Woog’s World: Memorable moments in RTM history
The town meeting is a cherished New England tradition, right up there with covered bridges and lobster rolls.
Every spring, citizens gather together. They debate the school budget, how much to pay for pothole repair, and enact laws on fences and farms.
You’d have to travel pretty far from Westport to find a town meeting these days. We’ve still got selectmen — literally, men selected by citizens to oversee the community, during and after the town meeting — though in 2019, our selectmen are often women.
But participatory democracy remains alive and well here. In 1949, after 114 years, we replaced our everyone-is-welcome town meeting with a new-fangled Representative Town Meeting. Westport was carved up into eight districts (now it’s nine), and each district elects four representatives.
Meeting monthly — and more often, in sub-committees — the RTM goes to work. It adopts the annual town and education budgets; approves all town appropriations over $20,000; enacts ordinances; reviews bonds, leases, sales and purchases of town property; reviews changes to zoning regulations, zoning boundaries and negative 8-24 reports; reviews changes to regulations concerning the use of recreation and other public facilities, and reviews labor agreements with town and Board of Education employees.
It’s unglamorous work. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. It takes time and energy. It never satisfies everyone. Yet the RTM is integral to the life and life, and lifestyles, of all Westporters.
There have been some memorable moments in RTM history.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Army wanted to build a Nike missile site on 6.2 acres of town-owned North Avenue land, and another facility on Bayberry Lane. RTM moderator Herb Baldwin asked the RTM to look into the idea.
The controversy embroiled the town. Some saw the Nike missiles as a threat to the community, while others deemed it a patriotic response to the Cold War. Baldwin had been personally opposed to the Army’s plan, but in 1955 the RTM voted 21-4 to drop official opposition.
The missile site was built (and became obsolete soon after). Westporter Max Shulman wrote a novel — “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!” — that thinly disguised the town. Actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward starred in the movie version that followed. They liked Westport so much, they moved here and stayed for decades.
The missiles were eventually removed. Today the North Avenue site is home to Bedford Middle School. The Bayberry Lane launch facility has been turned into Rolnick Observatory (now you know why that building is there) and the Westport Weston Health District.
In 1960, the town had the opportunity to purchase the private Longshore Club Park. Herb Baldwin — by then, he was first selectman — and his “kitchen cabinet” raced against a tight deadline to negotiate a price. They settled on $1.925 million.
The Board of Finance approved the purchase, but the RTM had the final say. They unanimously agreed. A crowd of 700 gave members a standing ovation. That is why, nearly 60 years later, we have a town-owned club with pool, golf course, tennis courts, inn, skating rink and much more on the shores of Long Island Sound, rather than a 180-home housing development.
A decade later, the RTM weighed in on an expensive appropriation. The United Illuminating utility company wanted to build a nuclear power plant onCockenoeIsland, a mile off Compo Beach. Another town controversy raged. Many Westporters were appalled, while some welcomed the tax benefits.
After long negotiations, the town offered to buy Cockenoe for $200,000. Two selectmen were in favor; one wanted a referendum. RTM member Donald Lunghino pointed out the RTM was a “representative” town body. They immediately voted — unanimously — to purchase the island. Today, it remains open land.
A couple of years later, the RTM considered a petition. Signed by more than 1,000Westporters — 50 times more than was necessary for an agenda item — it asked the body to pass a resolution demanding President Richard Nixon and Congress “take immediate action” to end the Vietnam War.
In one of the most rancorous meetings ever and following an impassioned plea by Joanne Woodward, the RTM voted 17-15 in favor of the resolution. It was one of the first such votes ever by a suburban town body, and it made the front page of the New York Times.
More than a decade ago, the RTM enacted the first plastic bag ban east of the Mississippi River. They followed earlier this year by prohibiting plastic straws, cups and Styrofoam at local eateries.
For 70 years, the RTM has been at the center of local life. That first year, 124 Westporters ran for 26 seats. Yet this coming election, with 36 seats, two districts do not have enough candidates.
The RTM and the entire town need a truly “representative” town meeting. If you’re interested in serving, there’s still time to become a petitioning candidate. Head to the town clerk’s office for details.
It’s in Town Hall, the same place where those very important RTM meetings are held.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.