Woog's World / Serving on the RTM not for the faint of heart

Christine Meiers Schatz and her family stand on the Saugatuck River bridge.
Christine Meiers Schatz and her family stand on the Saugatuck River bridge./

Last November, Christine Meiers Schatz ran for her first political office. Like most Westporters, she has little free time. She has four kids; the oldest is 6. Yet as she looked around the town she and her husband moved to (because of those children), she realized her demographic was not well represented in government.

Young mothers don’t have a monopoly on busy lives. Nearly every Westporter juggles work and family commitments. Throw in commuting, taking care of the lawn, gutters, pool and second home, and the volunteer work so many residents throw themselves into, and you can be forgiven for just wanting to binge-watch “Game of Thrones” or “Billions.”

Schatz was already involved in the school start-time issue (she’s the founder and president of Sleep for Success Westport). But she managed to carve out time to run for the Representative Town Meeting. She campaigned door to door, throughout her large district on the west side of the Saugatuck River. She spoke with — and listened to — folks of all ages.

Schatz won. She joined 35 other men and women who give up insane amounts of time to serve their town. They read documents. They answer emails and take phone calls from constituents. They attend long, sometimes mind-numbing meetings. And they do the same for whichever subcommittees they’re appointed to, just because as unpaid volunteers they don’t have enough to do.

The RTM is a vital cog in Westport’s political wheel. A remnant of the early New England town meeting days — when every citizen was actually expected to show up, speak and vote — Westport’s RTM continues to thrive, even as many of our neighbors have moved on to a mayor/town manager/town council type of government.

In addition to the RTM, we still have a first selectman. That’s a throwback too. He (or she) enjoys strong powers. But ultimately it’s the RTM that passes the town and education budgets, enacts ordinances, reviews certain zoning issues and changes, oversees recreation facilities, confirms sales and purchases of town property, and rules on labor agreements with town and Board of Education employees.

Serving on the RTM is clearly not for the faint of heart.

The 36 members represent a wide mix of Westporters. Schatz is not the only young mother. Her fellow members include New York business executives, consultants who work from home, and local store owners. There are attorneys, educators and retirees. Some RTM members were born here; others moved here recently. Some are political activists. Some were spurred into action by the 2016 election. Some have no party affiliation at all.

The RTM is officially non-partisan. Candidates run simply on their platforms, without party labels. Voters (theoretically) make their choices based on issues. (And, probably, on who has the most road signs.)

Schatz was excited to get elected. She had not yet served a day, yet she loved the idea of the RTM. As someone who grew up in the digital age, she was eager to find out as much about the body — and her fellow members — as she could.

There was not a lot. Westport’s official town website (www.WestportCT.gov) is comprehensive. It’s factual. And boy, is it dull.

So Schatz set about to create an unofficial RTM website. Her plan was to compile biographical information on every member. She’d post agendas, reports about meetings, FAQs and short video clips. She would also link it all back to the town site, so users could navigate between both.

Using her spectacularly limited free time, Schatz researched every member. Using publicly available information, she created profiles for each. She listed educational background, professions, volunteer work and RTM subcommittees. She offered links to the personal websites of whichever members had them.

She thought it was a great idea. After all, democracy flowers in sunshine. This was a wonderful way to help the RTM bloom.

A few of her fellow members disagreed. They objected to the publication of publicly available information. They worried that Schatz’s video clips would be edited selectively, or make them look bad. Some wanted to provide their own opinions. Some wanted the site to have none at all.

Schatz was surprised. She was hurt. She thought briefly about abandoning her project.

But soon, she went back to work. She stripped some information from the profiles. She changed the name of the blog to “Christine Meiers Schatz’s RTM Report,” so no one could think it was “official.”

Westporters now have one more way to learn about what’s going on in Westport, and about the folks making decisions for us. That’s important.

Just as important is that Schatz listened to, and collaborated with, her colleagues. She found a way to solve problems. That’s fantastic news for our entire RTM.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.