By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting has received a petition from a citizen seeking clarity on the petition process itself.
The town has rules governing petitions to the RTM, but there has been disagreement recently over how they have been handled by RTM Moderator Jeff Wieser, District 4, and questions about whether he overstepped his authority in deciding which ones make the agenda, and when.
John McCarthy, a former RTM member and the lead petitioner on two recent petitions, requested in June that the legislative body discuss the downtown parking redevelopment plan at Tuesday’s meeting. It didn’t make the agenda.
Wieser, with a memo from an assistant town attorney saying it’s up to the moderator to decide which petitions are pertinent, didn’t put that petition on the Sept. 5 agenda. He has said that there have been extensive discussions about the issues involved, and noted the request did not call for a “legislative action.”
When the Sept. 5 RTM agenda was posted, some petitioners cried foul. They see the petition mechanism not as a matter for lawyers and arguments and caselaw from afar, but a simply worded, straightforward form of democracy — if Westporters want a topic addressed before the RTM, just collect 20 voters’ signatures.
The RTM Rules of Procedure, enacted in 1979, and amended since, state:
“The Moderator or, in the event of the Moderator’s inability to act, the Deputy Moderator or, in the event of the inability of both, the Town Clerk shall place on the agenda of the Representative Town Meeting such matters as the First Selectman, two Representative Town Meeting members or 20 electors of the Town may request by written notice delivered to the Moderator or the Town Clerk not less than 14 days prior to a Representative Town Meeting, not including the day of the meeting or the day of delivery of the notice. The Moderator may place any item on the agenda for any Representative Town Meeting.”
The crux of the latest petition boils down to one word: “Shall.” As in “shall place on the agenda.”
McCarthy’s second petition, again with more than enough signatures, was submitted to the Town Clerk’s Office and certified on Tuesday. Here is the text:
In the interest of clarifying for all Westport residents the meaning and intent of “Sec. A162-6. – Agenda” of the “Representative Town Meeting Rules of Procedures” as found in Exhibit A of the “Code of Ordinances of Westport Connecticut,” the undersigned Electors of the Town of Westport request that the following Resolution be placed on the Agenda of the October 3, 2023 meeting of the Westport RTM for a vote of the full RTM:
RESOLVED, that the full Westport RTM at its October 3, 2023 meeting affirms that the meaning of the term “Shall” in “Sec. A162-6. – Agenda” of the “Representative Town Meeting Rules of Procedures” as found in Exhibit A of the “Code of Ordinances of Westport Connecticut” is to be “construed as being mandatory,” per the definition of the word “Shall” in “Sec. 1-2. – Definitions and rules of construction” and that “Sec. A162-6. – Agenda” compels and requires the Moderator, or in the event of the Moderator’s inability to act, the Deputy Moderator or, in the event of the inability of both, the Town Clerk to place on the RTM meeting agenda such matters as petitioned by at least 20 Westport Electors not less than 14 days prior to a Representative Town Meeting.
How discussions outside public meetings have progressed since are another point of contention.
At Tuesday’s RTM meeting, Wieser read a long statement about the issue.
“As of yesterday, the lead petitioner and I spoke and he suggested that we no longer needed to speak about the Parker Harding proposed changes, which will continue to be the discussion of public debate and will ultimately come to the RTM for a fully transparent discussion debate and appropriations for the funds required to complete that proposal,” he said.
“And I do think that proposal will now be pursued through fully transparent, appropriate channels that are the normal course and will receive substantial public input before any shovel is put in the ground.
“The lead petitioners and others have changed their focus to a reform of the RTM, which per a petition received today will attempt to focus the RTM more on current issues that can be debated by the RTM, even if no legislative action is expected,” he continued.
After the meeting in the Town Hall auditorium, McCarthy emailed all the members of the RTM, disputing Wieser’s take on their discussion.
“Facts matter,” he wrote. “To be clear I did not withdraw the Parker Harding petition. It is still an unfulfilled ‘request.’”
“In my conversation with Mr. Wieser yesterday I made it clear I was opposed to having the RTM vote on whether it should be put on tonight’s agenda,” McCarthy said. “Had I supported that course of action, it would have only served to legitimize the moderator’s refusal to act according to the rules.”
“This is no longer about a parking lot, it is about having the right to petition the RTM taken away from the Westport voter,” McCarthy told the Westport Journal in another email. “The RTM moderator and I have a fundamental different view on what the word ‘shall’ in the Rules of Procedure mean. If the RTM views this as a popularity contest, then the moderator’s view will prevail and the residents of Westport and the RTM members themselves will lose a right they have had for many years. If the RTM members look at the issue with an open mind and use common sense, then we will continue to have the right to petition the RTM. Pretty simple.”
John F. Suggs, a former candidate for first selectman and former RTM member who now is a candidate from District 9 in the RTM election in November, also weighed in with an email to RTM members, and to the Westport Journal.
“Last night we got two competing narratives about the status of the Parker Harding Petition,” he told the Westport Journal on Wednesday. “The lead petitioner insists that it was absolutely not withdrawn, yet the moderator informed everyone that it was withdrawn. This has obviously caused a great deal of confusion. I hope the moderator might be willing to clarify things. Perhaps he misspoke.”
Wieser told the Journal Wednesday night that he’d let his comments from Tuesday’s meeting speak for themselves.
Jennifer Johnson, another former RTM member who is now running again in District 9, wondered how things had become so complicated.
“Sixty people want to discuss a topic, what’s wrong with discussing the topic?” she asked. “If it’s too much democracy and it becomes a problem, we can revisit it.”
“This is what the RTM’s about — it’s representative town meeting. If we’re not going to do that, why do we have an RTM?” she asked.
Wieser also said at Tuesday’s meeting that the Rules Committee of the RTM would discuss McCarthy’s second petition Oct. 2. He warned that the timing might be tight, with the petition requesting it be heard by the full RTM the next night, Oct. 3.
Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at email@example.com. Learn more about us here.