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RTM moderator looks to better attendance

Published 9:17 pm, Thursday, January 23, 2014
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For the past four years, the Darien Representative Town Meeting's attendance rate has had an average of 81 percent, but Moderator Sarah Seelye thinks it can be better.

"As elected officials, it's their responsibility (to be present)," said Seelye, who is moderator for her second year.

She's stressed attendance at several RTM sessions, while letting the members know that they are valued and "their thoughts and input and their votes make a difference."

"It's not like it's inexcusable to have a missed meeting here and there," Seelye said, adding that she understands needing to stay home to tend to sick family members or work meetings that run late, or other reasons. "If you're missing more than half of the meetings, that's not acceptable."

Seelye acknowledged that an 81 percent attendance rate is "not a bad number," but that she'd like to improve on that.

"I'd like to think that there is room for improvement in the 81 percent," Seeyle said.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she was "pleasantly surprised" to hear the rate is 81 percent.

"Eighty-one percent is pretty darn good," Stevenson said.

District IV RTM member Frank Kemp, who also serves on the RTM Rules Committee, said he knows that volunteers will be absent in any organization but "nonetheless, one believes the expectation of the voters is that you attend a majority of the meetings."

In the past six years, Kemp only missed four full RTM meetings, according to records from the town clerk's office.

In the past six years, the highest attendance for the May meeting to vote on the municipal budget was in 2013 and 2012, with 86 percent of the RTM present. The lowest was in 2007, when 68 percent voted on the budget. On average, 78 percent of the RTM attended the budget meeting in the last six years.

"That's your most important meeting of the year," Seelye said, "You plan around that May meeting. I don't think that's too much to ask."

Seelye said she told members of the RTM that if they intended to miss the budget meeting they "better have a very good reason."

"You're not being held accountable by the moderator, you're being held accountable by the people in your district," Seelye said.

Following the November 2013 election, the RTM Rules Committee met to organize itself for 2014. Part of that meeting was devoted to addressing the attendance of the RTM, according to Kemp.

"Our version of our nuclear option would be to change an appendix of the town charter; it would read that if a representative is absent more than 50 percent for RTM or committee meetings that they would not have the privilege of being automatically accepted on the ballot without having a petition," Kemp said. "The power of being an incumbent is that they don't have to collect signatures to run every two years."

The Rules Committee has not discussed changing the charter further, Kemp said, and the committee is not "locked in" on 50 percent as the determining attendance rate. The debate, Kemp said, would focus on "the devil in the details."

Seelye said the change has not been "fleshed out" but that she does hope to "spend some real time on this topic."

A charter revision, which would need RTM approval if it moved forward in the Rules Committee, would read "A town meeting member with an attendance record at RTM and Committee meetings of over XX percent may nominate himself for re-election from the same district by giving written notice to such effect to the town clerk at least ten (10) weeks before the election." The RTM would establish the percentage, if it chose to adopt the resolution.

"What we're trying to do is to pick out the bad lemons," Kemp said.

The number of RTM members who attended less than 50 percent of the meetings is not high.

In 2012-13, eight people of the 95-member RTM attended less than 43 percent, or three of seven, full RTM meetings. That number was slightly lower in 2011-12, with five members attending less than 50 percent of the time.

Selectman Reilly Tierney, a former District I chairman, said in his experience, attendance was emphasized within the smaller RTM committees so that a quorum would be achieved, but that it wasn't so much the case for the general RTM meetings.

"Because we never failed to achieve a quorum in a full RTM meeting, no one ever told us to emphasize that with the troops," Tierney said, who added that if he ever had to miss a committee meeting, he told his committee chairman.

"I want to change their minds," Seeyle siad. "They are elected officials from their district. They are elected. I want to make sure they understand and feel that they make a difference. I don't want to be too hard-line, I want to encourage people to attend."

Twenty-five people in the RTM during the 2012-13 year had perfect attendance and 26 people missed only one meeting.

"To make a difference, you have to be there," Seelye said.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews