Town law ignored, RTM members say
WESTPORT — The Representative Town Meeting moderator has reversed her decision to withhold a proposed ordinance from an upcoming meeting, after several members argued town law was being violated.
Velma Heller announced Thursday she would now place Westporter Jason Stiber’s request to create a police commission on the next agenda.
“In view of the controversy that has arisen and in the interest of moving forward, this item will be placed on the July 16th agenda as a first reading and follow the normal ordinance review process including referral to the RTM Ordinance and Public Protection committees,” she said in an email to members.
Earlier this week, Heller said she initially denied adding it to the agenda after receiving the legal opinion of town counsel Ira Bloom.
“I received a memo from Ira that the request was inconsistent with the Town Charter,” she said.
But Stiber claimed he did everything by the book — he inquired about the petition process, collected 105 signatures in favor of creating a civilian review board for police, and submitted them on time to be included on the next agenda.
Despite exceeding the 20 signatures required to be considered, the ordinance was not originally scheduled for the RTM’s July meeting.
Though admitting town law required her to include such items on the agenda, Heller said “there has been past practice that would allow for discretion by the moderator if, in fact, you have a proposal that is not permitted by the town charter or by the authority of the RTM.”
While it’s not commonplace to go to town counsel before an ordinance appears at the meeting, she said it could be helpful if a proposal conflicted with the Town Charter.
“If it’s something that seems to change what’s currently going on it may be necessary to get it checked,” she said.
RTM member Kris Hamlin, however, argued Heller’s interpretation was incorrect.
“The language of the charter says ‘shall,’ which under the law makes the act mandatory, not permissive,” she said.
Hamlin warned if the agenda item was not added, the town could potentially be sued for violating the legal rights of its residents, adding a decision such as this has never happened during her six-year tenure on the RTM.
“The Town Charter makes mandatory that she put their petition on the agenda, and her refusal to do so is violative of the express provisions of the charter,” Hamlin said.
Bloom said he was initially asked by Heller if a police commission could be created in Westport, before the ordinance was drafted.
“Typically we wait to see the ordinance, but the question was asked generically,” said Bloom, who wrote a June 11 memo stating the charter did not allow for a police commission.
When the ordinance was ultimately submitted by Stiber on July 1, Bloom said it included language conflicting with the charter, particularly authority over the hiring of officers.
Still, Bloom said it wasn’t impossible for the commission to be established.
“It can still be changed,” he said. “However, it would have to be through a charter change. Not a simple ordinance.”
Bloom said he plans to write a second memo now that he has further reviewed the ordinance.
After gathering more than five times the required number of signatures for the petition, Stiber expressed disappointment in the initial outcome.
“The fact that the town attorney wrote his legal opinion before I even submitted the draft ordinance shows that our elected officials have been working to suppress democracy,” he said. “Almost every other Fairfield County town has boards of police commissioners in place.”
In speaking with other Westporters, Stiber said he found overwhelming support for civilian review of police complaints. Meanwhile, First Selectman Jim Marpe and Police Chief Foti Koskinas have expressed they do not believe the town needs a commission.
“Complaining to another police officer doesn’t work to get an unbiased result,” Stiber said. “Westport is terribly behind the times in terms of police accountability.”
Carla Rea, a RTM member, said placing the ordinance on the agenda is important because it’s part of the town’s due process.
“It’s a bonafide petition, and we have the obligation by our charter to listen to them,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the outcome is going to be.”
Member Amy Kaplan agreed, saying in an email that the petitioners’ ordinance should be handled the same as others.
Before reversing her decision on Thursday, Heller said the ordinance could still very well be heard under certain conditions.
The RTM could push for a vote to challenge her decision, and would need a majority in favor of adding the ordinance to a later agenda.
“It’s not irrevocable,” she said. “I made a decision based on what has been both past practice by other moderators and on what the opinion of the town attorney was. And should the body decided they want to overturn that decision, then that’s something they can do.”
Hamlin, however, disagreed.
“When the moderator violates the law or the procedures of the enabling act, it is not something that one overturns merely by appeal and a majority vote,” she said in an email. “... A violation of the Town Charter cannot be rectified by a vote of the majority which agrees to rubber-stamp the illegal act.”
Now that the agenda item has been added, however, Heller said she hopes “some level of normalcy and civility may be restored.”
A first reading of the police commission ordinance is scheduled for the RTM’s July 16 meeting.