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Letter: RTM Members Should Reflect Voters

RTM Member Cassandara Hegarty asks her fellow members to show more decorum at meetings, after another member was booed and hissed at when that member suggested that her colleagues more closely follow their constituents' opinions.

To the editor:

As an elected member of the , serving in my second year, I have seen first hand how our town's legislative process works—or doesn't. At January's RTM meeting, some of the behavior and comments of my fellow members hit a new low in my opinion.

As elected officials, it is our duty to maintain decorum which does not include booing and hissing at speakers at the podium or inappropriately chastising their opinions. As Americans we are entitled to free speech but as government officials, we should refrain from heckling. This practice might be encouraged in the Houses of Parliament but last time I checked we weren't in Great Britain.

Don't get me wrong, we are meant to disagree but not to disrespect. We especially look to our moderator to keep the order and direction of the meeting on target and to not politicize issues. The system failed us at the last meeting and as a town, with a 9 percent tax increase looming, we can't afford to be working against each other.  

In addition, during the meeting's uproar, one district member addressed the group by saying we "vote with our conscience." This couldn't be more of a misstatement. The Representative Town Meeting was established so that we could serve as the voice for our constituents and not our personal agendas. It is our job as legislators to fairly and adequately advocate for our townspeople. It seems as if some have lost sight of this.

At a time when Darien is facing a crisis in confidence, we need our leaders to guide us and not exclude the people from the political process. Debt is up. Property values down. Taxes are expected to rise (again). The education budgets will be scrutinized and foreign language will probably end up on the chopping block (again). New buildings will be extensively renovated and reinvented at a substantial cost (again), and frustrated residents who want safer walkways to schools, trains and parks will be denied (again).

The lack of unity in our legislature further erodes any confidence that remains. Last month's RTM meeting is a primary example of this polarization. We need to rethink our priorities, communicate with each other and make informed decisions that will be in the best interest of the residents—not ourselves. 

I encourage us all to reflect on our position and on our civic duty to preserve our town. District One in particular is hoping to hear more from our constituents in the coming weeks and we encourage others to do the same. 

Cassandra Hegarty

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Editor's note: Town Administrative Officer Karl Kilduff's (to $42.3 million), but that makes up about a third of all town spending (more than $9 million of it is school debt). The would increase education spending by 5.6 percent (to $80.6 million). When both proposals are combined, spending would increase 6.3 percent ($7.8 million) to a total of $122.9 million. Each proposal is subject to cuts from various boards.

There was an immediate, negative reaction from the floor when an RTM member indicated that her colleagues should each try to reflect their constituents' opinion on an issue.

As an aside, RTM Moderator Karen Armour noted the famous statements by 18th century British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke on that subject, but she couldn't remember the exact source. It was his "Speech to the Electors of Bristol," given on Nov. 3, 1774. Here's an excerpt of a relevant part, which reflects that Burke's opinion has some nuance to it, although it's said to be the most famous statement advocating the independence of legislators from their constituents:

"My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

"To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution."

Editor's note: This article was published originally at 5:57 a.m., Monday, Feb. 6. The time stamp has been changed for layout purposes on the Home page of Darien Patch.

Debra Ritchie February 06, 2012 at 08:49 PM
As members of the RTM, we are elected to represent our constituents who most of the time have different opinions on issues. What do we do? As elected officials we must always research the issues and our conscience must be our guide for our final decision. Unfortunately on most issues not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. As far as your criticism of the RTM and the moderator of the RTM, I disagree with your assessment. Our moderator does a fantastic job maintaining order and did so that evening. There was no "uproar" or "hissing". Did a few make noise? Yes, but the meeting was brought back to order immediately. If there is a lack of unity on the RTM, I have not witnessed it. Yes there will be debate on matters, but this is an essential part of the process in all bodies of legislature. We fight with passion for our constituents and what we believe is right. As the editor has stated above , the writer is incorrect regarding her statement of a 9% tax increase. In addition, the proposed budgets are the starting point of the continuing negotiation of the final budget, which will require BOF approval and ultimately RTM approval in May.
Joanne Hennessy February 06, 2012 at 09:14 PM
We have a representative form of government in this town, we do not decide all issues by plebicite. As a member of the RTM, it is my duty to research the issues before me and make a decision based on the best interests of the town. On the current issue, and the major one previous, petitions have been signed reflecting given viewpoints. However when I have asked some of these signers the reasons they have signed, I have found that most of them are not aware of all the details on both sides of the issue. Rather, they were signing because a friend asked them to. When presented with other facts relating to the argument they acknowledge that they were unaware. It is our job as RTM members to weigh ALL the facts, and not be swayed by any particular vocal group. We may end up agreeing with that group or not, depending on where our research leads. Most of our constituents are not engaged in most of the issues that come before us, and rely on us to do our homework and use our best judgement. Also, I do not recall any "hissing" at the last meeting, however there was some concern expressed when a speaker encouraged us to "listen to our constituents", implying that we were not doing so because we might not agree with some petitioners. I have been on winning and losing sides of issues in during my tenure, and it is important when one is in the minority to gracefully acknowledge the vote of the majority and move forward.
John Sini February 06, 2012 at 09:30 PM
I’m not sure I would recall the instance cited above as an instance of “uproar” among RTM members. During public comment, a District 1 constituent specifically asked a question to the body on how members were supposed to vote – either based on their constituents’ views or their individual views. Admittedly, there was some limited disruption when this constituent was winding down her comments (which is inexcusable but happens from time to time), but virtually the entire meeting was held in proper order by the moderator. Mr. Davis, an experienced RTM member, volunteered to answer the constituent’s question and was called upon by the moderator to approach the microphone. In his response to the question, Mr. Davis recounted a story related to the Nineteenth Amendment of the US Constitution at the Tennessee House of Representatives. Mr. Davis reminded us that final state ratification necessary for the constitutional amendment would have failed but for a single vote cast by a state representative in Tennessee. The implication was that despite heavy pressure by many of his constituents to vote against the ratification, this single member of the Tennessee House of Representatives thankfully voted with his conscience (at the urging of a telegram from his mother) to support a woman’s right to vote. http://www.blueshoenashville.com/suffragehistory.html I certainly found Mr. Davis' comments helpful as I reflect on upcoming RTM votes.
sebastian dangerfield February 06, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Interesting perspective from Ms Hegarty. I no longer live in Darien, but did live there for over 2 decades. In that time, i never once was asked my opinion of things by an RTM member prior to a vote. Are there any of Ms Hegartys district members who are NOT a member of her political party who have been contacted for their views on various subjects by Ms Hegarty? I looked over the internet and find that Ms Hegarty appealed to voters to put aside party loyalty and vote for Mr Lundeen in November. Then she joined the DTC. Are there any known instances where Ms Hegarty, has ever voted alongside republcans? It would be refreshing to know that she actually means what she says, when it comes to putting aside party loyalties and representing voters rather than her own beliefs--I just wonder if it is something she bestows on others, but then votes with Democrats each and every time? Anyone know? The town has a plurality of Republicans --so Im assuming on some issues Ms Hegarty has realized that the Democrats views are not the towns views very often. Thanks for any information. I would love to find out that ms Hegarty is true to her word.
Cassandra Hegarty February 07, 2012 at 01:03 PM
I would like to address the comments made by my fellow RTM members, past and present. First of all, I am extremely thankful for my position to represent Darien and to vote on behalf of my District members. I have a long standing history of working with public officials (for the record, both Democrat AND Republican) in the public and private sector and am very appreciative to have the opportunity to extend my experience to the town in which I have chosen to raise my family. I am also very supportive and respectful of those that have more experience working within our town government. I look to many of them for their expertise and my letter was not meant to tarnish anyone. I am entitled to my opinion and to disagree with the way the meeting was held and handled. It could have been better -- and worse. On a side note, the word uproar is defined as a "public expression of protest". Hissing falls under that category. As legislators, we give up our free time to serve our people, attend meetings, research the issues (both pro and con) and vote on behalf of the people - some of which actively make their thoughts known, MOST of whom do NOT. In my opinion, some RTM members seem to have lost sight that they have constituents that they represent and don't proactively encourage their thoughts. This is the point of my letter that many of you misinterpret.
Kate Keith February 07, 2012 at 01:03 PM
Brava Cassandra. Your letter very eloquently expressed what so many Darien constituents witnessed sitting behind our RTM members at last months meeting. I too was disappointed at the lack of respect for (some of) the guest speakers and the verbal disregard for whom our representatives represent. I expect more from our RTM leader(s). The meeting was all too clear an example of partisanship within our local government. On a positive note, I will be attending more RTM meetings and watching them less in the past tense on channel 79. I am more interested than ever in what the issues are, how decisions in town are made and who exactly is responsible for making them, but I will not be bringing my daughter along to the meetings until there is more moderation.
Cassandra Hegarty February 07, 2012 at 01:18 PM
The problem is not just endemic of the RTM BUT of the whole town. The public doesn't engage OR care until it is too late (e.g., taxes rise). We should be more active in encouraging openness and direct communication. I'd like to see more passion (not from the usual suspects) especially during budget time. The Shuffle Ref. is an example of how the system can work, people went to the polls and NO was the majority but due to a legacy rule, the vote was upheld. That is democracy and we should be proud, even if it didn't work for the opposed. This is the dialogue that I want to encourage - getting people to care, to contact their govt, to get involved. I think that tone starts with the RTM members - encouraging voter participation. And yes, I know James, Burke and the debate of ethics/conscious in govt. The topic is mostly reserved for religious, moral and ethical issues - most of which we do not face here. I expect leaders to inform me of the reasonings of their decisions so I can judge, agree with them or not, and respect their decision to act in good conscience even though I may disagree. My party affiliation is not relevant for the RTM, but yes, I am a Democrat and a supporter of my party and YES, I often make voting decisions that are NOT in line with my its beliefs. My point in addressing the behavior is for us to look at ourselves and think about what that behavior represents and how we can change it.
Tony Imbimbo February 07, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Ms. Hegarty makes several good points. First of all, the "entire" RTM meeting was not held in "proper order." When a Darien High School student attempted to speak at the podium, she was greeted by an RTM member shouting something about a time limit. (Is this the proper way to treat a Darien teenager attempting to participate in town government?) Fortunately, other RTM members shouted "let her speak" and this bright young lady wasn't booted from the podium. As for the "time limit" concern, the Chairman of the F&B Committee broke the pre-announced time limit without any complaint from RTM members. Perhaps, the moderator could inform members that if they do have a question about time limits, they should address the moderator with a "Point of Order," or some other appropriate comment. Additionally, an RTM member's due diligence includes listening to his/her constituents -- many of whom have done more research on a topic than they have. At the very least, RTM members should be able to listen to speakers with an open mind, and without booing or hissing when someone says something that he/she disagrees with. That kind of behavior not only is rude but it discourages a healthy public debate.
John Sini February 07, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Tony, that's why I wrote "virtually the entire" = almost entirely (sorry, there might have been some redundant grammar). You also might want to check the video tape because I believe the F&B chair was specifically warned by the moderator regarding his time at the podium.
Jean D. February 07, 2012 at 02:58 PM
I think what might be happening here is that the Democratic liberal party is used to NOT being challenged and being supported hook, line and sinker by the press. What might be happening now is that in the last couple of years the silent majority is waking up and not taking it lying down anymore. I think you can expect more of this reaction, people are tired of elitist *dogooders* telling them how to live and what to do AND expecting them to pay for it.
Tony Imbimbo February 07, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Thanks John. Just to be clear: The F&B chair disregarded the moderator and continued to speak, without complaint from any RTM members. Also, I thought it was important to point out the circumstances under which the DHS student spoke. So, except for the incident with the DHS student, and except for some confusion about time limits, and except for the booing of the last speaker, the RTM was in perfect order.
Tony Imbimbo February 07, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Jean D., that last speaker who was booed at the RTM meeting was a Republican.
Jean D. February 07, 2012 at 04:36 PM
I must be wrong then-or is it that elitist know it alls come from both parties?
Joanne Hennessy February 07, 2012 at 04:45 PM
Ms. Hegarty, I must comment on your analysis of the Shuffle vote. The "legacy rule" as you put it, is there to protect the town from any vocal minority overturning the majority vote of the legislative body. The bar should be high to overturn, and the vote to which you refer is a perfect example. I spoke with many petition signers and "no" voters to find out what they were thinking. The young parents in particular voted because they were told that the Shuffle expense would hurt education. They hadn't heard that the BOE, BOE RTM Chairman, and the Superintendent of Schools all said this wasn't true. They hadn't toured the facilities, and didn't really understand the proposals. The 2/3 majority of the RTM who supported this proposal took the time to do the tours, research the facts, and realize that though not a perfect plan, it was in the best long term interests of the town. I must also take issue with all of the party line comments (on both sides). A vast portion of the town (1/3?) is unaffiliated. And many others, myself included, registered with a party preference so as not to be disenfranchised in the primary process. The issues facing the RTM are not party line issues, and it seems to be the DTC who has been doing the politicizing in the past year. It's time to stop thinking along party lines and looks at the facts, and understand that reasonable people can disagree. And again, when on the minority side, how about demonstrating some grace and moving on.
Debra Ritchie February 07, 2012 at 11:21 PM
A point of clarification: The DHS student who spoke was a member of the Choose to Reuse group making a presentation to the RTM. In order to be equitable to both sides of this issue, each group was given the same time limit. When the DHS student approached the podium the group's time had expired and some members voiced their disapproval, right or wrong. The moderator gave permission to exceed the allotted time in order for the DHS student to make her statement.
Tony Imbimbo February 08, 2012 at 02:51 AM
Nothing wrong with politely raising a question or "point of order" regarding time limits, but shouting at the speaker or the moderator is not how we do that. Choose to Reuse took up about 12 1/2 minutes total, including the one-minute comment by the student. The members of the other group -- Mr. Palmer, Tibbits -- presented for over 10 minutes (and without anyone shouting out a time limit), and Stop & Shop pushed that total time to over 14 minutes (without anyone raising a question about time) and the F&B Chair went one or two minutes over his 5-minute time limit. The moderator ultimately balanced out the time. But that's not the point. The point is showing courtesy to speakers and following basic rules of decorum, which maybe we need to review at our next meeting.
John Sini February 08, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Tony, you make a good point. RTM members should learn the art of using the phrase, "Point of Order" when they feel the meeting is going off-course. However, despite claims of that the RTM members action "reached a new low," this is by no means is the first time there have been short outbursts from the crowd at an RTM meeting. For instance, I don't remember hearing similar outrage when Darien's Treasurer was interrupted numerous times last November when she voiced her support of the Shuffle in front of the RTM. The key takewaway of thsi discussion is, as you note, despite these brief disruptions from time to time, both sides of the issue were given equal time at the RTM -- with some guidance by our Moderator. However, the false claims of "partisanship" and the partial statement that was taken out of context regarding an RTM member's discription of what representation means, might make for a good letter to the editor and/or comments on the Patch, but certainly don't reflect the reality of the meeting.
Tony Imbimbo February 08, 2012 at 03:05 PM
John, the treatment of the DHS student was the thing that really drove home the point, to me, that we can now expect a level of rudeness among some members in the RTM, even towards people we should be most welcoming and most hospitable to. Even you agree that the behavior was "inexcusable," even if you don't think it was a "new low." (We've actually been worse than "inexcusable"?) Anyway, I think we can do better. Having watched Board of Ed meetings and meetings of other Boards and Commissions, it's obvious that people can make their points, listen to speakers, etc., without being rude. That should be the model that the RTM aspires to. Don't you think? Also, the letter never said anything about partisanship. Read it again.
John Sini February 08, 2012 at 03:33 PM
Tony, please read Ms. Keith's comments above re: partisanship, that's what I was referring to.
sebastian dangerfield February 08, 2012 at 04:03 PM
Just so I understand , Ms hegarty, 80% plus of the American Public wanted war with Iraq in early 2003. You would have voted for war? And would be comfortable with that decision, because it was the will of the people? Or, is the quote "vote with your conscious--" actually way more than a religious decision.
sebastian dangerfield February 09, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Cassandra--sorry but I need to ask again The iraq war --80%+ of americans were in favor of going to war. You say the rtm needs to put aside their personal beliefs and vote what the people want. Are you then saying you would vote for the war? People in Darien in general do not want affordable housing as it adds to the tax bills. Yet you were a big proponent and voted for those in town that want affordable housing. Right.? I think what you are trying to say here is that the referendum showed , of those who voted, a majority were in favor of halting the shuffle. So now you are trying to translate that fact into an all encompassing approach. am I right? or on some issues should people vote their conscience? Their researched, and educated idea of what is right and wrong? Leading and voting by the polls is in my opinion a very weak approach to responsible government. I can tell you with near certainty -the town's people do not want an 18 million dollar police station. In fact Id be willing to bet that over 75% of the town feels that way---yet its happening---
sebastian dangerfield February 10, 2012 at 09:55 AM
More than happy to continue to ask....after all, you indicated an interest to hear what people's concerns are.....so odd that you choose to go silent when asked a question pertaining to your views... The vast majority of the public wanted to go to war with Iraq. Would you have voted for going to war with Iraq? Prior to the referendum, the voting public signaled clearly that they supported Republican candidates, by voting them in with well more than 2/3 of the vote. Would this obvious majority swayed you to opt for the republican backed shuffle? When determining how to vote, do you contact roughly twice as many republicans as would be required to get a sense of the true demographical makeup? Or do you rely on the DTC to help sway your votes and consider them to be relatively reprsentative of the community? Can you give us solid examples, Casandra of where the DTC platform stipulated voting one way, and you voted another, given your research into what the community wanted? Or better yet, have you been on the winning side of every vote you cast? Based on your silence and the way you craft your comments, Im betting that you are demanding other people do , what you , yourself , do not. But again--you support opening up dialog and being respectful. Im asking respectful questions-that directly pertain to your argument. Is respect only about not hissing? Or is ignoring people, in your view, polite? Thanks.

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