Harris Falk, left, and Ross Burkhardt.
Harris Falk, left, and Ross Burkhardt / Photos by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting discussed a proposal Tuesday to boost railroad parking fees beyond what was recently done by the Board of Selectwomen.

It was a rare instance of the RTM, the town’s legislative branch, challenging a decision from the selectmen/selectwomen, the executive branch, RTM member Richard Lowenstein, District 5 noted.

Ross Burkhardt, District 3, and Harris Falk, District 2, petitioned the RTM moderator to have the discussion months ago.

“We’re looking to do that, and to increase the funds, not decrease them,” Falk said. “So that they’ll get more funding for the town.”

Burkhardt said people had asked why they were bringing the matter before the RTM so late. He said requested a hearing in June, but the Town Attorney’s Office issued an opinion saying it wasn’t allowed. That opinion changed after ensuing discussions, Burkhardt said of the Town Attorney’s Office, which finally said “that, actually, two RTM members did legitimately have the right to raise a question about parking fees.”

The Board of Selectwomen in April increased the daily parking fee from $5 to 6 for the first time in more than a decade. Falk and Burkhardt were seeking to increase that to $7.

Monthly parking fees would have gone from $325 to $425, and a two-car pass from $450 to $550, under their proposal.

Part of the reasoning for the even larger increases in fees was to disincentivize people driving their cars to the train stations. Westport’s fees, it was also noted, are lower than other towns’ in Fairfield County.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, who has overseen the Railroad Parking Authority, asked RTM members to proceed with caution. Budgeting has been tricky in recent years with the pandemic, which meant fewer parkers and higher costs.

“I’m asking you to trust me for the last 12 years with the operation and hit the pause button right now, and wait and see where we’ll be this upcoming spring,” he said.

He had a problem with boosting rates because “a loophole” was found.

“We’re playing games,” Koskinas said. “It’s not fair to the commuters, it’s not fair to anybody.”

Peter Gold, District 5 and also director of the Westport Transit District, said the effort, which he supported, had nothing to do with the Police Department.

“They do an excellent job of managing the train stations,” he said. “This has nothing to do with their stewardship.”

“This is the first time in 12 years they’ve raised the fees, I don’t think we want to wait another 12 years,” he said. “That’s a very long pause button.”

He said the additional funds be used to “build sidewalks, we could have additional traffic agents, we could have maintenance of Baron’s South, we could have affordable housing. We could use them for anything the town wants to use them for.”

Member Jimmy Izzo, District 3, agreed with the police chief, and pushed back on the notion of forcing people out of their cars.

“I think it’s egregious to start penalizing commuters, as they are the lifeblood of our community,” Izzo said. “Many go into the city, are taxed, taxed to take extra transportation, and now we want to take our money-grab right now. These people pay big taxes, they pay our bills, they help keep our beaches clean, pay our police, pay our civil servants.”

“I love getting in my car and going for a drive,” Izzo said. “It’s fun. I like to drive. I’m up at five in the morning.”

“We’re trying to force things down people’s throats,” he said. “And it’s not right. You gotta back off a little. Put the pause button on, revamp this …”

“This about as clear as mud,” said Louis Mall, District 2.

The motion failed 7-22, with two members abstaining. A subsequent motion also went down by a similar ratio.

Lowenstein said that even though the effort was defeated, it was a groundbreaking vote.

“For the first time in my memory, the RTM, the legislature, has challenged the executive using C4-6 of the Town Charter,” he said. “And I suspect that having done it once, we’ll do it again.”

“I’m very pleased about that because I believe in the balance of power,” he said.

Thane Grauel grew up in Westport and has been a journalist in Fairfield County and beyond for 35 years. Reach him at editor@westportjournal.com. Learn more about us here.