Christine Meiers Schatz, RTM District 2, shares her thoughts Tuesday night.

By Jarret Liotta

WESTPORT — After a lengthy — yet civil — discussion, the Representative Town Meeting adopted an official in-house “Conduct Guidelines and Expectations” for its members Tuesday night.

While its creators said the four-page document, aimed at inspiring more civil behavior for RTM members, technically “has no teeth” — nor legislative power — proponents argued that approving it sends a message to an electorate that has expressed frustration with the tone of some interactions among elected officials.

“In terms of enforcement it does not have any specific teeth, and that was deliberate,” said Stephen Shackelford, RTM District 9, who chaired the seven-person Code of Conduct Special Committee.

Public Opinion

He said, however, the public would be “disappointed” if the RTM didn’t endorse the document, which outlines behavior and etiquette among these elected officials that people have expressed concerns about, including civility at public meetings, treatment of town employees, and interactions on social media.

“I would like us to take a stand about how important it is for us to hear from the people in our community,” Shackelford said, prior to a 28-to-3 vote endorsing it.

At the last minute he agreed to strike a sentence from the document at the urging of one RTM member, who expressed concerns about the wording potentially impinging on the civil rights of members, particularly when it came to publicly expressing concerns about town employees.

Several Opposed

Prior to the vote at least a half-dozen RTM members expressed various misgivings about both the document and the idea that this legislative body was even considering it, though only three — Christine Meiers Schatz (RTM-2), Jay Keenan (RTM-2) and Seth Braunstein (RTM-6) — ultimately remained in opposition.

“Even though I agree with the content of what is in there … this is something that belongs in a handbook that people can look at,” said Schatz, calling their legislative work “very serious business.”

“To some extent I think it’s kind of embarrassing that we’ve gotten to a level that we even have to put some of this in writing,” she said. “It should go without saying.”

Keenan expressed misgivings about details in the document that discourage “intimidating, dismissive or aggressive” … “language, facial expressions and tone of voice.”

“Slippery Slope”

“It talks about our private conversations,” he said. “It talks about our facial expressions … I roll my eyes all the time at things people say during these meetings. And our tone of voice? I just think it goes too far. We shouldn’t be regulating people’s behavior. It’s a slippery slope.”

Wendy Batteau, RTM District 8, who ultimately voted in favor of it, said that all of the details in the new guidelines were already documented in the 800-page Robert’s Rules of Order book, which she said the group should already be well-versed in and operating under.

“The RTM is bound to follow Robert’s Rules of Order (but) we have drifted away from using (it),” she said, noting how it describes “in excruciating detail” how each situation should be handled, as well as appropriate decorum.

“To say that we need additional guidelines when we have 800 pages of rules makes me wonder a little bit if anybody’s lost track of this,” she said.

Impetus for Document

In her last meeting before retiring from the RTM, Moderator Velma Heller did not take credit for the idea of forming the committee.

“The impetus for this really came from members of the RTM and constituents,” she said.

Rick Jaffe, RTM District 1, said he has witnessed “a shocking lack of decorum” since joining the RTM, in particular during meetings of the RTM Information Technology Committee, which he chairs.

“I had to stop a committee meeting twice to complain about bad behavior … so I support this code of conduct,” he said.

“We need this,” agreed Candace Banks, RTM District 6.

“Cringe-worthy” Correspondence

“I do worry that our reputation is on the line here,” she said, calling some email chains among member “cringe-worthy.”

“I’ve been the victim of bad behavior,” said Arline Gertzoff, RTM District 3, speaking in favor of the document.

“I really would like to see more people perhaps think about their behavior,” she said.

The preliminary version of the document that was voted on can be found here, prior to Shackelford’s removal of the sentence in the first paragraph under the subheading “RTM MEMBERS’ CONDUCT WITH TOWN STAFF, which reads: “Any concerns about a Town employee’s performance, other than in conjunction with an agenda item under discussion by the RTM, may be raised either to the employee or to the employee’s department head or the First Selectman, but should not be aired in a public meeting.”

Officials said they would be posting the approved document on the town website, as well as distributing copies to members at the time they take office.