Last night, the Planning & Zoning Commission met to hear applications for 2 medical marijuana dispensaries in Westport.
They heard a lot more, from the very loud crowd. Things got so bad — despite chair Paul Lebowitz and member Chip Stephens’ pleas for civility — that a 15-minute recess was called.
When the meeting resumed, a Westport police officer stood next to the podium.
A Westport resident who was there — and was appalled at the audience’s rudeness — writes:
This is not about marijuana — medical or recreational. This is not about right or wrong federal, state or local laws. And this is not about one generation or political party.
This is about the total loss of civility, of crowd bullying and very bad behavior in the public process.
In a town known historically for fairness, open-mindedness and respect for each other, the question now looms large: “What has happened to the residents of Westport?”
The past 3 weeks have seen 3 instances of police being called to public hearings at Town Hall because of perceived or actual threats, or physical altercations, during P & Z and Historic District Commission meetings.
These are official hearings, held by volunteer elected residents. They dedicate endless hours because they care about our town.
There is no compensation, beyond an occasional “thank you.” Meetings start at 7 p.m., and often last until 11 or midnight.
They are run by Robert’s Rules of Order, and basic rules of civil meetings. These rules allow elected officials to discuss ideas with each other, presenters and experts — and most importantly, to receive public input and opinion.
The rules are simple. A chair runs the meeting, recognizes speakers, and manages the time of many different submissions.
Audience members are invited to speak when recognized. They are supposed to address the commission on the submission at hand at a podium, after giving their name and address.
When not speaking, all participants — elected officials and and the public — are expected to be silent. They should respect others’ views and words. There should be no clapping, booing, berating or shaming others.
This is called civility. Civility at meetings allows a fair hearing, where all can express their views without fear of retribution or bullying.
At last night’s P & Z meeting there was utter chaos. Speakers incited the public to disorder and shouting. There was public shaming of certain speakers, causing others to leave before their turn to speak.
When the meeting became too disruptive, a break was taken. At that point there was shouting, with threats uttered at the elected officials. A few people actually grabbed a commissioner.
The police were called. A very professional officer reopened the meeting with a straight and strong message: This is a public meeting. You are all expected to be civil, and allow everyone to be heard. Please obey the rules of the meeting. If there are any further physical altercations or threats, the offender would leave with me.
The rudeness continued, albeit toned down. Comments included: “His opinion is wrong; mine is right.” “How dare you?” “How much are you getting paid?” “Why did you call the police? Are you afraid?”
This is not how a well-educated, well-heeled, politically astute and respected town is supposed to act. This is not the way to participate in the open and free political process.
I hope that civility and respect return to Westport soon. Our police have more important matters to attend to. Meanwhile, the list of those willing to serve in elected office continues to shrink.