Frank Speaking

On Politics

The Power of No

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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.

Categories: General
Frank Farricker

8 Responses

  1. Jim Carrey says:

    Farricker claims:
    “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.”
    Did you ever notice that the PEOPLE of Greenwich really love their form of government, and will vigorously defend it it against all manner of uninformed criticisms. Shouldn’t people have the form of government THEY want?
    It is interesting that the only ones who advocate deep sixing the RTM are those whose decisions must be approved by the RTM. So we see current, former, and hope-to-be-in-the-future First Selectmen among the lonely voices trying to make it easier for them to spend our money. It’s not going to happen Farricker, as much as you think you “NO” what’s best for us.

    But the most disturbing part of your vapid post is the false information you try to pawn off as support for your opinion. Can you please cite the dates that New Canaan ever had a Representative Town Meeting? I know they have not had one since 1980 when I moved to Fairfield County. This site:
    http://www.newcanaan-home.com/content/article.html/7856
    states that they had the old “Town Meeting” form of government (I assume you know the difference between a Town Meeting and an RTM)until 1969, when they changed to their current Town Council form of government. So just where did you come up with this fiction of New Canaan “jettisoning its RTM for a Town Council” four years ago?
    Liar, liar, pants on fire!

  2. John Bowman says:

    This turned out to be a good topic. A good example of the RTM’s power is the Child Safety Zone ordinance that’s currently under consideration. That’s being rewritten by the Legislative and Rules Committee even though it was approved by the “powerful” BOS. True, a small group of members is closely involved, and many members’ voice is limited to their vote, but how different is that from the US Congress or the CT General Assembly? Small groups of powerful members control everything in those bodies. You can’t forget that most of the things that the BOS and BET pass are not opposed by the RTM because they are not so controversial, if at all, so the “rubber stamp” is not a surprise or the result of lazy RTM members. And why should Greenwich be different, that’s easy, because we’re better.

  3. farricker says:

    can you be more specific

  4. hohum says:

    It’s not the power of no, it’s the balance of power.

  5. farricker says:

    The problem seems to be that RTM members feel they don’t have a voice. I can’t tell you how many current members have called me today saying that they joined the RTM to have a voice, and found out very quickly that they had none. Just having 230 citizens involved doesn’t make it citizen representation if they can’t do anything that makes their life, or the lives of the rest of us, better for their participation

  6. Joe Schmoe says:

    What is better representation than allowing almost anyone to be involved?

    How does not showing up affect the work of the 40 most committed RTM members?

    The fact is some people simply don’t like it that the average citizen has a voice. They want the chamber of commerce to control everything.

  7. farricker says:

    John–

    It isn’t “bad” to have people involved at all, in fact it is quite good. The problem is more with the functioning of the institution. You know as well as anyone that people join the RTM because they believe they can make a real difference – pass laws, enact ordinances, have a chance to have their say. What they find out is that the powers of the RTM are limited to negative ones by charter, and that for the most part they can’t really accomplish anything. They can have a front row seat in discussing Town policy, and maybe once a year there is a really important issue that gets discussed quite heavily but, at the end of the day, what is accomplished on a personal basis?
    If the RTM were shrunk, the remaining people could, and should, have much more important powers and input than the current ones. The other people create a bigger and more potent pool of volunteers for our more formidable boards and commissions.
    If the argument is that the RTM serves a good purpose as a place for Greenwich people to “get involved and learn about Town Government”, then why does it have powers at all? And if the answer is that its bar for entry and participation is low, and that is good, I disagree. If people have any control at all over my life, whether it is cutting school appropriations, approving commissioners on boards that make decisions that affect my family, or anything else, I want them engaged. Clearly many, many of them are not -starting with the 20% that don;t show up, the 20% that don’t go to committee meetings. I’ve also heard too much grumbling that they aren;t really “relevant”.

    My answer to you would then be have a symbolic, powerless RTM to debate policy, or a streamlined, active RTM with real powers. And also please tell me why only Greenwich feels the need to carry this kind of body, and why? 168 other towns go another way, many like Greenwich.

  8. bowman says:

    Frank,
    I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve been on RTM and understand that a small group does most of the work, but you haven’t explained why the extra people are bad? They listen to the information provided and vote. Why is that bad? We do have the BET and the BOS. I think you need to re-work your argument and include a discussion of those boards. You might find that a large stop-gap group like the RTM isn’t such a bad thing. It cultivates members for larger roles on the BET and BOS, and provides and opportunity for a lot of participation. You missed those points. This post, not so great.