Most of the information that citizens use concerning Greenwich, Connecticut policy and politics comes from the local media outlets. This forum endeavours to provide a more complete set of viewpoints on current issues in town. The authors are local residents who hope to provide insight into how decisions made in the town will affect all of its citizens. Others are welcome to comment. The only rules are no personal attacks on anyone and back up your opinion with verifiable facts.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Transparency in Government & The Downtown Master Plan

According to the Greenwich Time (2/9/2007):,0,6853801.story?coll=green-news-local-headlines

"Another group with a stake in the school board's decision to relocate is the Greenwich Center for the Arts.

In an unprecedented move, the nonprofit arts group was allowed to present its plan to lease and renovate the historic Havemeyer Building as a downtown arts center to the budget committee.

Backed by First Selectman Jim Lash in its initiative, the group said it will pay for the $22 million renovation and upkeep of the building if the town agrees to lease the facility at a nominal fee."

Here is a prime example of bad government. Mr. Lash's Downtown Master Plan is not public .... there is no document detailing what is included available to anyone, including the RTM or the public. This plan is entered in the capital budget for $350,000 this year, with another $7 million over the next few years. How is the public and the RTM supposed to judge this appropriation without having any information on what is proposed?

In addition, the BET Budget Committee allowed the Greenwich Center for the Arts to make a presentation in a public meeting (not at the Public Hearing on February 5th). This is unprecedented, as stated above, and again excludes the public and RTM from commenting on the proposal or even ask questions. Many have questions about how this $15,700,000 Town owned asset will be utilized to the benefit of the citizens. When the Greenwich Center for the Arts board members were asked about the use of the facility, they said that 70% of the space and time in their new arts center would be utilized by organizations outside the local community.

Without a copy of the "Master Plan" and the details of the Arts Center proposal available, do we want to commit almost $8 million dollars for the plan, and give away a $15 million Town asset that will only be available to local arts organizations 30% of the time?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Non-Public Public Meetings

In case anyone noticed, there was a Board of Selectmen meeting held at Town Hall on Thursday, January 4th. What was discussed and what was on the agenda remains shouded in mystery. The notice of this meeting must have been posted legally in the Town Clerk's office in accordance with the Freedom of Information laws in Connecticut. But how exactly could the notice of this public meeting be available to the public & citizens?

A public meeting must be noticed, in writing, twenty-four hours in advance. The notice must be posted in a public place available for anyone to view. The problem for public meetings in Greenwich is the notice board is inside the Town Clerk's office. The clerk's office is open from 8:00am to 4:00pm. With the citizens at work during those hours, and many of them commuting to their workplaces, how would this large segment of the public see that notice?

The Town Hall building is open most evenings for meetings and other events. During this time, however, the public notice board is shuttered behind closed doors, unviewable. Wouldn't it be a simple solution to place the notice board in a locked case in the lobby of Town Hall?

With only a twenty-four hour notice requirement, the local print media could not (in most cases) print the notification in their respective papers. For many, the notice would be posted past their deadlines. While legally this is acceptable, the intent of the law is to make sure the public knows about the meeting.

The Town has a website which would provide instant availability of these notices to those who have a computer and access to the internet. In fact, the computers in the public libraries are a resource that can be used by anyone to view the Town website. However, the meeting notice was never posted on the Town's website. Nor was the meeting agenda. Nor are the minutes of this meeting available. While this is not legally required, why not post it? There is no cost to doing so, and it only takes a few moments. In fact, the Board of Selectmen 2007 meeting schedule does not even list the aforementioned meeting.

Currently, any citizen can request written notification of any public meeting. However, by the time the written notice reached the citizen by US Mail, the meeting would have been held. With an Information Technology department budget surpassing $1 million, why is it that electronic mail notifications of public meetings cannot be accomplished?

In the past, many of the participants in Town government were citizens and residents who were able to travel to Town Hall on a regular basis. They could scan the notices and see what meetings were upcoming. However, today most members of Greenwich's citizen government do not have the luxury of getting to Town Hall before 4:00pm to view the public notices. What this means to the citizens is that the goal of open and transparent government embodied in the Freedom of Information laws is not realized in a practical manner in Greenwich. Why not? None of the above suggestions is overly expensive or impractical. Many smaller and more financially strapped communities provide public meeting information using all of the above methods as a matter of course. Surely Greenwich, with all of the resources available to it, can too.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Pandora's Box

First Selectman Jim Lash has opined that he may convene a charter revision commission to revive the creation of a chartered Town Administrator position in Greenwich. As our local charter does not enumerate anything concerning charter revision commissions, the Connecticut General Statutes prevail. The statutes (§7-190) have the details of how such a commission is formed, and how the members are appointed. In any case, the members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen, and are tasked by them. However, in §7-190(b), the statute continues also says, "The commission may also consider other items for inclusion in the proposed charter, other changes to the charter or home rule ordinance and such other items as it deems desirable or necessary." While the Board of Selectmen may charge the charter revision commission with a single task, to create a Town Administrator position, the commission may also make other recommendations. This may have some unintended consequences beyond what the Board of Selectmen envisioned.

Additionally, Mr. Lash stated that Mr. Fox, the Town's legal counsel, has determined that such a commission would not remove the ability of the RTM or the BET to continue to alter the Town's charter in the manner it has in the recent past. On the GCTV program "The Word in Greenwich: Time for a Change", Tom Byrne, Moderator of the RTM, stated that Mr. Fox believed such a commission would remove the RTM and BET's ability to change the charter. So which is it? Why has Mr. Fox's opinion changed?

Lastly, an editorial in the Greenwich Time stated "... there is a lot to be said for leaving charter changes to the voters ..." The editorial went on to state that elections for the RTM are not competitive, and the members of the BET are effectively appointed by the two political party committees, the Democratic Town Committee and the Republican Town Committee. One could also add the Board of Education to the above list. But rather than changing the charter to make the elections more competitive, it would be more effective to explain to the citizens of Greenwich that any elector can place themselves on the ballot for any of the above elected positions. A candidate need not be nominated by either political town committee, but by petition of electors. Perhaps if more citizens understood how their town government is nominated and elected, the question of competition would be a moot point.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Board of Ed Musical Chairs

"Ed board may move" (Greenwich Time, 12/15/2006) highlights yet another location for the Board of Education's administrative offices. This selection, the Senior Center/Arts Center, makes the total a of three different locations chosen in the last six months, as well as staying in their current building. To recap, the Board of Education has favored the following alternatives: build a building next to the current administration building, build an addition onto Town Hall, and now, move into the Senior Center/Arts Center. These three are in addition to the alternative of remaining right where they are.

Once again, the scatter shot approach to making a decision has captured the headlines, and will surely generate editorials and letters expressing the outrage or applause of the local citizens. The issue here is not whether the Board of Education needs new administrative offices, the question is where. The true issue is not about money, either, as the Board of Estimate & Taxation recognises the need, also. The underlying fiscal reasons are simple: the former Havemeyer School building to both expensive to operate and not suitable for offices. In fact, $13.4 million has been placed in the capital plan to accommodate moving the Board of Education's administrative offices.

But of the three options that have been put forth, are any of them realistic or fiscally prudent? To understand that $13.4 million number, it can be put into perspective this way .... the Board of Education has identified its needs to be approximately 25,000 square feet of space. They have also identified several wishes for this office space ... including proximity to Town Hall. Using the lease costs for the temporary space occupied by the Fire Department on Holly Hill Lane as an example, the lease expense per year for 25,000 square feet of space comes to approximately $875,000. Using the $13.4 million capital request as basis for comparison, this represents more than ten years worth of leased office space. In addition, if the Board of Education approached a landlord with the proposal to lease 25,000 square feet of office space for ten years to house the administrative offices, the cost per square foot may actually be lower than the $35 used in this example.

The scatter shot proposals also do not take into account the effect that any one of the proposals has on other community needs for space. The Senior Center as it is configured today is not workable for the burgeoning senior citizen population in Greenwich. The Greenwich Center for the Arts has proposed a valuable and much needed use for the Havemeyer Building, and with recent articles in the Greenwich Time indicating a public desire to improve the auditorium and rehearsal rooms in the Greenwich High School, several goals may be accomplished. An addition to the Town Hall building will be extremely disruptive to the operations of the Town government, as well as having a large impact on employee and citizen parking there. And constructing yet another Town owned, operated, and maintained building doesn't seem to be financially prudent, either.

Rather than looking deeper at other alternatives, the Board of Education has consistently chosen to discuss the most expensive and disruptive proposals to achieve their goal of operating in modern office space. Greenwich has a large inventory of office space in the community. And, with the exodus of UST and Unilever, even more office space will become available in the near term future a short distance from Town Hall. Shouldn't the Board of Education review their wish list and adjust their expectations for their administrative offices? In ten years time, the requirements for administration may be vastly different .... wouldn't more flexibility for the Board of Education's administrative offices be a benefit?

With every suggestion, the Board of Education needs to expand their view to encompass the needs, requirements, and desires of other Town agencies and community organizations. No one argues that the Board of Education should be operating in more efficient space for their administrative offices, but the costs of each proposal must be weighed against the needs of the community and its citizens as a whole.