Most municipal governments are run by a mayor, who has administrative and budgetary powers, and a council, which is the legislative body. Newcomers, to Greenwich, and even long-time residents, are often confused about the structure of our Town’s government, which is fairly unique to New England.
In Greenwich, budgetary, administrative, and legislative authority is more diffuse. The League of Women Voters of Greenwich (LWVG) has a great breakdown of the
The final word on most important decisions the Town makes, including the Town budget, is the Representative Town Meeting (RTM), comprised of 230 representatives elected in a non-partisan manner from 12 voting districts. The size and authority of the RTM has been a topic of contentious debate throughout its history. It exceeds the size of most state legislatures, including Connecticut, and stands as the fifth largest legislative body in the United States.
Why is the size and structure of our RTM controversial? Many feel that the RTM is highly democratic, engaging everyday citizens and allowing them greater control of their own tax dollars, while others contend that the size has resulted in non-competitive elections and a composition that is far from representative.
While the ratio of representatives to voting residents is quite low–approximately 260-275 residents per representative–
Every other year the Town elects a new municipal government. And in most of those elections there are fewer RTM candidates on the ballot than there are seats to fill, guaranteeing seats for most who decide to run. When there is competition, there is rarely an excess of more than one or two candidates in any given district. Thus, the majority of RTM members do not need to engage constituents to solicit votes and constituents are unable to hold them accountable for their votes.
In fact, RTM candidates receive far fewer votes in the aggregate than candidates for other bodies. This is in part because residents are rarely familiar with more than a handful of candidates in their district and are not engaged in the process.
The time commitment for elected members is another factor that contributes to unbalanced representation. With at least three, often lengthy, evening meetings eight months of the year, parents and commuters are less likely to participate, while retirees are widely represented.
With little accountability to voters and a membership that does not accurately represent them, the RTM can be, as is noted in a 1996 New York Times article, “a safe harbor for the contrary-minded”.
As a result, many forward-thinking initiatives and capital improvements advanced by other Town leaders die in the RTM, leaving confused community members wondering why.