Editor’s note: Following is a commentary submitted by Dan Pritikin, a longtime Westport resident and Long Lots Elementary School parent.

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You might have missed it, but there was a pretty important meeting on Monday evening related to the ongoing Westport Community Gardens saga. It was a long, informative and emotionally intense meeting, so I was disappointed that the details of it failed to make it into any of our local publications this week. Growing impatient, I’ve decided to take on the task of filling everyone in.

As you likely know, a few weeks ago, Westport’s Parks and Recreation Commission enacted a new rule prohibiting access to our public school properties during school hours unless you are a student, teacher, staff-member or invited guest on school business. 

This rule came at the recommendation of our chief of police, the superintendent and our Board of Education in an effort to increase the safety of our students and staff. This is standard protocol across the country and, according to our police chief, Westport’s lack of such a rule was both archaic and unacceptable. 

Of course, the immediate impact of this rule beyond the added security of our children was the inconveniencing of some residents who had grown accustomed to jogging, walking their dogs, etc., around our schools during school hours. 

Naturally, this also greatly limited the hours the community gardeners could access the Long Lots property to tend to their plots, which triggered one particularly outspoken gardener to author a petition, demanding that our RTM either overturn the rule entirely or, at least, make an exception for them. 

Once her petition received the required 20 signatures, the new safety measure was effectively put on hold until the full RTM was able to rule on it, a process that can take several weeks. And of course, before the full RTM can rule on it, three RTM subcommittees were required to review it and decide weather to recommend its approval to the full body. This initial subcommittee meeting occurred at Town Hall this past Monday.

It was a rather packed house in a tiny room. The petitioner prepared a power point presentation stating her case to the committees and the public at large.

Included in her deck were detailed photographs she had taken of various public schools in Westport, highlighting what she perceived to be security “soft points” that demanded greater attention than the hours of access. These photographs created a rather disturbing atmosphere, especially when juxtaposed with some of the harrowing comments from the public regarding school violence, lockdown experiences, shooter drills, etc.

Police Chief Foti Koskinas spent a little time explaining the reasons for the new rule. He acknowledged that he and his department were unaware that the gardeners had access to the school property during school hours and apologized for this oversight. Admittedly, I was pretty disheartened to learn of their neglect on this issue, but comforted that we were doing something about it now. Or at least trying to.

Unsurprisingly, when it came time to vote, not a single RTM member voted to recommend the petition be approved by the full RTM. It was at this point that one RTM member motioned to have the petitioner withdraw her petition. 

In what may have been the most dramatic moment of the proceedings, the moderator looked the petitioner dead in the eye and urged her to withdraw, reminding her that this was a time sensitive security issue and that it was clear the petition was going to fail. The petitioner paused, appeared to consider the request and then refused, ensuring that this effort to protect our children would only happen on her timeline.

There were a few other important details the public should know that came out of this meeting. 

As I sat in the audience, I realized most folks sitting around me were affiliated with the garden. This allowed me to hear the murmurs of acknowledgment from many of them that the garden was, indeed, destined to be relocated off of school property, something that has happened twice before in its history. In fact, even RTM member, Jennifer Johnson, speaking as a member of the public, I believe, conceded that the garden was not long for this location. 

This prompted another RTM member to ask why we weren’t discussing a new location for the garden rather than this petition. Fortunately, a few other RTM members and even our second Selectwoman Andrea Moore spoke up, reminding the public that the town has indeed offered a new location for the facility off of school grounds, but they refused it. This is a revelation many Westporters might find surprising if they were simply taking those misleading “Save The Garden” signs at their word. The garden’s existence has NEVER been in jeopardy. 

Also, many of us parents have urged the full RTM to hear this petition ASAP, as it is a time-sensitive security issue. The petitioner has indicated she is not “available” at an earlier date, so again, we’ll all have to wait on her.

Finally, the moderator of the meeting shared with us that she has recorded several instances just this past week of gardeners flaunting the current rule, prohibiting them from accessing the garden during school pick-up and drop-off times. No one from the garden group had anything to say about that.

This petition seems like it’s going to fail. It also seems to me that eventually while the new school is built, and there is no access to the garden for several years, most of the gardeners will realize that relocation was always in their best interest as well as the kids and the town as a whole. 

The most newsworthy part about this to me is how the self-interests of a few are allowed to derail the needs of the many, especially when the many is mostly children. I feel like there should be more articles about that.