Get to know...Helen Garten
WESTPORT — Helen Garten frequently walked her German shepherd Nika on frosty winter mornings at Compo Beach to play with other dogs. It wasn’t until the Parks and Recreation Department proposed stricter regulations on dogs using the beach that Garten chose to get involved in local politics.
Now the town’s third selectwoman, Garten is a lawyer by trade, something she aspired to be from an early age.
“Lawyers were involved in civil rights; lawyers were doing great things; lawyers were involved in politics,” she said. “It was an interest in politics from sort of the outside.”
Throughout high school and college, Garten worked for a lawyer, helping him compile conscientious objector applications throughout the Vietnam War; she used to write the applications.
After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in politics, she went on to receive her law degree from Harvard University, magna cum laude. Garten then clerked for a federal judge, worked as an associate at corporate law firms, including Sullivan & Cromwell, and was a law professor at Rutgers University for almost 30 years.
Less than a year after Garten lobbied before the Board of Selectmen for her dog’s ability to run free on Compo Beach, she was elected to the Representative Town Meeting in 2003. In 2005, she was elected to the Board of Finance. She won re-election and became chairwoman in 2009. Garten ran unsuccessfully for first selectwoman in 2013 and became third selectwoman the same year.
As chairwoman of the Board of Finance during the worst recession since the Great Depression, Garten was integral in orchestrating the funding of the town employees’ entire pension obligations.
“And I’m pleased to say the whole board felt that we owed that to our employees to fund that, even though we did it at enormous costs because we had to cut the budgets or else taxes would have gone up some terrible amount,” she said.
Looking forward to the new year, Garten, who used to commute via train from Westport to Newark, N.J., believes the deteriorating rail system and increasingly long commutes could have an adverse effect on the town.
“I think the fact that the commute is getting so terrible for people eventually may affect Westport as a desirable place to live,” she said.
Although an express train from Westport to Grand Central used to take an hour, it is no longer the case, she said.
“Now it’s at least an hour and 15 minutes,” Garten said. “The trains are late almost all the time, so it’s getting very difficult. We were sort of within the acceptable range for commuters. Now, someone said recently, of the young people that they know, they can’t think of a soul who’s moving to Westport because it is so far away from New York (City).”
Preserving Golden Shadows, a property formerly owned by perfume magnate Baron Langer von Langerdorff, which sits on Baron’s South, will continue to be a priority of Garten’s in the new year. A feasibility study was conducted months ago and returned a number of ways the structure could be saved.
“We have to find a use to keep Golden Shadows alive. We have to find a productive use,” she said. “A building can’t survive empty and misused for this many years.”
The main issues facing the repurposing of the mansion come down to how expensive it will be to access the area and create access. Possibilities listed by the consultant include: office use, multifamily housing and public accommodation — anything from town offices to function space. Garten is leaning toward supporting some public access to the building.
“The building does belong to the people of Westport, and it is interesting inside. So having some sort of way in which the public can see it is important,” she said, adding that the effect on neighbors is a strong consideration along with the open space designation for the site.