Westport government addresses concerns over TEAM Westport, changes composition

First Selectwoman Jen Tooker has created membership requirements for TEAM (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism) Westport to have no more than 50% of one party and to constitute only Westport residents. 

Tooker affirmed the importance of TEAM Westport, emphasizing that she believes ensuring the minimum representation rule will guide the committee to continue its valuable work.

“Especially with appointed town committees in government, I think it makes sense to have all parties represented at the table,” Tooker said. “This is a great operational move. This sets up TEAM Westport and the rest of our committees for success.”

This change came on the advice of Westport Town Attorney Ira Bloom in response to Attorney Vincent Marino’s legal charge against TEAM on behalf of two Westporters, Zack Alcyone and Camilo Riano. The charge called for TEAM’s actions to be declared “void” on account of violating the town charter. It claimed that certain members did not abide by term limits, some weren’t Westport residents and it had a majority Democratic membership.

TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey Jr. said the committee had not knowingly violated any law and is disappointed that the charge seemed to frame the committee as “criminal,” as he put it. He explained that only the first selectperson has the power to appoint or remove members of the committee.

Bailey has been with TEAM since its beginning. He is proud that, according to him, they are the only town in the vicinity to bring together the first selectperson or mayor, a representative from the interfaith community and heads of organizations such as the Westport police chief and the superintendent of the school system to discuss initiatives for diversity. Today, TEAM Westport seeks to make Westport a more welcoming place for diversity in race, ethnicity, religion and LGBTQ+ identities.

“We never even looked at Democrats or Republicans,” Bailey said, “because things were done based on the individual, and what the individual brought to the table was not their political persuasion.” 

Bloom, meanwhile, determined that TEAM Westport does not violate the town charter. While the Westport government’s website lists TEAM Westport under the tab “Appointed Boards A-Z,” it is not actually a board or commission, but rather an advisory committee. Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voted TEAM in as such in 2005.

“There are committees which are set up in a variety of ways, sometimes by the First Selectperson,” Bloom said. “They serve different, usually advisory roles, in that they don’t have a specific, decision-making authority often. That’s why we call them committees.”

Bloom advised Tooker that, historically, Westport has interpreted its charter to the letter, not prescribing regulations on boards and commissions to appointed committees. For example, other Westport advisory committees, such as the Wakeman Town Farm Committee, have included out-of-town members as well, especially if members previously lived in Westport and retained their position after moving. 

However, the charge brought attention to lacking minority representation, leading Bloom to examine the Connecticut General Statutes. State statute 9-167a does include committees in limiting membership to a maximum of two-thirds from one party. Currently, TEAM has one unaffiliated and 14 Democratic members. Accordingly, Tooker sought to diversify political opinion on the committee.

“There’s no penalty associated with the statute,” Bloom said. “There’s no concrete action that could be voided potentially. I’m not sure if it would have had any practical impact, but it is a state law, so it has to be followed.”

Taking a step back, the charge brought against TEAM Westport has context in the ongoing national conversation on race and diversity which gained new prominence after police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in 2020.

Anne Alcyone, an advocate since 2019 for the free expression of ideas to ensure the promotion of democracy, feels relieved by Tooker’s change to the composition of TEAM Westport and hopes it will usher in greater acceptance of political views across the spectrum. 

She articulated concerns over the power TEAM, an unelected body, had in Westport while having unbalanced political representation. She stated that the RTM originally held concerns about TEAM’s power, but dismissed them for the genuine desire to make Westport more welcoming for diversity.

I think it makes sense to have all parties represented at the table.

— Jen Tooker, Westport First Selectwoman

TEAM, as was initially feared among the RTM members at its inception, has exceeded its mission to be welcoming,” she wrote, “and has exerted its power to block the expression of views with which it disagrees by calling them racist.”

For example, while standing behind the idea of showcasing student expression in TEAM’s Teen Diversity Essay Contest, in practice, Alcyone feels many prompts deliver an ideological slant. This year’s prompt is “describe what you would like to explain to people in your community who avoid or struggle with talking about race or acknowledging systemic racism or who apply a ‘colorblind’ approach to issues.”

“I think it is important to note,” Alcyone wrote, “that there are different approaches to the same issues and that students should be discouraged from labeling those with whom they disagree as ‘racist’ or ‘ignorant’ or ‘fear mongering’ or ‘divisive’ (all of which are ad hominem attacks and don’t speak to any rational argument), because they have different views.”

In contrast to Alcyone, Bailey does not feel the change will make much of a difference in how TEAM operates, only that it will remove official membership from people who have provided valuable work for TEAM.

In Bailey’s view, the charge brought against the committee was motivated by racism under the guise of preventing such on the part of TEAM Westport. He cited the disapproval of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and desire for “colorblind” thinking in groups such as the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) and WP06880 (an anonymous website of Westport parents) as examples of discomfort in discussing race. According to Bailey, CRT is misinterpreted to be an indoctrinating force that instructs people to be critical of others according to their race.

“What it really is,” he said, “is a system for looking at the legal system in the United States. Looking at it in such a way that you’re looking for patterns that show that there’s been disparity in the world.”

Bailey feels secure in TEAM’s role in town. He views the Westport government’s adoption of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) values as well as the income of support through emails and funding after a recent controversy with the Teen Diversity Essay as examples of their popular support.

“Diversity is defined,” Bailey said. “Equity means we provide the services that are required for each child that goes through school, or we treat everyone equitably in town when they come in to visit or they live here. And then inclusion means we want people to feel like they belong.”

Alcyone herself helped found a Fairfield County chapter of FAIR, and she feels there is misinterpretation on the side of TEAM over her views being extreme and intolerant.

If we look at each person through a filter of group labels and categories,” she said, “as many on TEAM and many who support DEI choose to do, then it is the label which becomes the focus and not the individual. This defeats the goal of assuring that everyone be heard, accepted and valued as an individual, which is what most people would want for themselves.”

Overall, First Selectwoman Tooker feels disturbed by the growing partisanship in the country, and wanted to prevent it from derailing the Westport government while still preserving the mission of TEAM Westport.

“What better way on a local basis to really show that we aren’t like that,” Tooker said, “than to have our committees and our boards and commissions have membership with all parties represented?”