Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"The Incident Has Left All Westporters Its Victims"

(The following appears in the Westport News March 5, 2008)

Westport last week not only hit another low in incivility in a public meeting, but it left many who witnessed the incident visibly frightened and shaken.

Those of us who have been involved in town government over the years have seen many passionate and often raucous debates. That’s part of the give and take of our democracy.

In the early 1980s, a woman even hit Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Jo Fuchs with a tomato at a meeting. But in recent years, elected volunteers have generally not feared for their safety in doing the town’s business. Not anymore.

With a shooting at a public meeting in Missouri still fresh in our minds, the Feb. 26 incident at a ZBA session leaves no doubt that Westport is not immune from such possible dangers.

I outlined what happened and my response in a memo to department heads and chairs of all boards and commissions. It said:

“On Tuesday night at a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting, a member of the public became unruly, yelling obscenities at board members and acting in a threatening manner that resulted in police having to be called.

“The incident is deeply regrettable and only underscores that Westport is not immune from frightening and potentially violent outbursts at public meetings and in public places.

“I have conferred with the Westport Police Department and we will be reviewing security measures for Town Hall and for Town Hall meetings.

“I have already informed the ZBA and P&Z chairs that I and our police officials will be meeting with them and those commissioners who so desire to further discuss these measures. I will be happy to schedule similar meetings with others.

“In the meantime, I want you and all Westporters to know that from now on, we have zero tolerance for any threatening behavior in Town Hall or at public meetings.

“Clearly we will not attempt to infringe on anyone’s right to make their views known at public meetings. But it must be done in a non-threatening manner. Those who engage in such behavior will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Even before the ZBA meeting, I was asked by a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission for increased security during its forthcoming meetings on the controversial Family Y application to move to Mahackeno.

I responded that I had already requested such security and, in view of the latest incident at Town Hall, I am conferring with the Westport Police Department on additional security measures.

Controversy and Westport have long been synonymous. But clearly passions have become more pronounced recently.

Maybe it’s a combination of current economic troubles, a loosening or even breakdown of civility in many aspects of our daily lives, or simple frustration with the often slow and sometimes perceived unfairness of our bureaucracy.

Whatever the reasons, they are no excuse for the kind of behavior and resulting fear that occurred last week at Town Hall. Unfortunately, the incident has left all Westporters its victims.