Short volunteers, Beautification Commission reduced in size

Beautification Commission volunteers receive last year’s hanging baskets. Suzanne Schutte, front, left, Sandy Filmer, Susie Skerrett, Cindy Ryan, Nina Miller, and Julia Arstorp; Jeff Smith, back, left John Qua, James Blakeney, Elizabeth Hall, and Jim Hogan.

The Darien Beautification Commission’s longstanding need for volunteers has led the Representative Town Meeting to reduce the size of the commission from 13 members to nine. With an operating budget established under the town charter, the Beautification Commission calls for a higher level of commitment from its commissioners than standard town volunteer committees. For example, commissioners are not allowed to be on the RTM or other town committees and are required to keep track of project expenditures.

As it currently stands, the Beautification Commission only has five active members and lacks a quorum to hold official meetings. Of the five, one member’s term expired in 2016 and has yet to be renewed. As such, town counsel has advised that the commission should not produce any more expenditures until a quorum is established. The Board of Selectmen, which is responsible for appointing members to the commission, recommended a change to seven members to the RTM’s TGS&A Committee.

Selectman Marc Thorne said the commission needed to have a proper quorum to maintain its agency and operate properly. “Beautification is a commission because a commission has agency. They have the ability to spend money, they have the ability to take action, where as an advisory committee just reports to the Board of Selectmen. It’s set up as an active commission so they can do they’re work, and if the Board of Selectmen is going to spend their money for them, they’re really just an advisory committee.”

The board claimed that finding ample volunteers to fill the commission was an ongoing issue and going down to seven commissioners would establish the necessary quorum. The TGS&A Committee also supported the change in the town charter in their meetings. However, members of the RTM’s Parks & Recreation Commission pushed back against the change, citing the large amount of volunteer hours already expected from the existing commissioners. Given the amount of physical labor involved with beautification projects, the dissenting RTM members suggested that finding the required number of volunteers would be a necessary part of solving the Beautification Commission’s problems in the long term.

Democratic Town Committee Chairman and RTM Member David Bayne said that the town political committees should be made responsible for filling out the remaining seats on the commission. He and other RTM members warned against making a long term change to the town’s charter to deal with the short term lack of volunteers. Bayne suggested that concerns over the commission’s finances could be be settled by transfers from the Board of Selectmen if necessary.

“We need time to find volunteers. This crisis has erupted in six hours, this afternoon I knew nothing about this terrible crisis,” Bayne said. “We’re doing this way too hastily. This commission has been a great commission for many years and I don’t know why we’re in such a rush to cut it in half.

Originally the RTM members against shrinking the commission requested that the decision be postponed until the legislative body’s September meeting, but the motion failed to carry. A amendment changed the number of commission members to nine. RTM Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis said postponing the decision would have left the commission unable to execute projects over the summer due to a lack of a quorum anyway, and that reducing the number of commissioners would allow the group to function properly.

“We all agree it’s a good commission, but if you’re supposed to be with 13 and you only have four people telling you what they’re deciding, that’s not how the ordinance reads, that’s not how town works,” Davis said.

Speaking to the Darien Times shortly before Earth Day, Beautification Chairman Cristina Orsi-Lirot talked about the commission’s ongoing workload. The group relies on the help of volunteers to complete about a dozen annual projects, including seasonal decorations on town property and specific plantings at local gardens. While the commission is in need of more official members Orsi-Lirot said anyone with an interest in gardening can volunteer on a part-time basis to learn more about the commission.

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