by Jarret Liotta

WESTPORT — A newly formed Code of Conduct Special Committee continued its work late into the night Monday, trying to outline a set of guidelines and expectations for how members of the Representative Town Meeting will — or should — conduct themselves.

“I think there have been several occasions where there have been concerns from constituents and other RTM members about the general decorum,” Moderator Velma Heller said.

“This is really an attempt to put everybody on the same page and really to let new members know how we behave,” she said.

While she said there were no specific incidents that she would speak to at this point, over the years issues ranging from interrupting other members or going off topic, to overt and sometimes vitriolic verbal and written attacks — and most recently even a legal attack — impressed the need to address the matter.

It remained unclear, however, exactly what power the document will ultimately have, and what options there would be hold the members accountable to these standards.

“If we were just to follow Robert’s Rules of Order we wouldn’t need this at all,” noted member Peter Gold, RTM District 5, regarding some instances of interruption and grandstanding during RTM meetings.

Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug, a former moderator of the RTM, strived to keep the committee on task as it spent almost four-and-a-half hours hashing out the rough draft it hopes to see voted on by the full RTM in September.

Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug shares about some existing ordinances relating to RTM members.

“You can always amend this later,” Flug said, pointing out various statements in the document that could impact First Amendment issues, and replacing some of the edicts in the rough draft with softer words, such as “traditionally” versus “are required,” in several cases.

While he’s not serving on this committee, member Louis Mall, District 2, called out what he called “the elephant in the living room,” referencing a recent lawsuit brought — and later revoked — by RTM member Kristan Hamlin, District 4, against her fellow member Lisa Newman, District 8.

In it, Hamlin claimed Newman — along with State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-136) — had defamed her, as well as taken part in backroom politicking to cement his nomination for first selectman.

Mall pointed out that the suit made reference to seven other RTM members by name, and also referenced “RTMers” as a whole.

He said he was further bothered by Hamlin’s use of Dan Woog’s 06880 blog to make public the conditional nature of her withdrawing the case, stating that she was withdrawing it contingent on Newman’s silence.

“If Ms. Newman can refrain from personalized attacks against me and others in the community … then this offer of peace will be rewarded,” Hamlin was reported to comment, otherwise stating that the lawsuit would be revived.

“If you’re talking about a code of conduct, what you witnessed this past week was totally inappropriate,” Mall said, vehemently criticizing her suit and the wording with the withdrawal.

While he concurred that the lawsuit was what he referenced as middle school behavior, Gold defended Hamlin’s right to bring it.

“It’s not the way I would choose to behave, but if somebody thinks they’ve been defamed they certainly have a right to bring a lawsuit… and Dan Woog certainly has a right to write about it,” he said.

“Then why have a code of conduct?” Mall said. “Why are you wasting your time with a code of conduct?”

“I get what you’re saying,” said Stephen Shackelford, the committee chair from District 8.

Committee Chair Stephen Shackelford, RTM member from District 8.

“I don’t like what happened at all, but we certainly cannot say that RTM members can’t sue each other,” he said.

Mall stressed that every member of the RTM should be outraged at what happened, and raised the question of who might be the next victim of such a lawsuit.

“I felt that that whole thing was an intimidation factor being used against all the rest of us,” he said.

Member Mark Friedman, District 3, raised the question of whether RTM members were protected under town contracts in the event of being sued in the course of their duties.

How RTM member should and can represent themselves in the public forum was also part of the committee’s debate, with some of its members unclear what is permissible on social posts, such as Facebook.

Where applicable, Flug explained that RTM members had a right to share opinions in various forums, but should always make it clear that they might not be representing the RTM or one of its committee as a whole.

“Social media’s a big part of discussing social issues …” Flug said. “You should be able to do it.”

Two RTM members shared how they had been criticized or shamed by other members on social media posts, including member Jimmy Izzo, District 3.

“One member of your committee did not show me respect on a certain Facebook page,” he said. “I’m pretty livid about it.”

The RTM’s Code of Conduct is a work in progress.

“How are we going to change behavior?” Mall asked.

“I don’t think this is intended to change behavior,” said member Jessica Bram, District 6. “I think this is intended to articulate expectations.”

General consensus was that, at least in meeting the onus would fall upon Heller to take actions to quell interruptions and monitor uncivil words.

“Anything to be enforced is at the discretion of the moderator anyway,” Bram said.

“It’s up to the chair,” Flug concurred. “The chair doesn’t have to give anybody the right to address it.”

“This document was meant to be as much aspirational as anything else,” Heller told the committee later in the meeting, noting she felt it was getting too unwieldy.

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Monday, Aug. 9, to vote on a final draft to send to the full RTM.