Editor’s note: The following letter was distributed to members of the Representative Town Meeting, and a copy submitted to the Westport Journal for publication.

______________________________________

  • The selectwomen failed to follow the procedure mandated by the charter and/or to conform to established precedents when they created the Long Lots School Building Committee and appointed its members.
  • The RTM failed to play its proper role in creation of a town school building committee and appointment of its members and by its passivity permitted the selectwomen to usurp its authority in the matter.
  • The actions of the selectwomen  and the failures of the RTM resulted in a flawed process which lacks transparency, legislative oversight and an appropriate level of public participation; which fails to take advantage of the expertise and experience of the Public Site and Building Commission; and which is fraught with the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Relevant charter provisions:  Section C21-2: “Unless otherwise designated by the RTM with the concurrence of the First Selectman, the Public Site and Building Commission shall designated as the school building committee as that term is defined by the General Statutes.”

Section C5-1:“The Representative Town Meeting shall have general investigatory power and authority to establish committees and boards of the Town for special projects and studies and for general administrative purposes regarding new projects or improvements of public works, unless such power has been explicitly granted to another body by an express provision of the Town Charter.”

Precedents: In the past, notably in 1997, as the charter requires, it was the RTM, not the first selectman, that decided whether the PS&BC should be bypassed in favor of a special committee and when it did it gave reasons for that decision and importantly, it was the RTM, not the first selectman who appointed the members of the committee as required by the charter.

In 1997 the RTM created a special committee for the new Greens Farms Elementary School, the new Bedford Middle School and reconstruction of Coleytown Middle School, and said it was doing so because the PS&BC was involved with several other projects and had neither the time nor the resources to take on another assignment of this magnitude. However, when it came to appointing the members of the committee, the RTM engaged in a collaborative process whereby three members were nominated by the PS&BC and the remaining 15 were chosen from among 33 applicants who responded to a published invitation.

Contrast that with what happened in the case at hand where the first selectwoman decided, without explanation, to bypass the PS&BC in favor of a special committee, thereby usurping the RTM’s authority conferred by section C5-1 of the charter and then compounded the charter violation by presuming unilaterally to designate the members of the committee without consultation with the PS&BC or the RTM and without any public involvement in the choice. If that were not troubling enough, several members of the committee continue to serve on other town bodies with which there are potential conflicts of interest.

Conclusion: In the matter of the Long Lots Elementary School, the first selectwoman has essentially hijacked the process, reducing the RTM and the PS&BC to powerless bystanders whose only role was to rubber stamp her actions without having been fully apprised of the relevant charter provisions and without sufficient inquiry or debate.

It is high time for the RTM to stand up and do the job for which it was elected and which is assigned to it by the charter. It does not serve the interests of the citizens of Westport well when, as in this case, the RTM surrenders its prerogatives and meekly accepts questionable decisions of the executive branch without inquiry, investigation, debate or insistence upon its right to challenge the creation of a special committee, to appoint its members and to provide continuing oversight of its deliberations.

Our suggestion: In order to guarantee the integrity of the process, to restore public confidence and to assure that the RTM and the PS&BC are playing their rightful roles in the process, we suggest that the RTM assert itself at last by adopting a resolution requiring that the Long Lots School Building Committee be required to consult with the BOE regarding educational matters, the BOF and RTM regarding financial matters and the PS&BC regarding implementation, including such things as whether to use a construction manager or a general contractor approach, and that the RTM investigate the potential for conflicts of interest among the members of the committee and disqualify and replace those whom it finds to be conflicted.

Lawrence Weisman

Westport