RTM loses Republicans, remains majority Democratic

WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting, Westport’s 36-member legislative body, is staunchly nonpartisan.

Members do not run under the affiliation of any party and, if elected, are charged with making decisions in a nonpartisan manner. Members, however, may belong to a political party.

According to voter registration records, the current RTM is composed of 16 Democrats, nine Republicans, and 11 unaffiliated members.

The political composition of the current RTM members diverges from that of the last RTM session primarily in the number of registered Republican members. The last two-year RTM term had 14 registered Republican members whereas the newly elected group has only nine.

In total, six Republicans left the RTM at the end of last term, three because they lost in the recent RTM elections, and three because they chose not to run again for the RTM or ran for higher political office.

The outflux of Republican-registered RTM members doesn’t worry him, Tim Wetmore, chairman of the Westport Republican Town Committee said. “There’s a lot of reasons why people seek election to the RTM, as well as leave the RTM,” he said.

“I think there’s a kind of ebb and flow with people getting involved and which party is more involved,” Wetmore added.

The largest increase in political affiliation in the current RTM term compared to last was among members registered unaffiliated. Two unaffiliated members left the RTM last term and, of the 12 new members in the current RTM group, half are registered unaffiliated.

Four registered Democrats left the RTM, while five registered Democrats joined the body.

Westport Democratic Town Committee Chair Ellen Lautenberg, who also serves as a District 7 RTM member, said, “I think people that newly ran for the RTM seem to be motivated by two things.”

Lautenberg said new members were primarily motivated to run because of the education budget and secondly, the national political scene.

Regardless of motivations for membership born from national political concerns, Lautenberg said, “The RTM agenda is really driven by what is going on in town and not issues individuals bring up,” or issues dictated by national political parties.

In the coming RTM term, Lautenberg said, “I think the number one issue this year will be budget related. Both the town and education budgets will be the hot issue.”

In fact, Lautenberg said the way RTM members voted on the education budget last term was a greater indicator of which candidates won this election than their national political party affiliation. “A number of the people who lost did not support the education budget in the way people in town wanted,” Lautenberg said.

Indeed, one of the election’s most influential advocacy groups was the “School Budget Petition Campaign 2017,” which supported candidates, regardless of party, who the campaign said were strong supporters of the schools in the 2017 budget vote.

The list of “supporters,” compiled by the group’s founder, resident Robert Harrington, included candidates of all political affiliations — Democrat, Republican, and Unaffiliated.

On the RTM itself, members say political affiliations don’t play a large role. “I don’t think the political affiliation of the RTM affects the decisions we make. I don’t know what people’s political affiliations are,” said Peter Gold, a District 5 RTM member.

Wetmore agreed non-partisanship is the modus operandi of the RTM and added, “On the local level you have an easier way to do that because the issues you face are not divisive national issues. It’s just easier to find common ground.”