This is Peter Gold’s report on the December Representative Town Meeting. He is an RTM member writing for himself, not in an official capacity.
December’s RTM meeting featured several housekeeping items, and 3 appropriation requests.
Dan Woog’s invocation gave thanks for America’s democratic traditions. He thanked the RTM for all it does for Westport, describing the RTM as ”its own tradition. It is non-partisan. It represents every segment of town. It is unique. It is quirky. It is ours.”
Members then reelected Velma Heller as moderator and Jeff Wieser as deputy moderator for the 4th time, and thanked retiring Town Clerk Patty Strauss for her 23 years of service to the RTM and the town.
The RTM also thanked Marty Fox and Patsy Cimarosa, who resigned as directors of the Westport Transit District, for their nearly 5 years’ service as directors.
The most expensive appropriation was $4,635,408 for a new public safety radio system. The current system is 15 year old, and has parts that can no longer be repaired.
The new system will piggyback on the state’s existing system. making it significantly less expensive than buying a stand-alone setup. The new system enables the Police Department, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services to communicate together for the first time, and expands the area covered by the system.
$230,000 was approved to repair the seawall along the river at Jesup Green. The project adds a railing atop the seawall to help minimize accidental falls into the river. While the RTM agreed safety should be a priority, hope was expressed that the railing will obstruct river views as little as possible.
Repairs will be made along the Saugatuck River seawall.
The RTM also approved $80,000 for the design and permitting stage of a project to repair the Old Mill walkway and tide gates.
The final agenda item was to appoint a new volunteer director for the Westport Transit District.
Peter Gold, former chair of the RTM Transit Committee (and the author of this article) was nominated, because of his familiarity with the Transit District’s operations. He would resign once the town came up with a plan for the future of the Transit District.
A motion was made to delay appointing a new transit director until February to give the town additional time to decide on a course of action.
While some thought the absence of a director would prod the town to take action more quickly, others noted that a director must be in place now to deal with day-to day operations, including the new Wheels 2U Westport on-demand door-to train station commuter service, and to prepare the Transit District’s budget for the next fiscal year.
The appointment of a director would not prevent the town from formulating its own solution. Based on this, and Gold’s knowledge and experience with the Transit District, he was appointed as a director by a vote of 34 in favor, and 1 abstention.
This is the first of Peter Gold’s regular reports on the Representative Town Meeting’s monthly sessions. He is an RTM member writing for himself, not in an official capacity.
October’s RTM meeting was one of the longest on record. It began at 7:30 p.m. yesterday, and ended at 2 a.m. this morning.
Six of the 7 agenda items were disposed of quickly. The last item — a 2-page sense of the meeting resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, and asking the town to help combat it — led to 5 hours of debate.
The final version was adopted unanimously (28-0). It says:
The Westport RTM condemns racism in all its forms and hereby commits to actively working toward combating racism and valuing all people as deserving of equitable treatment. We see the world around us and recognize racism as a crisis, having negative effects on the public health, welfare and lives of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). Racism diminishes us all. Therefore, we ask the Town of Westport to commit to continue work already begun, and we ask the Town of Westport to develop means to evaluate our community’s progress in the areas of racial equity and justice.
All RTM members spoke out against racism, while acknowledging it exists in Westport.
A primary area of discussion focused on whether or not the resolution should be limited to condemning racism, or if it should be expanded to condemn sexism and all other forms of discrimination as well.
While many RTM members felt that expanding the resolution diluted its impact by taking the focus off racism, many others felt that all forms of discrimination, including sexism, anti-Semitism and discrimination against LGBT people are equally reprehensible, and should be condemned too.
Other areas of concern involved the appropriateness and accuracy of several of the “whereas” clauses in the original resolution; whether or not the original resolution was too “partisan,” “political,” or otherwise beyond the scope of the RTM’s powers; and the feeling that the original wording was a one-size-fits-all resolution adopted by many other towns, instead of being tailored to Westport and expressing Westport’s values and concerns.
Many RTM members spoke eloquently and passionately on both sides of these and other issues. The full debate will be posted on the town website.
The other votes were also unanimous, and straightforward:
Ratification of the Conservation Commission’s approval of bridge replacements for the Cavalry Road and Bayberry Lane Extension bridges over the Saugatuck River (work begins in the spring, and will last 6-8 months).
Approval of $310,000 for new lights at the Greens Farms Elementary School softball field; replacement of the 30-year-old lights with new LED lights will save the town approximately $185,000 over the next 25 years in electricity and maintenance costs.
Approval of $150,000 for an uninterruptable power supply for Town Hall and the Parks and Recreation Department. Town Hall had 3 major power failures leading to IT problems in the last 5 years — most recently during Isaias. The new power supply will provide “clean” power.
Approval of $349,000 for several Public Works Department requests, including designing a replacement for underground fuel and storage tanks with above-ground tanks to address environmental concerns and meet state requirements; replacing garage doors at the Public Works Center and old, non-functional doors at the transfer station to improve safety and security, meet state requirements, reduce maintenance expenses and improve efficiency in storms; upgrading the waste oil storage shed to meet state spill standards, and replacing an aging truck and excavators.
Coming soon: An uninterrupted power supply at Town Hall.
Most Representative Town Meeting agendas focus on local matters. The 36 members discuss budgets, the library, parks and recreation, public protection and transit issues.
Occasionally though, national events intrude.
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 body voted 24-2 (with 7 abstentions) in favor of a nuclear arms freeze.
On Tuesday, October 6 (7:30 p.m., via Zoom) — after voting on new lights at the Greens Farms Field, and replacing 40-year-old transfer station doors — the RTM will “take such action as the meeting may determine” to adopt a sense-of-the-meeting resolution asserting that “racism is a public health crisis affecting the Town of Westport and all of Connecticut.”
The proposed resolution — sponsored by Harris Falk, Mark Friedman, Amy Kaplan, Sal Liccione and Lisa Newman — says that “racism and segregation have exacerbated a health divide resulting in people of color in Connecticut bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and mortality including COVID-19 infection
and death, heart disease, diabetes, and infant mortality.”
Because “Black, Native American, Asian and Latino residents are more likely to experience poor health outcomes as a consequence of inequities in economic stability, education, physical environment, food, and access to health care” — and because those inequities are “themselves a result of racism” — the sponsors want the town to commit to “progress as an equity and justice-oriented organization, by continuing to identify specific activities to enhance diversity and to ensure antiracism principles across our leadership, staffing and contracting,” through a variety of means.
In addition, the sponsors hope to “solidify alliances and partnerships with other organizations that are confronting racism and encourage other local, state,
regional, and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis.”
The October 6 RTM meeting will be livestreamed at www.westportct.gov, and shown on Optimum Channel 79 and Frontier Channel 6020. Emails to RTM members can be sent to RTMmailinglist@westportct.gov. Comments to be read during the public portion of the meeting can be emailed to RTMcomments@westportct.gov.
Here’s the full text of the proposed resolution:
WHEREAS, racism is a social system with multiple dimensions: individual racism that is interpersonal and/or internalized or systemic racism that is institutional or structural, and is a system of structuring opportunity and assigning value based on the social interpretation of how one looks; and
WHEREAS race is a social construct with no biological basis; and
WHEREAS racism unfairly disadvantages specific individuals and communities, while unfairly giving advantages to other individuals and communities, and saps the strength of the whole society through the waste of human resources, and
WHEREAS racism is a root cause of poverty and constricts economic mobility; and
WHEREAS racism causes persistent discrimination and disparate outcomes in many areas of life, including housing, education, employment, and criminal justice, and is itself a social determinant of health; and
WHEREAS racism and segregation have exacerbated a health divide resulting in people of color in Connecticut bearing a disproportionate burden of illness and mortality including COVID-19 infection and death, heart disease, diabetes, and infant mortality; and
WHEREAS Black, Native American, Asian and Latino residents are more likely to experience poor health outcomes as a consequence of inequities in economic stability, education, physical environment, food, and access to health care and these inequities are, themselves, a result of racism; and
WHEREAS more than 100 studies have linked racism to worse health outcomes; and
WHEREAS the collective prosperity and wellbeing of Westport depends upon equitable access to opportunity for every resident regardless of the color of their skin: and
WHEREAS in August 2005, recognizing the need to achieve and celebrate a more welcoming, multicultural community, the Town of Westport established the TEAM Westport Committee to advise Town officials; and
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Town of Westport asserts that racism is a public health crisis affecting Westport and all of Connecticut;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will work to progress as an equity and justice-oriented organization, by continuing to identify specific activities to enhance diversity and to ensure antiracism principles across our leadership, staffing and contracting;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will promote equity through all policies approved by the Town of Westport and enhance educational efforts aimed at understanding, addressing and dismantling racism and how it affects the delivery of human and social services, economic development and public safety;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will improve the quality of the data Westport collects and the analysis of that data-—it is not enough to assume that an initiative is producing its intended outcome, qualitative and quantitative data should be used to assess inequities in impact and continuously improve;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will continue to advocate locally for relevant policies that improve health in communities of color, and support local, state, regional, and federal initiatives that advance efforts to dismantle systemic racism;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will further work to solidify alliances and partnerships with other organizations that are confronting racism and encourage other local, state, regional, and national entities to recognize racism as a public health crisis;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will support community efforts to amplify issues of racism and engage actively and authentically with communities of color wherever they live; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Town of Westport will identify clear goals and objectives, including periodic reports to the Representative Town Meeting, to assess progress and capitalize on opportunities to further advance racial equity.
Alert “06880” reader and RTM member Andrew Colabella writes:
As we embark on the 6-month anniversary of the first single-use plastics ban east of the Mississippi, I extend a big thank you on behalf of my co-sponsors: P3, the Conservation Department and Westport Weston Health District.
Last May, the Representative Town Meeting passed an ordinance that prohibits food establishments from distributing certain plastic food service containers to customers. Food products produced and packaged off-site are exempt.
We lead 46 states, along with cities in California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. It takes a village to clean a village, but it takes a town to lead the world. Our intent was to lead with perseverance, ease, and informative alternatives to make the transition smooth.
On November 7, the ordinance took effect in Westport. This means that single- use plastic items such as straws, stirrers, plates, cups, to-go containers, and all expanded polystyrene products such as Styrofoam cannot be distributed to patrons of food service establishments in town.
However, PLA (plant-based) containers are allowed. In addition, plastic straws will still be available upon request to those who need them for a medical or physical reason.
New straws at Pink Sumo.
The ordinance tried to be realistic in its wording, taking into consideration whether acceptable alternative options for certain products are available. This is why utensils are not covered under this ordinance: There are no viable, cost-effective alternatives readily available.
Plastic utensils for take-out orders are available upon request. Plastic lids are also allowed.
The purpose of the ordinance is to collectively change our behavior, to steer us away from increasing our individual carbon footprint, reducing waste, and incentivizing new product development. This should also result in the added benefit to our food service establishments of reducing their garbage output, and extending the length they hold inventory of these products.
Establishments throughout town have already started switching over to more sustainable serving products. However, the Conservation Department — which is responsible for enforcement — has agreed that all establishments which still have an inventory of single use plastic products may be allowed to use and distribute them past the November 7 date.
It would be counterproductive to force establishments to throw out products that can still serve a purpose. Please be patient and respectful of these businesses, as we all work together.
Single-use plastic is everywhere. (Photo/Bob Weingarten)
The transition will take time. You may note that some newer products look and feel like plastic, but actually are not. This polylactic acid material is a plant/leaf –based product allowed under the ordinance. PLA is beneficial because, if it is incinerated along with other garbage generated in Westport, no toxic fumes are emitted.
PLA is not recyclable with other recyclable plastics, but it is compostable under the right conditions. Unlike plastic which is made from petroleum, PLAs contain no benzene or styrene, which are carcinogenic products, and are made from a renewable resource.
Out of 78 million metric tons of plastic produced yearly, only 14% is actually recycled. At one time China, India, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other Asian countries purchased our plastic recyclables. They have now ended up in their tributaries, creating floating garbage islands around the world.
These countries no longer accept our recycled plastic products. Westport has always led the East Coast as an agent of change for advancing environmental protection, education, innovation, safety, and reducing waste fiscally and physically. This ordinance is one more example of that effort.
As we change the way we use these products provided by our businesses, which are often disposed of frivolously, we are committed as a town to reduce our waste.
We also expect private industry to introduce more environmentally friendly, harmless alternative packaging products. In the end, reducing usage, reducing demand and increasing inventory lifespan will reduce our waste.
The other day, I posted a story about a long, important RTM meeting. After 3 hours, our town’s legislative body voted narrowly — 18-16 — against a motion to ban recreational marijuana sales in Westport. (Such sales are not yet legal in Connecticut.)
That was typical of our Representative Town Meeting. Once a month they meet to debate and approve town and education budgets, and all town appropriations over $20,000; enact ordinances; review bonds, leases, sales and purhcases of town property; review zoning, recreation and other regulations, and oversee labor agreements with town and Board of Education employees.
They meet much more frequently in committees. Each member serves on several.
It’s time-consuming, arduous and thankless work. And every 2 years, RTM members must run for re-election.
Fortunately, serving on the body is not all work and no play. Last week, 23 members — along with the town clerk and RTM secretary — gathered for lunch at Tavern on Main.
Member Matthew Mandell — whose day job is executive director of the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce — organized the event. It was a way for everyone to spend time together outside of Town Hall. (And yes, for the Chamber to promote Restaurant Week.)
The RTM lunch at Tavern on Main.
It was the middle of election season. But, Mandell says, “people enjoyed that we could all sit together. Political party means nothing to us” — the RTM is non-partisan.
“It was nice to just BS, and not discuss any issue coming before us, or even around town. The RTM has had some late nights recently. This was a good break.”
(Even though there was a quorum, no official notice was required. “Social gatherings do not constitute an illegal meeting — just fun,” explains town clerk Patty Strauss.)
“The RTM is a collegial bunch who volunteer a lot of time to the town,” Mandell notes.
So, to all 36 members — and all the others, running for a seat — thank you for all you do for Westport. You are our Unsung Heroes of the Week.
We hope you enjoyed your lunch. Now get back to work!
(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email email@example.com)
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.
NOTE: You can also run if you love the way Westport is run.
Westporters interested in serving on the Representative Town Meeting — the 36-member legislative body that passes the town and education budgets; enacts ordinances (like the plastic bag ban), and reviews certain zoning changes, among other duties — can pick up an election petition beginning tomorrow (Tuesday, July 23, Town Clerk’s office in Town Hall).
Just get 25 signatures from residents of your district, by September 10. (That’s less than one a day.)
Bingo — you’re on the November 5 ballot.
You don’t even know your district map. The Town Clerk’s office tells you everything you need to know — including all registered voters in that district.
The RTM is non-partisan. Members serve 2-year terms.
For more information about this and other election matters, contact Town Clerk Patricia Strauss (203-341-1105; firstname.lastname@example.org). For more on the RTM, click here.
Alert — and environmentally conscious — “06880” reader Bob Weingarten writes:
In 2008 Westport passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic shopping bags. At that time it was the most extensive ban on plastic bags in the U.S. Since then we have assisted many other communities in their efforts to ban plastic bags.
Last month our RTM voted unanimously to ban single-use plastic cups, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam materials used in food services. Westport is believed to be the first municipality on the East Coast with such a ban.
Westport is ahead of the times in considering bans of plastic bags and single-use plastic products. We appear to be the most forward-looking town in Connecticut in plastic usage. But are we celebrating our efforts a bit too early?
According to the EPA, 12% of the municipal solid waste stream is plastics. Only 8% of all plastic products are recycled.
The most recognized single-use plastics items are plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles, but there are many more ordinary items. They include plastic bags for vegetable and fruit packaging; meat, poultry, dairy and fish products; packaging for fresh flowers and dry cleaning items; doggy waste bags and much more.
Single-use plastic is everywhere. (Photo/Bob Weingarten)
Why worry? The EPA only attributes 12% of our solid waste to plastic products. This sounds small, but we need to consider where this 12% is placed.
Most of the plastics go to municipal waste sites. But they go in the ocean too. Recently, 180 countries reached an agreement to sharply reduce the amount of plastic that gets washed into the world’s oceans. The US was a major holdout.
An estimated 100 million tons of plastic is now found in the oceans. Some of that is ingested by fish. We know where that goes next.
What can we do to preserve our environment, since new regulations take lots of time? We can continue to voice our opinion for legislative support to ban single-use plastic products. This will cost more, but in the end will benefit us, our children and grandchildren.
In the interim we can take steps to recycle single-use plastics today, by chopping it into pellets. They can be reprocessed into new bags, and can be shipped to a company to be manufactured into plastic lumber.
Right now, our Westport transfer station does not provide recycling bins for plastic items.
But one place in Westport does provide plastic recycle bins: both entrances to Stop & Shop.
I’ve only found one other plastic recycle bin in our area: Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk.
Care must be taken with these bins.
There cannot be any paper labels on the plastic — even pricing information — because the paper interferes with the chopping process.
Also, plastic with bright color imprints is not good for chopping. Do not include those products.
Some people may not know what to do with single-use plastic products. I hope this information helps.
Like many of her fellow RTM members, Christine Meiers Schatz has been thinking about taxes — and guns. The other day, she posted these thoughts on her blog:
As an elected official, I’m acutely aware of the need to reduce local tax burdens – this year more than ever due to changes in federal tax law. But I can’t shake an idea I’ve had for a new, local “Pigovian” personal property tax on firearms.
Maybe you can help me figure out whether it is an idea worth pursuing.
Pigovian taxes correct inefficient market outcomes and are favored even by conservative Republican economists. By taxing an activity/ownership that has societal costs, a Pigovian tax shifts some of this “external” cost (an “externality”) back on to the property owner. In addition, the revenue raised could fund measures designed to mitigate these social costs.
Westport residents own over 6,000 firearms.
Westport residents own over 6,741 registered firearms, and the related externalities have made recent headlines. For example, Police Chief Foti Koskinas encouraged the town to proactively address residents’ mental health in light of the number of registered firearms. At a fundraiser in December he explained, “I’m not anti-Second Amendment; people have the right to defend themselves. But we need to have a conversation in town about mental illness. It’s gun common sense.”
Likewise, the number of registered firearms has been mentioned as one of many reasons for the town to hire School Resource Officers to protect students in our public schools. Some economists have even estimated that the average annual marginal societal cost of gun ownership is up to $600 per household.
Assuming an average $500 assessed value for each of the 6,741 registered firearms and using last year’s mill rate, the tax would raise over $56,000 each year for local safety and mental health initiatives.
The tax might be the first of its kind, however, which raises some questions:
Would the tax be Constitutional?
I think it might be. According to the Connecticut Department of Revenue Services, “nothing in taxing firearms, in any way, infringes upon an individual’s constitutional right to bear arms.”
Generally, taxes need only be justified by a rational governmental purpose. This is a low bar, and – especially with respect to Constitutional issues – a much lower bar than what would be applied to a regulation regarding gun ownership. In fact, a Washington State Supreme Court recently deemed constitutional a different type of local tax on firearms.
The tax would be set at the mill rate, and at 16.86 that equates to a tax of of less than $9 for a $500 gun. This doesn’t seem confiscatory or excessive. The $9 is meant to fund local social programs as a complement to gun ownership – and not meant to limit access to firearms in any way.
Does the town have the right to levy a personal property tax on guns?
Under Connecticut General Statutes Sections 203–204, Connecticut towns have the right to tax personal property subject to a long list of exceptions. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of exception related to firearms.
Would the tax lead to more unregistered firearms?
This is an important question, and I’m not sure of the answer. It does appear, however, that the state of Connecticut requires sellers to report all firearm sales to local law enforcement.
Is Westport willing to burden the potential risks of being an innovator here?
It is possible that the tax might be challenged, though perhaps a large law firm might donate legal services for its defense (any volunteers?). If not, legal costs might exceed revenue for at least the first year.
It has also been suggested to me that Westport might receive national attention if it is the first to implement a personal property tax on firearms, and that’s not the kind of attention that the town wants or needs.
Christine would like to know what you think. Click “Comments” below.
The other day, “06880” highlighted an issue that frustrates many Westporters: the limited ways to find out things like proposals for new developments, zoning changes, and upcoming agendas for regulatory boards.
The P&Z is on it.
A new Planning and Zoning Commission communications subcommittee met last week. On the agenda: how to modernize and improve public notice of P&Z matters.
Some neighbors were surprised to learn of a development proposal for the former Daybreak Nursery property.
Several intriguing ideas were discussed in the areas of site plans, special permits, variances, subdivisions and map adjustments. Among them:
To address the complaint that residents don’t open mailed legal notices because they look like junk mail or solicitations:
Notices will be delivered in a brightly colored envelope with a return address showing the Westport Planning & Zoning Department. A separate line on the bottom right of the envelope will note “This notice could impact your property rights or property values”
The town will purchase envelopes. Applicants will purchase these from P&Z for a fee, to ensure consistency in delivery of all notices.
The mailed notice radius will be expanded beyond the current 250- foot radius of the subject property.
To address the complaint that a single printed notice in the Norwalk Hour is insufficient, and a dated method for notice delivery:
All legal notices to be posted on the Town of Westport’s website at the same time as printed in the Hour, preferably under the headline “Planning & Zoning Notices.” P&Z agendas will be posted 1 week prior to the scheduled meeting.
A new “Westport Planning & Zoning Notices” Facebook page will be created, including links to the legal notices posted on the town website. No commenting or messaging will be permitted.
A physical sign (similar to a demolition notice sign) will be posted on the subject property, as proposed by the Coalition for Westport.
NOTE: These proposals do not relate to text amendments, which will be discussed at the next meeting.
That meeting is next Wednesday (January 17, Town Hall, 7:30 p.m.). They’ll join the RTM’s Planning and Zoning subcommittee to review those ideas, discuss public feedback, and begin improving the process for public notice of text amendments.
And … before that meeting, the P&Z subcommittee is asking — very publicly — for feedback.
Comments posted to “06880” will be added to the public record. You can also email email@example.com — and of course attend the meeting, and speak.
“We welcome any and all feedback,” the subcommittee says.
“Our goal is to ensure that all residents can easily inform themselves of P&Z matters affecting their neighborhood and community.”
(Click here to see the full minutes of the P&Z subcommittee meeting. How’s that for openness?!)
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