At Monday’s RTM meeting Tom Byrne, who has served as moderator of the 230-member body for 26 years, was honored as the longest serving moderator in the history of the Greenwich RTM.
Byrne joined the RTM in January 1988. In all those years, he never missed a meeting.
Moderator pro tempore Alexis Voulgaris said Mr. Byrne had presided over 203 meetings and 2776 items on the call.
“That is 25 days of consecutive moderating, which I think is unprecedented,” she said, adding that the Griswold podium would be renamed the Griswold-Byrne podium.
“You will be certainly be missed, and you were fair,” said First Selectman Fred Camillo. “Even when you didn’t always agree with people, you were fair and went by the book. That will truly be your legacy.”
There was also a tribute to Carmella Budkins, Greenwich’s longtime town clerk.
“As the RTM clerk, (Budkins) and her staff are in charge of all the information that we RTM members get – preparing the call and the explanos, as well as managing the meeting’s voting tabulation, and working to get us minutes that accurately reflect what happened,” said RTM member and former Republican Town Committee member Ed Dadakis. “Sometimes we forget how much work that involves because Carmen and her staff make it look so easy.”
Former First Selectman Peter Tesei said, “Carm spoke to the heart of Greenwich. Everything she did, she did to help her fellow human being. She saw things in terms of people, not in terms of politics. That has been her hallmark. She always put people first.”
Unmask Our Kids Ordinance
The main event of the evening was item 8, a proposed ordinance asking the RTM and the town not to enforce state orders to require face masks for children in public and private schools.
Byrne said based on Robert’s Rules he could not accept the item, despite it being moved and seconded.
“As a matter of procedure, your RTM moderator cannot accept a motion that would have the RTM take action in excess of its authority,” Byrne explained.
Assistant Town Attorney Aamina Ahmad cited section 167 of town charter which says, “RTM authority is to be exercised in conformity with the law.”
She pointed to the Governor’s executive orders 9, 13A and 14A, saying they were binding and gave authority to Connecticut’s Dept of Education and Dept of Public Health to require masks in both private and public schools, though parents can request exemptions based on certain criteria.
“The way to challenge executive orders would be for somebody to go to court and challenge the Governor’s authority to issue those executive orders,” Ahmad said.
Also she said the Board of Education was required to follow the rulings and orders from the State Dept of Education and State Dept of Public Health. “It really goes to their jurisdiction to decide what goes on within the buildings.”
Thirty minutes were allowed for public comment on item 8.
Individual speakers were limited to 90 seconds each.
Speakers were instructed to limit their comments to the legality of the item, not whether they approved of mask mandates for school children.
Carl Higbie, who had submitted the petition, said he did not believe one individual, the assistant town attorney, should be able to dictate the criteria to for an item to be included on the agenda.
“It doesn’t seem very democratic,” Higbie said. “I don’t believe the order from the state is in legal order, because I don’t think you can force somebody to put something over their face. This is about choice. I want the choice of the people here tonight to make that decision: If you want to wear one, go ahead. If you don’t want to, don’t. This is about you being able to choose for your children what you think is best.”
Joe Solari was one of several people who were cut off by the moderator for straying off the topic of the legality of the item.
“The mask issue certainly is divisive in our town and throughout our country,” he said. “Legally, ethically, and every sense of the word, masking our children is wrong. It’s wrong to force masks on children, and there are legal avenues….”
“The debate is on the legal order, not on the efficacy of masks,” Mr. Byrne said.
Mr. Solari said he wished the RTM would strike down Ms Ahmad’s advice.
Kara Philbin said mask wearing presented a severe risk of harm to the wearer.
Mr. Byrne interrupted Ms Philbin.
“Given these children are not ill and have done nothing wrong that would warrant an infringement of their constitutional rights and bodily autonomy, promoting use of a non FDA approved, emergency use authorized mask is unwarranted and illegal,” Philbin said. “Forcing children to wear a mask, or forcing use of any other non FDA approved medical product without the child or the child’s parental consent is illegal and immoral.”
Laura Gladstone said there were occasions when good lawyers had opinions that were incorrect and didn’t not hold up in court.
Gladstone said other towns and private schools in Connecticut had decided not to enforce the mandate, and they had had no repercussions from the state.
Svetlana Wasserman disagreed.
She said that due to the highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC had recommended universal masking for all students, staff and visitors.
“While there may be some of us on the RTM with expertise in infectious diseases, we’re overall a body of laypeople. We don’t have the expertise to second guess the judgement of people who are experts, and neither do the petitioners.”
“The petition asks that parents be allowed to make mask decisions effecting their children’s health. But what it really asks is for parents to be able to make mask decisions that affect other people’s health – the health of teachers, school staff, and their extended families,” Wasserman continued. “As Abraham Lincoln put it, ‘Your freedom ends where my nose begins.'”
“I find it unfortunate that the petitioners would put our whole community at risk at a time when a new variant is spreading,” she added.
Lana Ferraro saw it differently.
“We are the taxpayers. Therefore we should have a voice and say on what goes on our children’s faces. The state’s order is unconstitutional and it crushes the freedom of children and families,” Ferraro said.
Jonathan Perloe said it was not up to the RTM to decide which statutes the town would follow.
“If we continue on this route, what is going to stop other voters from putting forward a petition (saying) it is illegal and overturn constitutional rights, like banning ownership of firearms,” Perloe said. “This ruling should not be appealed.”
Gail Lauridsen asked a series of questions. “Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr state that all persons have an obligation to disobey unjust laws. Didn’t Thomas Aquinas say any law that degrades human personality is unjust?”
Lauridsen pointed to the audience in the Central Middle School auditorium, noting that they were not required to wear masks. “If you are not wearing a mask, why aren’t you?”
Meghan Galletta asked the RTM to support the mask ordinance.
“I am asking members of this body to hear our appeal so that the issue can be studied more closely,” she said. “The opinion of the town attorney does not represent the opinion of all of the taxpayers, citizens and parents of this community. We are not anti-mask. We are for parental choice.”
“Healthy children under 18 have a negligible risk from contracting Covid,” she added.
Steve Rubin strongly urged the RTM to accept the town attorney’s opinion, which he said was based on a lot of research and effort.
“There is no gray area here. It’s very black and white. The executive order is extremely legal.”
“One person who spoke probably gave us the most ammunition to rejected it. She said not a single child in Connecticut had died of Covid. Maybe it’s because we have had this mask mandate.”
Carl Homan, a teenager, testified that he hadn’t worn a mask for almost two years and hadn’t gotten sick at all.
“Yet the people around me who have worn masks have gotten sick and sometimes had to stay at home for weeks, and even months in some cases. I wish we could get back to normal, because the masks aren’t doing anything,” he said.
Mr. Byrne cut him off, saying the issue before the RTM was whether the town’s attorney opinion should be abided or whether the the item should be referred to the Legislative & Rules committee.
Bill Lewis said the mask mandate for schools was more of a state agency guideline than something directly issued by top state officials.
Michael Spilo said there was a precedent for the town not to abide by the Executive Orders.
“We’ve repeatedly chosen to take the path of going our own way – on plastic bags, on environmental issues and on matters of health,” he said.
Seth Bacon said the proponents of the ordinance were citing misleading scientific and legal information.
“Other towns had not dismissed the mask mandate and the claim that no children had died in the state of Connecticut was patently false,” he said. “There is a coordinated effort you’re hearing tonight to try to make the subjective objective. There is no subjectivity to legal order.”
Results of the Vote
Those in favor of referring the item to the Legislative & Rules Committee was 43. There were 141 opposed and 7 abstaining.
The appeal failed.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Mr. Higbie said 141 people had voted to remove their own personal choice from making a medical decision for their children.
“That’s a scary thought,” he said.
“Pennsylvania just ruled masking unconstitutional by their state supreme court and thereby overthrew it,” he said. “If it’s unconstitutional in Pennsylvania, how is constitutional here?”
“At the end of the day, everyone can say we were voting on the legal order of it, but the number of people voting on the legal merits of the order was less than five. Everyone casting votes was casting a vote about mandatory masks for children.”
Commenting on the fact that there were almost 200 people on the Zoom call, he said, “That’s more than any single call item the RTM has ever seen.”
“But we spent more damn time honoring ourselves, patting ourselves on the back for service to our community than we did hearing the more than 100+ people who signed up to speak.”
“Democrats don’t want to vote on this because they know they lose on the constitutionality. Republicans don’t want to vote on it because they’re worried about the social fallout, and the stigma,” Higbie added.