Long Lots Elementary School
Money to design a new Long Lots Elementary School was recently approved. / File photo

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — The Long Lots School Building Committee, the target of what some critics have called a lack of transparency in planning the most expensive project in town history, is taking steps to broaden access to its deliberations.

The committee, which has regularly held in-person sessions in a small — often crowded — Town Hall meeting room since it was set up in 2022, has maintained neither broadcast nor audio archives of its proceedings as do most town boards or commissions. 

The official minutes filed for nearly all of the committee’s meetings are brief, often consisting of only a few, generally worded sentences. And when the committee voted to go into executive session, the minutes do not cite a specific reason the panel was required to state publicly before going behind closed doors — as obligated by state open-meeting rules.

In a Feb. 16 letter, the committee — without specifically saying so — appeared to acknowledge it needs to be both more transparent and proactive in disseminating information about plans for the new elementary school, expected to cost about $100 million. (Full text of the letter appears below.)

The letter primarily details steps underway for the architectural/design phase of  the Long Lots project following Representative Town Meeting approval of $6.8 million for that purpose. 

But the committee also wrote it would be posting “regular” status updates on several platforms and would begin recording its meetings.

“We are working to have most, if not all, of our meetings in Town Hall recorded,” the letter states. “Occasionally, we may run into a conflict with a previously scheduled board or commission meeting that could preclude the town’s ability to record both meetings but we will endeavor to overcome that challenge. 

“As we have in the past, we’ll always open our meeting to public comment.”

The letter does not address why the committee did not, over the last year and a half, keep audio archives of its meetings in Room 201 of Town Hall, where other town boards also meet and do record the proceedings.

The LLSBC wrote that it hopes to post twice-monthly updates as work on the school project proceeds — using its webpage on the town’s website, as well as via Facebook and a new link to the Board of Education’s website.

The committee’s decision to conduct business with greater transparency, however, comes after several officials raised questions about limited public access to its proceedings. The officials’ concerns added to months-long complaints from several vocal critics about the process. A number of citizens have filed Freedom of Information requests for reports they felt should have been disclosed by the committee.

The committee’s failure to record its meetings “comes up a lot,” Board of Finance member Danielle Dobin told LLSBC members when they asked financiers to approve the $6.8 million in Long Lots design money earlier this month.

The LLSBC made the commitment to post regular public updates about the project after the same issue arose during RTM committees’ review of the design funding request.

And the agenda initially posted for the RTM’s March 5 meeting also spotlighted the transparency issue with a request from two members of the legislative body “to amend the mandate/charge of the Long Lots School Building Committee created September 6, 2022, to add provisions regarding easy access to information and proactive public input on design alternatives.”

Action on that proposal, according to a revision of the agenda made Tuesday, has now been “postponed to a future date.”

Although no reason for the postponement was given, whether the RTM acts to enforce greater transparency by the LLSBC will likely depend on how the committee addresses the issue going forward.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.

Following is the Feb. 16 letter by the Long Lots School Building Committee: