Men dominate board, commission chairmanships in Westport
WESTPORT — The word “chairman” isn’t a gendered misnomer in Westport. Of the seven elected bodies in town government, only one has a woman in the top position.
Now that all of the town’s elected boards and commissions have chosen a group leader, the results are in.
Brian Stern will once again serve as chairman of the Board of Finance; Garson Heller will hold the same position on the Board of Assessment Appeals, and Paul Lebowitz was chosen to take the chairman’s helm on the Planning and Zoning Commission.
James Ezzes was elected chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals; Michael Gordon will serve as chairman of the Board of Education, and re-elected First Selectman Jim Marpe will, per his position’s title, be first in the line of leadership on the Board of Selectmen.
Velma Heller, who was re-elected the Representative Town Meeting moderator, the group’s highest position, was the only woman chosen to lead one of the town’s elected bodies in the upcoming term.
Heller said the lack of women in the top leadership positions on town bodies, “might just be a function of the timing this year and who ran for what board.”
She said, “Westport has always supported women in leadership positions,” and cited previous women RTM moderators Alice Shelton, 2005-07, and Eileen Flug, 2013-17.
In the town's charter, it is denoted that someone on the Board of Selectmen can choose to be called a selectman, selectwoman or selectperson. The same language does not appear in the charter for chairman.
“Also we’ve had several women first selectmen,” Heller said. Westport has had three previous first selectwomen: Jaqueline Heneage, 1973-1981, Martha Hauhuth, 1985-89, and Diane Farrell 1997-2001.
“It’s not completely unusual to have women as leaders on these boards and commissions. There have been a number of very talented women in leadership positions over the years,” Heller said.
The town’s recently retired third selectwoman, Helen Garten, said she’s not concerned about the lack of women leaders in the current term and said, “It changes so often, so I’m not really worried necessarily.”
Garten, who served as the first full-term chairwoman of the Board of Finance from 2009-2011, said, “In the past, there have been women chairs. The Board of Ed frequently had women chairs.”
Garten cited former Planning and Zoning Commission chairwomen Ellie Lowenstein and Cathy Walsh, who ended her chairmanship last week with the election of Paul Lebowitz.
“I didn’t feel there was any impediments or barriers to a woman being chair. It was based a lot on seniority, at least on the Board of Finance,” Garten said, and added, “I think there will be more women chairs as more women run for elected office.”
Patricia Russo, executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, a nonpartisan program which trains women to run for elected office, said she’s seen an “explosion” of women running for political office recently.
In terms of women’s representation in the top leadership spots at the local level, Russo said, “I’ve seen a pattern forever now where the men are the chairs and the women are the vice chairs. I’m hopeful this is a pipeline for women to become chair,” and added, “I’ve seen women stepping up to become vice chair.”
Russo’s vice chairman pipeline hypothesis may hold true in Westport, where four of the seven elected bodies have a woman vice chairman or second in command. The women include Jeannie Smith on the Board of Education, Jennifer Tooker on the Board of Selectmen, Danielle Dobin, of the Planning and Zoning Commission, and Elizabeth Wong, of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The Board of Finance has an all-male leadership slate with Michael Rea taking the vice chairmanship. The Zoning Board of Appeals, a three-member body, does not have a vice chairman. Jeff Wieser was re-elected RTM deputy moderator.
Whether the prevalence of women vice chairmen will translate into these women eventually taking their group’s top spot, Russo said, “It’s hard to know. The record number of women stepping up is so new, but I am hopeful.”