Tag Archives: Westport RTM

Want To Run For RTM? Deadline Looms!

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.

(Hat tip: Former RTM member Pat Porio)

If You Don’t Like The Way The Town Is Being Run, Read On!

Time to put up or shut up.

Or run for the RTM.

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; pstrauss@westportct.gov). For more on the RTM, click here.

Single-Use Plastic: What You Can Do

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.

(Photo/Bob Weingarten)

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.

[OPINION] Tax On Firearms: An Idea Worth Pursuing?

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.

P&Z Wants You! (To Help Bring Notices Into The Modern Age)

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 pandz@westportct.gov — 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?!)

RTM Website Lets In Sunshine — And Raises Hackles

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.

Nicole Klein: National Election Inspires Local Race

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election last year, Nicole Klein felt “helpless and hopeless.”

The Westport resident could not understand how America had chosen such a man as its leader.

“I’m a very positive person,” Klein says. “But I became very negative.” She vowed to do something to change her state of mind.

The New York City native had spent 17 years at McKinsey; now she was global event manager. In April 2014 she, her husband Fred and young son Carter had moved to Westport from the city, for the schools and amenities.

Nicole and Fred Klein.

In the past, Klein had volunteered for presidential campaigns. But she had never — not in New York, or her new hometown — been involved in local politics.

Now was the time.

She quit her high-powered job. In March, Klein became deputy registrar of voters.

Working in Town Hall, she learned the ins and outs of Westport government. The Representative Town Meeting intrigued her.

“RTM had just been an acronym to me,” she says. “But I realized how important it is. It’s Westport’s legislative branch.”

When 2 members of her Greens Farms district decided not to run for re-election — and Klein realized there were no “moms,” or even any females — representing District 5, she threw her hat in the ring.

She knew nothing about campaigning. Friends offered advice: Go to the train station. Go to the transfer station. Make signs.

It was a very competitive race. In 8 of Westport’s 9 districts, 4 or 5 candidates vied for 4 seats. District 5 had 8.

“People made websites, brochures, mailings and signs,” Klein says. “There was a lot of canvassing.”

The 1st-time candidate faced hurdles. A random draw placed her name at the bottom of the ballot.

Because election season is the busiest time of year for the registrars’ staff, she could not campaign for herself on that crucial Election Day. Fortunately, an “amazing team” — including her husband and son — stepped in.

Carter Klein scrupulously obeys the electioneering law.

Oh, yeah: Just a few days before the election, the Kleins moved from their rented condo into a new home.

“There was a lot going on,” Klein says understatedly.

With over 1,900 voters to reach, she focused on the population she felt she could best impact: the school community. “I hoped people were excited about a mom running,” she says.

They were. Klein earned the 2nd highest number of votes in District 5.

It took a while before she learned the news, though. She was so busy at Town Hall, she could not immediately check the text her husband sent from the Greens Farms Elementary School polling place, with the results.

As an unknown quantity in a heavily contested race, lacking name recognition, Klein had steeled her son for the possibility of defeat.

“I told Carter the important thing was to get involved, go for it and try your best,” she recalls. “I told him I would still be committed, win or lose.”

During the campaign, Klein surprised herself by realizing how much she wanted to win. The closer Election Day loomed, the more she hoped she could serve.

Now she looks forward to learning even more about how Westport works — and about how to help her district. She has heard constituents’ concerns about high-speed trains coming through the Greens Farms station, maintaining the stellar school system, and the financial stability of the town. She is not afraid to asks questions, and learn more.

Klein knows a handful of RTM members, current and new. She is excited to meet her colleagues — “a great group, with a fantastic influx of new people.”

The other day, a League of Women Voters member asked Klein to serve coffee at tonight’s swearing-in ceremony for Westport elected officials (7:30 p.m., Town Hall).

Klein had to say no. She’ll be busy taking the oath of office herself.

A Sensible Solution To So Many Signs

Voters are not the only Westporters turned off by political signs.

Candidates are too.

In fact, they dislike them so much — the expense, the putting-up-and-taking-down, the “arms race” feeling they engender and the animus they create — that one local politician proposes a solution:

Get rid of them entirely.

The idea comes from an RTM candidate. He (or she) agreed not to be named, because the goal here is sanity and a less visually polluted streetscape, not self-promotion.

(Photo/David Meth)

But here is his (or her) plan:

In the next election cycle, give candidates the option to donate the money they’d otherwise spend on signs to a fund that would create a website. The site would include pertinent information about all candidates who participate, with a link to their own personal web pages.

There would be plenty of publicity, so voters would know which candidates are voluntarily forgoing yard signs, in favor of the website. Each candidate’s financial contribution would be posted on the site.

Each candidate would design their own page. They could write or post as much information as they’d like, including videos.

In addition, each RTM district could hold candidates debates — perhaps at the library. They’d be videotaped, and posted on the website too.

Part of the funds used for signs could instead help rent commercial space downtown. (There’s no shortage of empty stores!) Candidates could have “office hours,” when voters would drop in and ask questions.

Parents could bring their children, to learn about the political process. (After which, they’d all go shopping downtown.)

The RTM candidate who suggests this has his (or her) own website. But he (or she) has to walk door to door, and post on social media, to let voters know about it. (Mailing out flyers is prohibitive.)

“I’ve been chased by people and bitten by 3 dogs, among other things,” the candidate says.

“And I can’t blame homeowners. I don’t like it when people come to my door either.

“An opt-in, robust central information repository, and ‘office hours’ for the public to talk to each candidate, just makes more sense to me.”

[OPINION] Cynthia Gibb: Idle No More!

This month’s devastating hurricanes got Cynthia Gibb thinking.

The 1981 Staples High School graduate — a noted actress (“Fame,” “Search for Tomorrow”), now a vocal coach back in her hometown — is concerned about the worldwide impact of climate change.

But she’s a firm believer in the adage “think globally, act locally.” She writes:

America has just experienced 2 historic storms back-to-back, and I am feeling frustratingly helpless. Climate change is here.

Cynthia Gibb

I have known this was coming for a long time. I learned about global warming back in the mid-80’s when I joined a group called Earth Communications Office, a Hollywood group with the mission of educating Americans about the changes in our climate.

Everything I learned back then has unfortunately been coming to fruition. That means that still ahead are horrific droughts, fires, floods, the extinction of many animals and insect species, the movement of our tree line north (affecting farming and quality of life for all who live in the south) — among other catastrophic events.

Last spring, at the Staples High School science awards ceremony, a scientist told the audience that we could expect to see Miami underwater in the foreseeable future. I wonder if he knew it would happen so soon?

I get overwhelmed by this knowledge. Climate change deniers sit in the White House, and run the EPA. Trump has said he will pull us from the Paris agreement. Pruitt wants to roll back environmental laws. It’s terrifying and infuriating.

Yet one thing that gives me hope is that there are forward-thinking folks, making a difference. Some of them are right here in Westport.

Our RTM recently passed the Net Zero in 2050 Initiative. We’ve joined the  governors of Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, California, Colorado and Washington in pledging to exceed the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. In fact, the northeastern states have already reduced their carbon emissions by 37% since 2008.

Earthplace has screened the documentary “Idle Threat.” These are great starts.

Wakeman Town Farm is evidence of Westport’s strong environmental concerns.

But the solution has to come from citizens, as well as government.

I’ve been asking myself, “What can I do?” Cash donations to flood victims won’t stop future disasters.

In his new book Climate of Hope, Michael Bloomberg encourages everyone to do their part. I have finally figured out what mine is: I am making a conscious choice to obey Connecticut’s Do Not Idle Law.

I recently learned it is illegal for all vehicles — including buses, trucks and passenger vehicles — to idle for more than 3 minutes in our state. After just 10 seconds of idling, we waste more fuel than stopping and restarting our cars. Even in cold weather, engines need only 30 seconds to warm up.

The law is clear.

So I no longer idle in the school pick-up line, or the Starbucks or bank drive-through. If I want to continue a phone call or listen to the radio, I turn off my engine and turn on my battery.

If it’s hot, I roll the windows down. If it’s cold, I leave them up! It’s really easy and simple, now that I’m in the habit — like remembering to bring my reusable bag to the grocery store!

I feel better now that I am doing my part and setting an example for my kids that we can change our behavior, even if it’s inconvenient. It’s a small gesture, I know. But if 26,000 of us do it in Westport, we can set an example to the rest of the nation — where every day we waste 17 million gallons of fuel due to idling.

This is also important for children in our town, who can suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases due to car emissions.

This is a call to action, fellow Westporters! I invite anyone reading this to join me in turning off your engines whenever you can. After all, there is only one ozone layer.

And we all share the same air.

 

(Click here to sign Westport’s no-idle pledge.)

 

[OPINION] Don Bergmann: Ban Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers!

Don Bergmann is a longtime Westporter. A close observer of the town, his regular comments on “06880” are always clear and concise.

Today — with fall (unfortunately) right around the corner — he’s thinking about leaf blowers. Here’s a copy of an email sent to all RTM members, 1st selectman Jim Marpe, and challengers Melissa Kane and John Suggs. Bergmann writes:

Noise in Westport bothers many, with many items of concern. My only interest is leaf blowers. I do not seek to complicate noise issues with a broad-based approach or decibel measurements, though a manufacturer’s decibel standard could apply to leaf blowers.

I would like to see Westport adopt an ordinance that would ban the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers by commercial users from May 1 through October 15. The ban would not apply to individual homeowners or renters for their own properties.

Gas-powered leaf blowers have become very noisy, and in my judgment are overused. They address minimal meaningful needs, other than for the clearing of leaves in the fall and general cleanup in early spring.

The gas units are especially environmentally undesirable. The noise is extremely annoying, particularly in areas of Westport zoned other than 2 acres. (Those living in 2-acre zones who believe the problem exists there as well should advise all.)

The noise is a a quality of life issue. The banning of gas-powered leaf blowers has received a fair amount of attention over the years, with communities looking into the issue and many, I believe, taking action.

I have accumulated some useful background information. I am aware that Save Westport Now has, independently of me, raised the same issue and is compiling relevant research. I believe SWN would make available that research if requested.

Bergmann asked each RTM member and candidate to respond. Meanwhile, “06880” readers: What do you think? Click “Comments” below.