John McCarthy.
John McCarthy

By Thane Grauel

WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting on Tuesday voted to turn down a petition that sought clarity on the public’s right to petition the body.

The petition was filed by John McCarthy after an earlier petition filed by more than the 20 required registered voters from town was sidetracked by Moderator Jeff Wieser, District 4, rather than put on the September agenda as requested.

The agenda item before the RTM on Tuesday sought to clarify whether 20 registered voters in the town of Westport do indeed have the right to petition the town’s legislative body to have a matter placed on its agenda:

“RESOLVED, that the full Westport RTM at its October 3, 2023 meeting affirms that the meaning of the term “Shall” in “Sec. A 162-6. – 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. A 162-6. -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.”

Eileen Flug.
Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug

The petition was the subject of a three-hour debate Monday night when the RTM’s Rules Committee voted to not recommend the full RTM pass the measure, in a vote of 6-4, with one abstention.

Tuesday, the vote was six in favor, 29 against. The debate lasted more than two hours.

“The first section gives the moderator a very simple and clear mandate,” McCarthy said. “Place requested matters on the agenda.”

“This is a simple and clear responsibility with no leeway for opinion or subjective analysis as to whether an item is appropriate or falls within the RTM purview.”

“By attempting to interpret the agenda section of the charter … the petitioners are trying to expand what that section says,” Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug said. “The [Town] Charter provides the authority of the RTM and if the people who wrote the charter wanted to include anything that any petitioner wanted to put on the RTM agenda they could have easily put that in …”

Gloria Gouveia, a signer of the petition, said, “The dispositive issue here is whether the moderator of the RTM has the authority to determine if a matter may be considered by the RTM .. I’m here to tell you the answer is no.”

Gloria Gouveia.
Gloria Gouveia

She said the town’s powers are granted by the Connecticut General Statutes. Whenever there’s a question about a body or official’s powers, “We are first told to look to the Connecticut General Statutes to see if there is language that enables that behavior.”

“There is nothing in the statutes, nor as you have been told, is there anything in the Town Charter, which must conform to the statutes, which enables the moderator to become an intercessor for matters petitioned to the RTM,” Gouveia said.

“As someone who’s brought petitions here before, I’m really concerned about this discussion tonight,” said Morley Boyd. “I’m having a hard time understanding how it could be that two-thirds of you may enjoy a right that 20 of us may not.”

“I think to myself, why would I run around and get signatures if there’s the very real possibility that a single person might have their thumb on the scale,” he said. “And I really hope that you’ll come down on the side of freedom and democracy.”

Liz Milwe.
Liz Milwe

A few RTM members spoke in favor of preserving the public’s right to directly petition the RTM.

“I don’t think we want to change something that’s really part of Westport’s history,” said Liz Milwe, District 1.

“Some of the alternatives to me sound a little weak,” she said. “I do think our petitioners have a point, that they would like to be heard … I think we need to think about it more before we change all the rules on this.”

Several RTM members said they agreed with Wieser’s position that not any subject should have to be taken up by the RTM. There was discussion both nights about possible ways to ensure the public feels it’s being heard. They might be discussed in the future by the Rules Committee.

“I feel like we’re being bullied,” member Seth Braunstein, District 6, said of the petition. “We’re being told you must do this because this is what someone 74 years ago said.”

“I say let’s stand up, let’s be thoughtful, and let’s come up with a solution that provides a better outcome for the future,” he said.

Milwe; Harris Falk, District 2; Ross Burkhardt, District 3; Matthew Mandell, District 1; Ellen Lautenberg, District 7, and Sal Liccione, District 9, voted in favor. Twenty-nine others voted against.

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.