Editorial: There has to be a better way
The Westport Representative Town Meeting (RTM) hosted three excruciating budget meetings this week, and the end result, after more than 15 hours of deliberation, is that there is no end result yet.
Wednesday night's meeting was particularly lengthy because the town body not only listened to the opinions of about a dozen residents, as each used his or her 3-minute time limit to speak out in support of the Westport Public Library, but also indulged a majority of the RTM members, who voiced their questions/concerns/opinions. The RTM members did not have time limits.
In a recent editorial, the Westport News publicly supported the library and opposed the idea of its being forced to close on Sundays. We certainly stand in solidarity with those who supported the library's funding request, and we're glad it was granted.
However, the RTM members have surely read the multitude of letters that have poured into the newspaper this month, all supporting the library. Similarly, members of the public had more than likely contacted their representatives personally to let their voices be heard.
It's our guess that, with regard to the library, RTM members had a pretty good idea of which way they were going to vote before Wednesday night's meeting even started -- at the end of the night, the vote was a landslide, with 33 voting to restore library funding, and just one RTM member opposed. Did it really need to take almost two hours of public statements to be able to make that vote? Why didn't the RTM vote to "call the question," or decide to take the vote without further discussion, when was clear early on which way the RTM would vote?
We certainly support freedom of speech, and wouldn't begrudge anyone his or her right to address the town council. However, we suggest that in cases like this, where dozens of people want to speak at a public meeting, all essentially saying the same thing -- a situation that comes up in Westport quite often -- there be a reduced time limit on speakers. No more than a minute and a half, for example. Time limits on RTM posturing is another idea.
Another solution would be for the speakers to get better organized, and choose a select few people to speak for the group.
Obviously drastic changes in meeting protocol would need to be voted on and approved (which would probably mean another debate spilling into the wee small hours), but taking into consideration the increasing amount of times a Westport town meeting goes beyond midnight, only to end without a final decision (just ask any Planning and Zoning Commission member), something needs to be done. Plagued by late-night/early-morning meetings in years past, Fairfield decided to install a rule that meetings will not extend beyond 11 p.m. unless a two-thirds majority votes to continue the meeting.
Interestingly, Tuesday's RTM budget meeting ended early. Wasn't there a way to balance out the three days so that more could have been accomplished Tuesday, rather than dragging the budget meeting into yet another week?
By comparison, the town of Fairfield -- a town more than twice the population of Westport -- finished its budget deliberations in two days, and it, too, had a controversial library funding debate, among many others. The first meeting went until 11, but the RTM decided Tuesday to continue working past 11 p.m., rather than drag out the proceedings another day.
Perhaps Westport's defining characteristic is its people's willingness to fight for what they believe in. If it's a cause they believe in enough, they'll argue their case for as long as it takes. It's an admirable quality, but how long is too long?
Another characteristic of Westport's citizenry is that they are extremely intelligent. Perhaps it's possible to reconcile these two characteristics and become more efficient when it comes to town meetings.