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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
Earlier this month, the Representative Town Meeting considered an ordinance to ban the sale of recreational marijuana in Westport. (Currently, only medical marijuana is legal in Connecticut.) The motion was defeated, 18-16, after more than 3 hours of debate.
After the vote, 14 RTM members who voted against the proposal sent this email to “06880”:
Westport’s most recent RTM meeting included consideration of an ordinance that sought to ban the sale of recreational marijuana, despite the fact that it is already – and remains — illegal in Connecticut and Westport.
For reasons that persuaded the majority of the RTM, any ordinance passed in anticipation of a future state decriminalization statute would be speculative, premature, and passed now for no reason that could achieve even a modicum of extra protection for the town of Westport.
As explained below, it turned out that the proposed legislation was deeply flawed and poorly conceived.
Some states have legalized marijuana based on the view that legalization could ensure that the ingredients are standardized to make it safer, so it is not cut with unsafe or excessively strong or dangerous ingredients. Connecticut, other states, and the federal government have been considering whether the laws should be changed.
A variety of medical marijuana edibles.
Many states have permitted an opt-out provision, permitting individual towns to decide to limit retail sales.
To date, the versions of the marijuana decriminalization legislation submitted to the Connecticut legislature also included local opt-out provisions for retail sales.
The RTM’s final debate on this proposed ordinance to ban retail sales of marijuana made it clear that there is significant desire to restrict or prevent the sale of recreational marijuana retail sales in our town when, and if, a decriminalization statute is passed.
However, under no scenario would any such decriminalization statute afford any Connecticut town the right to make marijuana illegal for use. The legal concept of state preemption of municipal and town ordinances would clearly prohibit that.
The town attorney spoke at the RTM meeting and provided his opinion that the proposed ordinance, as written, was problematic. He was unable to testify in support of the petitioners’ defective ordinance. He noted that, under the law, there is something called the preemption doctrine, which means that any state law would preempt a town ordinance that contradicts it. So, for instance, if the state legalizes marijuana, there is nothing Westport can do to make it illegal.
However, if the state statute expressly permits towns to decide how many retail stores for marijuana there should be or whether there should be any at all, then towns such as Westport would be empowered and permitted to limit or prohibit retail sales.
Moreover, there is typically a period of time between when a state statute is passed, and when it becomes enacted and has the force of law. With respect to the legalization of marijuana, in Connecticut, it is anticipated that there will be an 18-month to 2-year interregnum between passage and enactment. This will give Westport plenty of time to evaluate what the new law says, and how Westport can protect itself with the right kind of ordinance.
Passing such an ordinance now, however, is a bit like shadow boxing; we really have nothing to swing at and hit, as the legislation we are trying to address has not been passed yet.
Moreover, given that we will be afforded abundant time to address retail sales in the event the decriminalization statute is passed, before it becomes enacted into law, it makes no sense to swing in the blind now. We have insufficient details about what the eventual decriminalization legislation would say, and/or whether it will even pass. Therefore, any attempt to pass legislation in such a knowledge vacuum would result in a potentially deeply flawed and inaccurate ordinance.
That is not how responsible RTM legislators should proceed.
An ordinance is a law, so it must be legally viable. Some RTMers who voted for this ordinance said they recognized that it would be completely ineffective, but thought it would be “symbolic.”
Legislators who take their role seriously cannot pass legislation that they know to be ineffective and unenforceable, simply because it “feels good.” Symbolic votes are preserved for “sense of the meeting” votes; they should not be used for legislation.
At the hearing, the petitioners also acknowledged their proposed ordinance was flawed when they realized it accidentally outlawed a derivative substance, CBD, that is perfectly legal.
Additionally, the ordinance had what many perceived to be due process problems. Instead of permitting the police to issue a citation for a violation and then a hearing with all afforded due process rights in court, the proposal politicized the process, permitting a politically elected official, the first selectman, to appoint a hearing officer – even a biased one — to be the judge and jury.
The “officer” would not have to have any legal background or expertise or even personal qualifications, would not have to follow the Connecticut Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure, would not be required to be objective and unbiased, and the ordinance provided no means to seek recusal for bias or conflict of interest, etc.
Westporters believe in due process rights, and in protecting the legal rights of all, including the falsely accused, as well as the properly accused. This weakness in the petitioners’ proposed ordinance needs to be changed to permit the accused to have any violation citation to be initially heard in court, given the serious reputational and career harm to be had from such a citation for narcotics sales.
As a result of these shortcomings, the RTM did not pass this ordinance last week. However, with the right ordinance — without so many legal and due process flaws – brought forth when and if the state actually passes the decriminalization statute, the RTM may then (more appropriately) revisit this issue.
Many of the 18 members who voted against this particular ordinance are not opposed to a ban on retail sales of recreational marijuana in Westport, but recognized that, as our town attorney explained, this poorly constructed ordinance would not be legally viable.
Westport has already restricted the sale of marijuana. The town’s Planning & Zoning Commission put in place strict zoning regulations that allow only the sale of medical marijuana in specific places. This highly proscriptive zoning restriction does not allow for recreational sales at these places. Despite scare tactics to the contrary, there is no mechanism for the approved medical facilities to suddenly become recreational facilities if the state were to permit the sale of recreational usage.
Whether you are for or opposed to the statewide legalization of recreational marijuana, you can rest assured that we RTMers will fight hard to ensure that we have a say as to whether it is something that we want here in Westport.
Once the statewide legal status is sorted out, the RTM will consider a better-crafted ordinance. For the time being, however, we must all remember that recreational marijuana is still illegal here and in all of Connecticut. Scare tactics aside, there is zero doubt that, should that legal status change in the future, Westport will have more than ample time to pass any necessary, legally permissible, local legislation.
Wendy Goldwyn Batteau
This November’s elections are strictly local. There are no national or state races. The focus is on town bodies: Boards of Education and Finance, etc. Their roles are clear; even the most apolitical Westporter can figure out what those members do.
The Representative Town Meeting — RTM — is less clear. But it’s as crucial to Westport as anything else on the ballot.
For over a century, Westport held an annual Town Meeting. This uniquely New England form of democratic government was great — until it grew unwieldy.
In 1949, the “representative town meeting” replaced the everyone-gets-a-vote model. The town was divided into districts.
There are now 9; each elects 4 members, for 2-year terms. The RTM is responsible for:
Final approval of the town budget. Members may also restore budget requests that were cut earlier in the process.
Voting on requests for all appropriations over $20,000.
Approving town ordinances.
Reviewing certain decision of town boards and commissions, including Planning & Zoning.
RTM members must serve on 2 or more study committees, which review and make recommendations regarding appropriations and ordinances. Full RTM meetings are generally held on the first Tuesday of the month.
Sound like something you’d like to do?
Great! But you have to get moving.
The deadline for petitioning to run is tomorrow (Tuesday, September 10; petitions available in the Town Clerk’s office, Town Hall). Right now, 2 districts have only 3 candidates.
If you miss the petitioning deadline, you may run as a write-in candidate. To do that, you must register with the Secretary of the State before October 22.
The RTM is a powerful board. It is representative democracy at the most basic level. These are your representatives.
To find out more — including information about your district, and who your representatives are — click here.
Westport’s Representative Town Meeting is discussing a pair of proposals that may come up for a vote soon.
A ban on single-use plastics and styrofoam was put forward by RTM member Andrew Colabella and colleagues on the Environment Committee.
The purpose is to “prohibit the use of expanded polystyrene and single use plastic food service containers, plastic straws, plastic stirrers and plastic cups, and require food service businesses to transition from disposable plastic food service ware to compostable and recyclable alternatives.”
The proposal notes: “Single use plastics, whether made of recyclable material or not, and expanded polystrene pose a threat to Westport’s marine and terrestrial ecosystems. By prohibiting these items, Westport seeks to protect the environment, eliminate a major source of waste and protect the public health, safety and welfare of Westport and its citizens.”
The RTM Ordinance Committee meets this Monday (April 1) to determine whether the language of the proposal is ready to go before the full RTM for a vote at its monthly meeting the following day (Tuesday, April 2, Town Hall, 7:30 p.m.).
Meanwhile, a recreational marijuana ban ordinance has been proposed by RTM members Greg Kraut and Jimmy Izzo.
They are revising the language based on feedback from the Ordinance Committee, and hope to have it ready for a vote at the special RTM meeting called for April 23 (to vote on funding for turf athletic fields).
A variety of medical marijuana edibles.
The ordinance would prohibit recreational marijuana businesses from locating in Westport — if Connecticut legalizes it.
The checklist provided to the Ordinance Committee says, “We need this ordinance to prevent Westport from selling non-medical (recreational marijuana). It gives the town the supplemental insurance that is needs to have should recreational marijuana get legalized. The first locations for recreational will be the existing medical marijuana facilities.”
In 2011, financial arbitration lawyer Christine Meiers Schatz and her husband moved to Westport. They liked the town’s “open-minded, progressive” vibe. It seemed like a great place to raise their kids.
As she became active in the school start-time issue — she’s founder and president of Sleep For Success Westport — Schatz learned a lot about local government. She saw few people in her demographic (women with young kids, like hers: 6, 4 and 2-year-old twins) on the RTM.
She understood why: “We’re busy keeping little humans alive.”
Christine Meiers Schatz, with her family.
But Schatz also believed it’s important for everyone in town to be represented. The RTM, after all, is the Representative Town Meeting.
And, she says, in these fractious times “we may not be able to change the world. But we can make things better in our own backyards.”
She ran for a seat in District 2 — and won. She is excited to serve.
But that’s not what this story is about.
As she campaigned door to door — her district stretches from Old Hill to Saugatuck — Schatz realized that was the only good way to meet constituents, and get a sense of the issues.
RTM veterans warned her that most Westporters don’t pay attention to local government. Schatz is not sure. She thinks people want to be involved. They just don’t know how.
The only options, she says, are to attend RTM meetings in person, watch them on TV, or read the minutes. Newspaper coverage, she says charitably, is “short.”
But everyone is online. So Schatz decided to create a totally unofficial — but quite comprehensive — blog.
Her plan was to compile biographical information on every member. She’d post agendas, reports about meetings and FAQs, plus short video clips. It would all link back to the town’s quite factual — and visually snore-inducing — RTM page.
The official RTM web page, at WestportCT.gov.
She called it “The Unofficial RTM Report by Christine Meiers Schatz.” She registered the domain RTMReport.com.
Schatz researched all 35 RTM colleagues. Using publicly available information, she created profiles for each: education, profession, volunteer work, RTM committees. She offered links to each member’s personal website.
She began building the rest of the site too.
Suddenly — and to her surprise — a few members objected.
Some wanted to provide guest posts. She created that opportunity — and was criticized for opening it up that way.
Others did not want so much info about themselves provided online.
“We have a lot of really talented people on the RTM,” Schatz explains. ” I thought this would be a great way to highlight them.”
Much of the information came from sources like the League of Women Voters’ Guide. One member protested that it was incorrect — even though it’s provided by RTM members themselves.
But — in deference to those objections — Schatz stripped most of those details from each member’s profile.
A screenshot of the stripped-down member page from Christine Meiers Schatz’s website. This is for her own District 2.
The blowback continued. Some members wanted the ability to provide their own, free-form paragraph about themselves. Others thought there should be a standard template. Right now, Schatz is seeking input and consensus from members on exactly what information and format is best.
Of course, not all members objected. Nicole Klein praised Schatz’s “initiative and creativity.” Others applaud her efforts too.
In a nod toward critics, Schatz changed the name of her blog to “Christine Meiers Schatz’s RTM Report.” And she switched the domain to SchatzRTM.com.
The home page of Christine Meiers Schatz’s blog.
But she persisted.
And she emphasizes that she intends her website to be one way — among others — to get information to residents.
“I’m not trying to be the sole voice,” Schatz notes. “That’s not ideal. Not everyone agrees what should go on the town site, or this one. So let’s have not just me, but lots of people doing things like this.”
For now though, Schatz’s site is the most robust RTM page in town. To check it out, click here.
Early this morning, John Suggs — an RTM member and independent candidate for 1st selectman — sent out this email. He says he has already received 150 responses. He writes:
Tonight (Tuesday, September 5, 7:30 p.m., Town Hall), Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) will vote on a proposed ordinance that would, for the first time in almost 50 years, permit the trapping and killing of coyotes in Westport.
This has come about because of a citizen-led initiative in response to fellow town residents who have tragically lost their beloved pets to coyotes. I’m deeply sympathetic to them. No one should have to live through such a trauma. As a parent and a dog owner myself, I am also committed to finding solutions to help keep our children and pets safe from attack.
However, when I step back and analyze the bigger picture, I remain opposed to the practice this ordinance would sanction.
The unintended consequences of this ordinance means all wild and domestic animals can be maimed and injured. In fact, research shows, on average, 5 out of 7 animals caught in foothold traps proposed by this new ordinance are so-called “non-target animals” — including dogs, cats, owls, hawks and eagles. Animals that become ensnared in these traps struggle for hours or days to free themselves; dislocated joints, broken teeth and, of course, self-amputated limbs are all part of this painful outcome.
There are environmentally friendly, science-based protocols for dealing with coyote conflicts. These sustainable, humane and effective measures include: reducing and/or removing food attractants, ensuring pets are not left outside unattended, hazing habituated coyotes with loud noises, spraying water and/or throwing objects to deter them from closer contact.
I invite everyone to educate themselves about these proven, cruelty-free strategies other communities have successfully employed, as well as the unintentional consequences of foothold traps. For a superb resource please click here.
Whether you agree with Suggs or not, you can email all RTM members at once: RTMMailingList@westportct.gov. You can also click “Comments” below. Please be sure to use your full, real name. Tonight’s hearing will be televised live on Channel 79 (Cablevision) and Channel 99 (Frontier), and livestreamed here.
Local elections earlier this month were low-key. Most attention focused on the Board of Finance and Planning and Zoning Commission. Both shifted control, from Republican to Democrat.
Our Representative Town Meeting is non-partisan. Still, there was one interesting — and overlooked — result: For the 1st time in memory (probably ever), there are more RTM women than men.
RTM moderator Eileen Flug will be joined by 21 other women this term.
The previous legislative body was split evenly: 18 each. The new RTM has 22 women and 14 men. That’s 60% female.
A local politician wonders if it’s because so many intelligent, highly qualified women have gotten their volunteer starts through the PTA. They’ve learned about town affairs that way — and earned name recognition.
That’s one theory. Perhaps there’s another reason. Or none at all.
The bottom line is: So what?
Westport is blessed with an energetic, dedicated and very competent group of volunteers. They make our RTM go — as well as every other town board and commission.
It doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, Democrat or Republican.
As Thanksgiving nears, we owe them all our most profound thanks.
Hadley Rose’s re-election this week as RTM moderator shined a light on 1 of the town’s most important — and often overlooked — bodies.
The Representative Town Meeting — 1 of the few such governmental organizations left in the state — is 60 years old this year. In 1949 it replaced the even older and quainter New England “Town Meeting” concept. Westport was growing quickly, and needed a nimbler, smoother means of governing itself.
In the 6 decades since, several RTM votes have impacted Westport phenomenally.
In 1960 the body authorized $1.9 million to buy the 191-acre Longshore Beach and Country Club.
Nine years later the RTM approved $220,000 to buy Cockenoe Island from the United Illuminating Company — preventing it becoming a nuclear power plant. (A referendum bid to overturn the decision failed.)
In the years since, the RTM has debated land purchases including Allen’s Clam House on Hillspoint Road; the Baron’s property (now Winslow Park), and more of his land on South Compo; Gorham Island, and Hall-Brooke on Long Lots Road.
Some of those purchases were approved; others were not. All generated controversy — and greater attendance than usual at RTM meetings.
The RTM is in the news each year when it debates — sometimes routinely, often raucously — the education budget.
In 1972 the RTM made the New York Times, with a 17-15 vote demanding an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. In 1982, the RTM voted 24-2 (with 7 abstentions) in favor of a nuclear arms freeze.
But most meetings are taken up with mundane matters: health and human services, information technology, the library, parks and recreation, public protection and transit issues.
And, oh yeah, a townwide ban on plastic bags.
From its start, the RTM has been non-partisan. A host of party activists have served, on both sides of the aisle. Their names — Aasen, Arcudi, Belaga, Ezzes — read like a who’s who of Westport politicians. But all ultimately had the best interest of their town at heart.
Hadley Rose is the latest in a long list of distinguished moderators. Giants who preceded him included Allen Raymond, Herb Baldwin, Ralph Sheffer and Gordon Joseloff.
The 60th anniversary gift is diamonds. But the 36 RTM members don’t want anything like that. They’d be glad if you knew the names of your 4 district representatives.
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