The RTM is a fascinating institution. Over the past few years we’ve had the Jim Lash blue-ribbon panel, an anniversary party, and today a story in the paper saying that 20% of the people rarely show up. What would one make of this?
I think the first thing to note is that the only real powers that the RTM has are the powers of “no”. When the BET/First Selectman sends their budget over to the RTM for approval, the members can vote “no” on certain items, but they can never actually add anything. When the Selectmen send nominees for boards and commissions over to the RTM, they hold a minimum of two committee hearings, but the only power they have is to vote “no”.
Now you might be saying, voting “yes” is a power as well, right? But that is not how it is exercised at all, because so many decisions of the various agencies that land in the laps of the RTM were made without RTM consultations. Its a good bet that all 230 members didn’t get a call from Peter Tesei this year asking what exactly they might like included in his budget. A good many people join the RTM because they want to have a say in the community, and quickly get disillusioned that there seems to be little for them to do, and even less authority to be exercised. So, the members themselves get exercised, because the only way one seems to get attention is when they flex their “no” powers. You want a seat at the table for the dearly departed Greenwich Center for the Arts? Just say no, we will not approve a $350,000 allocation. Then, people take notice of your no-ness and work so hard to get you to yes. You become part of the equation. It feels good, and you believe you have made a difference with that “no”
Unfortunately, “no” is not very civil, and not terribly fun or productive. Consequently, many members seem to quickly fade into oblivion, as membership in the RTM becomes more of a Monday night hobby, provided one has a DVR to record “House” on FOX. Someone once told me that 40 members of the RTM do all the work, drive the agenda, and make all the policy. And from what I’ve seen, that may be overstating it, but close enough. But while I greatly respect the Joan Caldwells and Franklin Bloomers who give almost full-time free labor and intellect to Greenwich, their agenda seems to be very “no” based. No development, no King Street fire house, no Arts Center, etc. etc. Its not their personalities, its the hand they have been dealt in our screwy political structure.
I’m very involved in Greenwich politics, but I have never seen a signature gatherer for an RTM seat, never been invited to meet my representatives and, until recently, had absolutely no clue who they are. And none of my neighbors, in either District 2 or 8 have much idea themselves. I think the reason for that is that an RTM member doesn’t have to be so proactive, because it feels like it doesn’t really matter much if they can’t help me with my taxes, schools, traffic problems, etc. The whole institution seems to accomplish something, but so, so much of it seems quite symbolic and increasingly irrelevant.
New Canaan, a town very much like our own, with a similar affectation for its history and traditions, jettisoned its RTM for a Town Council. Many thought at the time that it would irreparably harm the citizen input in government and, from what I hear, they would never turn back today after just 4 years. The Town Meeting was a great idea when we had 2,500 people and government met once a year to pass a budget. When everyone couldn’t fit into the High School, or when the unscrupulous plotted factionalism, we went to the Representative Town Meeting as an acknowledgment of the times and our burgeoning population. Well, we can still get good, even better, citizen representation if we, at a minimum, shrank to ensure those 40 committed people form a body that gets more authority, hopefully something with “yes” attached to it. This is what the times demand, even if we have to make a brave leap.