By Valerie Seiling Jacobs
In 2022, when First Selectwoman Jen Tooker refused to put a representative from Sustainable Westport on the Long Lots School Building Committee, I was baffled: Why would a town that prides itself on its Net Zero promise want to exclude someone with environmental expertise?
I was especially concerned because two of the proposed members, Don O’Day and Jay Keenan, had been among the most vocal opponents to the RTM’s most recent environmental initiative (i.e., the leaf blower ordinance). At one point, Mr. Keenan actually told me that he didn’t believe the science on the pollution/health risks of those 2-stroke engines.
To think that these two men — neither of whom seemed to care much about environment or what their constituents wanted — would be on the committee gave me pause. But since I had no evidence of any wrongdoing or ulterior motive, I let the matter drop.
This past summer, however, when the committee started making noises about bulldozing the Westport Community Gardens/Long Lots Preserve (which are part of the pollinator pathway and which act as a huge carbon sink) to make way for a new ballfield, I became suspicious.
After all, neither the documents submitted to the RTM, nor the Board of Education specs even mentioned such a field. So where was this request and supposed need for a ballfield coming from? And who decided to link it to the renovation/construction of the school?
In an effort to get answers, I filed Freedom of Information requests with various town officials, including Ms. Tooker, Mr. O’Day, Mr. Keenan, Parks & Rec, and the Board of Education (BOE). Notably, that request has been pending for more than two months and Ms. Tooker still has not produced a single document.
I have, however, received info from other town officials. From those documents, it’s possible to piece together what happened — and it’s not a pretty picture or one that reflects favorably on anyone involved.
It appears that, in April 2022, months before the committee was even formed, Lee Goldstein (BOE chairwoman), Thomas Scarice (school superintendent), and Jen Fava (director, Parks & Rec) were already contemplating a land grab. Indeed, the Town Attorney had already been instructed to pull the legal files on the gardens/preserve and Ms. Fava was being warned not to make any long-term promises to the gardeners.
What’s shocking about those emails — besides the fact that this proves that the BOE, the superintendent, and Parks & Rec. were in cahoots and besides the fact that this secret agenda was not revealed to the RTM or the public — is the contempt with which these officials viewed the gardens/preserve and the residents who care about them.
At one point, Mr. Scarice even volunteered his own “chain saw” to help remove native trees in the preserve, a proposal that Ms. Goldstein thought funny enough to merit a “Rolling On The Floor Laughing” emoji.
The other thing that’s clear from the FOIA documents is the extraordinarily chummy relationship between Parks & Rec and certain outside sports organizations. Did you know, for example, that the Westport Soccer Association (WSA) offered to fund up to $100,000 for improvements to the town’s fields and then book the cost as an interest-free loan which the WSA would then forgive if the town committed itself to a “larger capital project?”
Whether that loan was ever made is unclear. But the offer itself raises legal and ethical questions. Is it possible, for example, that the promise to build a new league-level ballfield at Long Lots was the precise type of “larger capital project” that the WSA had in mind, the quid pro quo, if you will, for the loan forgiveness?
The degree of intimacy between town officials and outside sports organizations is also reflected in emails that were sent after the Long Lots debacle became public. Indeed, one sports official felt comfortable enough to suggest to Parks & Rec that they go on the “offensive” vis-à-vis the gardeners by creating what was essentially a false narrative. Namely, that the children at Long Lots deserved this field. (Let’s be clear: the new ballfield is not for students at Long Lots, but rather, for older players who will need to join a league and pay to play.)
That outside sports officials should be conspiring with Parks & Rec to mislead residents — the very people who pay their salaries — is reprehensible.
Just how deeply Ms. Tooker was involved in this conspiracy remains to be seen. But the actions of the committee — especially their constantly shifting rationale for the field — are suspicious in and of themselves.
At first, of course, it was the needs of the Long Lots children that was supposedly driving the decision, a rationale that we now know to be a canard. Then it was the supposedly high cost of Plan C-ALT (the only plan which would keep the gardens in place). But when the gardeners showed that that reasoning was flawed — the committee had failed to consider the cost of moving and rebuilding the gardens, as well as the cost of the extra drainage that would be required if the gardens were removed — the committee pivoted yet again.
The most recent justifications offered by the committee are that they need to move the gardens to make way for a staging area and/or geothermal piping. Never mind that a number of people, including architects/engineers, have already come forward to show how the staging and entire project could be done — and still save the gardens. And never mind that Mr. Keenan has already admitted that geothermal is probably off the table due to the poor return on investment.
At the very least, the committee’s constantly shifting justifications show an incomplete grasp of the facts. At the worst, they suggest deception.
Before the town spends $100 million on a new school, we need to have a better understanding of the possibilities and that analysis needs to be done in the light of day by those without a preconceived agenda.
We all want a beautiful school — but we cannot afford to invest this kind of money without conducting a full and transparent investigation of the alternatives. It’s time for Ms. Tooker to put a stop to this folly and instruct the committee to stand down on any decision regarding a new field — and to uncouple the gardens/preserve from the Long Lots school building project.
Valerie Seiling Jacobs is an attorney and longtime resident of Westport. A former co-chair of Save Westport Now, she is currently on the faculty of Columbia University, where she teaches writing. Ms. Jacobs recently helped lead the campaign to regulate gas-powered leaf blowers in Westport.