Although candidates for the Board of Selectmen covered a lot of ground during Thursday night's debate at Staples High School, their disagreements were greatest over the role of town's top elected official and who has the best skills to manage Westport, rather than issues of substance.
The contenders for first selectman -- Democrat Helen Garten and Republican Jim Marpe -- while promoting their backgrounds, had no sharp disagreements over issues like addressing traffic congestion, opening the political process to residents and students, making downtown a destination spot for teenagers, and keeping the town affordable for recent college graduates.
The debate between Marpe, a former Board of Education member, and Garten, the vice chairwoman of the Board of Finance, lasted 40 minutes and was preceded by a 20-minute debate between their running mates, Republican Avi Kaner, the Board of Finance chairman, and Democrat Melissa Kane, a Representative Town Meeting member, vying for the position of selectman. Both debates, moderated by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, were geared toward the interests of younger town residents because Staples' students organized the debate and provided the questions.
Early in the debate, Garten, a 26-year Westport resident and former professor of financial and business law at Rutgers University, touted her eight years on the town's Board of Finance. She said she was the board's chairwoman when the recession struck in 2008. She said she learned about responding to people and "making tough decisions -- we had to fund the schools and keep taxes reasonable."
"We were able to get Westport through the recession with low taxes and flying colors," she said.
Marpe, a retired senior partner at Accenture, a global management consulting and computer technology services company, said in his eight years on the Board of Education he "helped visualize how to make a great school system even better," and sought ways to get more input from students. Marpe said one reason he enjoyed serving on the school board was hearing what students had to say. As an example, he recalled when the girls' ice hockey team came to the board to ask for more funding so they could have the same amount of ice time as the boys' team. "We listened, we took that on, we made that happen," he said.
Garten said she viewed the first selectman's role, in part, as taking a position on issues important to Westport residents and then motivating people to follow. She said civil-right leader Martin Luther King Jr. once said a genuine leader was not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. "I think a great first selectman is someone who understands that, and I certainly will try to do that," she said.
Garten said the first selectman also sets the financial priorities for the town and is the "chief problem solver" of the town.
Marpe, who moved to Westport in 1989, said the first selectman is the leader of both the business and visionary sides of town, the latter of which, he said, was gained through a collective understanding of what is important to residents. He said he'd like to have a student come to Board of Selectmen meetings as a non-voting member so officials could hear the perspective of teenagers.
In response to other questions, Garten and Marpe said adjusting the timing of traffic lights on the Post Road could help to alleviate traffic congestion. They said the Post Road is a state-owned road and controls the lights, but state officials likely would be receptive to ideas from local leaders.
Garten said increasing the availability and accessibility of public transit is something she would pursue, while Marpe said the Downtown 2020 Committee would have traffic data that local leaders could present to the state along with ideas for solving gridlock on the Post Road. "We're at last getting townwide data on what our traffic situation is and will have the opportunity to build on real data and real facts," he said.
Marpe and Garten said they'd both be out in the community to hear from residents and that technology should play a greater role in engaging residents with what's happening in town government. "Technology is where we can really take advantage of the imagination of people in this room," Marpe said to the student-dominated audience at the debate.
Garten said the town's Facebook page "doesn't exactly get updated very much" and that interactive features could be added to the town's website to allow feedback from students. She said she and Kane have held "brown bag lunches" throughout their campaign and would continue to do so with the public if elected. She said having students "shadow" heads of town departments would be "a good way to learn a lot more about town government."
Marpe said he would hold an annual public meeting to discuss where Westport is and where it's headed. He said an important role of the first selectman is to be the "chief communicator and chief listener."
"Listening is so important. It's an important quality for all of us to exhibit," Marpe said.
Garten said she would work to keep the town affordable for recent college graduates through a low tax rate, incentives for the historic preservation of smaller homes and encouraging young entrepreneurs to open small businesses. Marpe also cited the preservation of smaller homes and local, good-paying jobs.
On offering amenities for younger residents, Garten said downtown may not have room for a sports facility, but a business like Arnie's Place, a former arcade on the Post Road, a bowling alley or an Internet cafe could "restore downtown and make it exciting again."
Marpe said he worked to build a consensus on installing lights at Staples' football field for Friday night games, which he said created a sense of community in town. He said the Westport Library also could host more programs that interested younger residents. He said the Westport Weston Family Y was leaving downtown but the YMCA "will create all sorts of transportation opportunities" for students to visit it.
Marpe said he'd be interested in hearing from teenagers on what they'd like to have downtown. "It is so important that we listen to you and get your input about what you wild like to be doing," he said.
In her closing statement, Garten said she would manage town finances efficiently to make Longshore Club Park Golf Course and Compo Beach "even better" and make downtown a place for adults and teenagers to gather.
"It's time to build a closer relationship with government and residents," Garten said. "Westport is not a business. Westport is a community and we need to engage all residents. I promise that I will always keep you informed, always be available to hear your ideas and always seek your help and guidance."
In his closing statement, Marpe said he is committed to keeping property taxes low, safeguarding the town's financial future and maintaining the town's character and "time-honored commitment to the arts and environment." He said he and Kaner have "a half-century of professional management experience" and that he is "excited about making Westport a better place" in the near and long-term.
During the earlier debate between Kane and Kaner, Kaner, an eight-year member of the Board of Finance, said one of the biggest challenges facing Westport is its business district on Main Street, which he said is not as attractive as it was when he moved to town 17 years ago. He said that is because, in part, many trees that were lost and not replaced. He added that some town facilities, such as Longshore's golf course and the bathrooms at Compo Beach, are deteriorating.
"We've got to fix Longshore. We've got to fix Compo. We've got to re-beautify Main Street," he said.
Kane, a two-year member of the RTM who moved to Westport about 11 years ago, said downtown has lost former attractions like a bowling alley and movie theater over the years. Meanwhile, she said, the town needs a vision that includes preserving its character, history and environmental heritage, the latter of which she said involves preserving more open space. She said she also wants to find ways to make the town more energy efficient.