RTM Committees come into question as Rules Committee considers assignments
With the election complete and the Representative Town Meeting’s new members sworn in for their two-year term, Darien’s legislative body is in the process of reorganizing its committees. According to Town Clerk Donna Rajczewski there are six new RTM members and 87 members in total right now, with a maximum of 100 split between the town's six districts.
All RTM members are required to participate in one of 10 committees that provide oversight over specific parts of the town government. The members RTM Rules Committee are responsible for assigning committee members based on their district, with the goal of creating balanced representation within each committee.
Members of the Rules Committee are chosen by their district representatives and are responsible for assigning those representatives based on their strengths and interests. On Monday the Rules Committee members discussed their assignments by district with most of the choices being based on member requests. Though they are elected officials, the RTM members are volunteers and Rules Committee member Barbara Thorne suggested that those who are serving on a committee they request are more likely to remain engaged.
“The enthusiasm that people show for the committee they’re on carries over really well to their attendance and participation,” Thorne said. “If you don’t like what you’re doing you don’t want to go to a meeting.”
However, some members have questioned whether members should have limited terms with a single committee and what sort of behavior should lead to a committee member being reassigned. In a letter submitted to the Rules Committee before Monday night’s committee assignment meeting, District 1 member Patrick Keane submitted an open letter asking the Rules Committee to consider modifying the body’s operating procedure to ensure that new members are able to engage and influence discussion.
“I propose that as a body we need to find a more constructive way to leverage our experienced members without disenfranchising our less tenured members,” Keane wrote. “For example, I believe we should explore whether or not committee chairmen should become subject to some form of term limitation, such as two or three years. Equally, we should consider whether or not membership on the Rules, Finance & Budget or Education Committees should be subject to a consecutive term limitation of some sort.”
Because of their influence on the town’s budget, the RTM’s Finance & Budget Committee and Education Committee are popular choices among the body. This year specifically a number of new members requested to participate in the RTM Education committee but were reassigned to other committees in favor of existing committee members.
The RTM Education Committee is currently facing an ethics complaint after members were caught making a number of incendiary comments about the school district, town volunteers and school employees during a September meeting. However, by time the Rules Committee had completed their committee assignments, the makeup of the Education Committee remained largely the same.
One member of the Rules Committee, Finance & Budget Committee Chairman Jack Davis refused to approve the full slate committee assignments based the presence of three returning members of the RTM Education Committee but was the sole dissenting vote.
While only a few of the assignment choices faced criticism from other members of the Rules Committee, those at the meeting objected to using members names when making their critiques, with moderator Seth Morton suggesting that those comments be reserved for discussion in a private executive session. RTM District IV member Jim Cameron, who attended the meeting as a member of the public, said the committee should keep the discussion in the public to maintain transparency in the assignment process.
“You’ve been discussing individuals and the duty of this Rules Committee is to create those committees in an open and clear fashion,” Cameron said. “All of the people on that board are elected officials and I think the town deserves to hear your thought process as to how you’re putting people in those committees. So I think going into executive session would be a violation of Freedom of Information Act regulation.”
Another member of the public, Wendy Ward, specifically criticized the choice to keep District IV member Jay Hardison on the Education Committee. Hardison has been criticized by the Board of Education and some members of the public for antagonizing the school district and creating approximately six figures in expenses with two dozen Freedom of Information Act requests in the past year. Ward said that Hardison’s personal agenda had no place on the committee
While Rules Committee members considered adding another member from District IV to add more “balance” to the 15 member committee, some believed that the education committee would be over represented. Hardison was not the only Education Committee member to come into question. Davis criticized another member of the Education Committee for their unwillingness to regularly attend Board of Education meetings or follow those discussions. Still, the committee refrained from identifying other problematic members and did not move to re-assign specific people away from the committee.
The discussion of term limits for committee chairs and other members was tabled until the committee assignments are complete and the new chairs are elected. The full Representative Town Meeting will reconvene for an organization meeting next Monday, Nov. 27.