Greenwich's RTM

Submitted by H. Franklin Bloomer
This article is an edited version of a memorandum submitted to a committee appointed by Greenwich’s First Selectman to consider reducing the size of its Representative Town Meeting.

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It has been proposed that the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) of Greenwich, CT, be reduced from its present size of 230 members. It was created in 1933 to replace an open New England town meeting. It is the fifth largest legislative body in the United States, after Congress and three state legislatures.

I have served 12 terms (almost a quarter-century) as a member of the RTM, have twice been chaired my district, and at different times have chaired two Standing Committees, Public Works and Land Use (which I currently chair). As a result, I think I understand the RTM.

I believe in the RTM as an institution and as a vital component of Greenwich’s governmental structure. I do not see how any of its perceived shortcomings would be “corrected” by reducing its size, which I therefore oppose.

Greenwich owes much to a very high degree of citizen participation both in its government and in many non-governmental bodies that contribute to the quality of life the Town enjoys. Indeed, volunteerism is a hallmark of Greenwich life. The RTM is where many of its citizens get their start in civic involvement; equally, it is where many who have served the Town in other capacities continue to contribute to it.

Any change in the structure of the RTM should have, as a major goal, preserving this tradition of citizen participation in Town government. Consideration of the size of the RTM should be in the context of consideration of the respective functions of, and the interrelationship among, all of the Town’s governmental agencies.

I understand the RTM’s role to be to ensure that governmental action reflects the wishes of the public. It is a check on the actions of other Town agencies. Its large size and nonpartisan character ensure that it is truly a representative body.

Arguments for Reduction in Size

The following arguments for a smaller RTM (set forth in italics) are derived from a 1984 report by a special RTM committee. The same arguments were used in the Explanos when a proposal to downsize the RTM was submitted to it in 1995. Immediately after each argument I have added the reasons why I believe a smaller RTM would not resolve the issues raised by the argument:

  • In some elections and in some Districts there have not been enough candidates for election to the RTM to fill the available seats. Therefore, in those Districts the candidates run unopposed in the election. Moreover, some candidates become Members with only a handful of write-in votes, and others are appointed to fill vacancies and thus are not elected by the voters. A smaller RTM would have fewer available seats in each District, which would therefore ensure more competition.

It is by no means certain that a smaller RTM would ensure that there would be more competition for seats or that more competition would result in better candidates. In fact, a smaller RTM would discourage some people from serving, either because of the difficulties and expense of campaigning or the greater time demands of membership. The risk is that many good people who might serve on the RTM as presently structured would choose not to do so.

The test of the RTM’s effectiveness is not how many people stand for election, but whether or not its decisions are those that would be made by a representative cross-section of the Town’s citizens, informed on the issue. I believe the RTM passes this test. It is the sheer size of the RTM that ensures that it cannot be captured by proponents of a narrow point of view and is not subject to the kind of pressure from special interests that bedevils state and national governments.

It’s easy to get onto the RTM, and that is one of its strengths.

  • Many Members do not have good attendance records, and some Members leave meetings early. A smaller RTM would stimulate more effort and better attendance on the part of the Members, who would take their responsibilities more seriously.

The RTM is a nonpartisan, volunteer, citizen body. Its Members have personal and business commitments that from time to time cause absences from meetings. Given the RTM’s size, even with a significant number of absences the Members at meetings nonetheless typically constitute a representative cross section of community views. There would continue to be absences in a smaller RTM so long as it remains a volunteer, citizen body, but absences would leave a proportionately smaller (and less representative) number of Members.

  • More competition would stimulate more responsiveness to the viewpoints of constituents. Some Members of the RTM represent their own interests, rather than those of their Districts, and a smaller RTM would correct this.

There is no reason to believe that a smaller RTM would stimulate more “responsiveness” to the viewpoints of constituents. Members generally reflect the viewpoints of their constituents, as they are part of their respective communities and in contact with neighbors and friends in those communities. Views within RTM Districts are not uniform, and Members of District delegations to the RTM should, and do, reflect a range of views.

Nor is there any reason to think that a smaller RTM would eliminate Members who “represent their own interests”, but a large RTM minimizes the influence of such Members.

When there are important legislative matters, voters often contact RTM Members with their views. It is unlikely that voters would contact them more frequently with a smaller RTM. A larger RTM makes it more likely that voters know one or more Members; a smaller RTM would make this less likely. The public has the right to, and frequently does, attend and speak at RTM meetings, including meetings of Standing Committees and Districts.

However, a smaller RTM would ensure that it reflected a less broad spectrum of views, i.e., that it would be less representative.

  • A smaller RTM would more clearly identify the Members and their positions on issues.

Even if it ceased to be nonpartisan, there is no reason to believe that a smaller RTM would increase the likelihood that candidates would be elected on the basis of their positions on issues. Some ineffective Members receive high vote totals because they have a high visibility in their Districts, while some effective but less visible Members do not. One result of downsizing the RTM would be that some very effective members would almost certainly be lost.

While in theory reducing the size of the RTM might create greater accountability, this is unlikely on a practical level. Voters typically do not make positions on local issues the basis for how they vote. Nor can they be counted on to elect persons who perform effectively.

  • A large RTM is cumbersome and “unwieldy” in getting legislation enacted. It is inefficient and too slow moving in making decisions.

There may be ways in which the RTM could operate more efficiently, but its size has not itself caused problems in performance or efficiency. The RTM deals with all proposals which come before it within the two-week period from the issuance of the Call to the full town meeting. Many issues are disposed of expeditiously through the use of its consent calendar or by combining items for voting purposes; others require longer deliberation. The excessively long meetings that formerly characterized the RTM are now quite rare.

The fact that some proposals are defeated or delayed evidences that the RTM is performing its role as a check on other Town agencies. Some proposals are rejected for what a majority of Members consider to be good reasons. Others are presented to the RTM in such poor form that they are rejected or delayed for revision, although most such proposals are revised, returned to the RTM and eventually approved. (RTM members read contracts, leases and other supporting materials provided to them, often uncovering significant issues or simple errors.)

If it is to perform its role, the RTM must be persuaded of the merits of each item brought before it. This will remain so even if the RTM is smaller. The RTM is not “unwieldy” because it occasionally is not persuaded and, to that extent, is unpredictable. But no administration should control the RTM. As stated above, it is a check on the actions of other Town bodies.

  • The RTM is one of the largest municipal legislative bodies in the country. This size is not appropriate to the size of our population.

The fact that the size of the RTM is exceptional does not make it inappropriate. The level of citizen participation in Greenwich government is also exceptional, and it is desirable. The test should be whether the RTM effectively performs its role and makes a significant contribution to the participatory democracy that has served Greenwich so well over the years.

There are a lot of eyes looking at the people who run Greenwich. That has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the Town not only has enjoyed responsive government but clean government.

  • A study in 2000 of the executive branch of Greenwich town government by the League of Women Voters of Greenwich stated that the size of the RTM hinders the efficiency of the executive branch “when combined with efforts to participate in administrative management”, citing only the fact that administrators have to attend a large number of meetings with RTM committees.

Action by Town government should be the product of a deliberative process, and our participatory democracy brings a large number of people into the decision-making process. This requires that proposals be communicated to and considered by a wide circle of people. The District/Standing Committee structure of the RTM achieves this in an efficient manner. Where possible, the RTM holds joint meetings of its committees so that the committees in attendance can receive presentations together, thereby reducing the number of meetings administrators must attend.

The number of meetings that administrators must attend with RTM committees would not be reduced in a smaller RTM unless the number of committees were reduced (see below).

Structural Difficulties with Reduction in Size

Depending on how large a reduction in the size of the RTM were made, it would not be possible to retain both the existing 12 Districts and 13 Standing Committees. To avoid requiring Members to sit on a second Committee, there are two possible ways to deal with this:

1. Reduce the number of Districts (thus increasing the number of Members in a District). However, this would sacrifice the cohesiveness of the Town’s existing Districts which are based on neighborhoods, such as Old Greenwich, Riverside, Cos Cob, Chickahominy, Byram, Glenville, etc. The sense of “community” would be diminished if Districts were combined geographically.

2. Reduce the number of Standing Committees so that each District would have sufficient Members to provide a Delegate and an Alternate to each. However, consolidation of Committees would increase the breadth of focus, and the workload, of the remaining Committees.

The existing District/Standing Committee structure has worked well, and it requires an RTM of approximately the existing size.