, where she ran the program leading student teachers.

Velma has dedicated her career to teaching, advising, and helping others better themselves. She continues to do so. She has a natural gift for guiding new and longstanding members alike through their journey on the RTM. She is a sounding board to discuss difficult matters, and truly helps us achieve success. Velma has impacted so many of our youth, but also so many of us.

Garson Heller

Garson graduated from Yale with a degree in chemical engineering. After graduation, joined Mobil as a chemical engineer. He moved to Data Dimensions, where he helped implement a computer system for United Press International.  He moved to Securities Industry Automation Corporation for the rest of his engineering and computing career, before retiring in 2002 as the senior director of computer acquisitions.

Garson has an inspiring record of service to our town too. He served on the RTM for 14 years. He has been a member of the Board of Assessment Appeals since 1983 — 37 years! He is also involved in numerous organizations, including Y’s Men.

The Hellers passed their love of public service on to their children. Their son Grant spent 4 years on the RTM.

And the family is committed to public education. All 3 children went through the public schools. Three of their Velma and Garson’s grandchildren are in the Westport system right now.

Quietly, efficiently and lovingly, Velma and Garson Heller have helped  Westport grow and thrive. They are true Unsung Heroes — and have been, for over half a century.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)