RTM Public Works Member Cries Foul at Chair’s “Censorship”

On Monday night the RTM Public Works committee met via Zoom for a call that included a vote on the fate of the unfinished pollinator pathway mural on East Putnam Ave.

Last May a professional muralist was forced to put down his paint brush after RTM complaints about process, mainly that the gift had not gone before that body for approval.

Since then the partially painted wall has become something of an eyesore.

Before the Public Works Committee voted on the mural, members reacted to committee chair Michael Spilo’s email to the group with a “ruling of the chair” that to streamline the meeting, members would be forbidden from bring up certain topics during the discussion.

“Some of the statements in the explanos prepared by Ms. Sesto can be considered controversial and may generate lengthy discussion without resolution,” he wrote. “Climate change and biodiversity are not on the agenda.”

Spilo wrote to the committee on Friday that if anyone wanted to discuss pollinators, pesticides, habitat encroachment, or climate change, they would need to make a motion, provide it in writing in advance, get a second, and the committee would vote.  

On Monday morning Svetlana Wasserman wrote to Spilo, cc’ing the committee, saying, “I think it is a terrible precedent for us to allow a committee chairman to use executive authority to censor specific topics related to a call item. This use of executive authority is unprecedented in this committee.”

She suggested Spilo instead limit speakers to three minutes.

On Monday Spilo replied that he had checked his ruling with RTM moderator Tom Byrne before sending it.

“Given her limited time on the RTM, Ms. Wasserman has little experience in parliamentary procedure, thus her characterization of what is or isn’t appropriate or unprecedented is misplaced,” Spilo wrote.

“I am an avid naturalist and photographer of nature, including pollinators, Spilo continued. “I travel to photograph nature, I donate to wildlife preservation, I have a National Parks pass, and my wife and I cultivate flowering plants of all kinds in our yard.  Bees from the hives maintained by Sam Bridge Nursery are frequent and welcome visitors in my yard, and, to be pollinator friendly, I have largely avoided pesticide use.”

Wasserman offered a motion that would override Spilo’s ruling and allow members to talk about topics related to pollinators.

“I hope you will see that the freedom of elected representatives to speak their minds without censorship is before us,” Wasserman wrote.

“What is at issue here is NOT my time on the RTM, your beautiful nature photos, your possession of a National Parks pass nor the flowering plants in your yard,” Wasserman continued, adding that she had followed Spilo’s instructions and provided written notification of a motion.

At the meeting, Melissa Evans from district 9 seconded the Wasserman motion.

“I don’t believe we need extensive discussion of a motion not to have extensive discussion of climate change or pollinators,”Spilo said.

But indeed that is what happened.

“What I see at issue here is whether we as a committee want our chair to decide for us what is too controversial to discuss,” Wasserman said. “How do we know what will be declared too controversial at future meetings?”

“I feel that as elected representatives, it’s our job to freely deliberate the issues before us, and we must not give that freedom away because we are a democracy,” she added.

State Rep Steve Meskers said, “With all due respect to the chair, I feel that we’re going to have a robust conversation on storms and various issues, and I’m loathe to limit (topics). I think the patience of the group is relatively limited, and if we go off center for too long, we’ll limit the debate and that’s sufficient, at least for me.”

Tom Agresta said he agreed with Meskers. “People should be allowed to say what they want to say.”

Rosalind Nicastro said she was worried the mural would set a precedent.

“Do they want a mural of people starving in Africa?” Nicastro asked.

Jill Cobbs agreed with Spilo that talking about pollinators was off topic.

“If somebody brings up a subject that drags out, for and against, as a chair you can say it’s out of order,” said Arline Lomazzo, who formerly chaired the committee.

“The fact that we’re now having this debate is kind of making the whole point moot,” Craig Amundson said. “As the public works committee, we ought to let it rip and let people have their say.”

Still Amundson voted against the Wasserman motion.

Don Conway said he would have voted in favor of the Wasserman motion, but offered to cede his vote to the alternate, Eileen Toretta who voted against it.

The vote was 5 in support of the Wasserman motion (Lihong Zhang, Syl Pecora, Ms Lomazzo, Melissa Evans, and Ms Wasserman) and 7 against (Ms Toretta, Ron Carosella, Allison Rogers, Ms Cobbs, Philip Dodson, Mr. Spilo, and Mr. Amundson).

Yes or No on the Mural

Director of Environmental Affairs for the town Pat Sesto said last spring the Conservation Commission created an ad hoc committee, “Pollinator Pathways, with 3 Conservation Commission members and 1 staff person, in addition to residents.

Sesto said the commission did endorse and authorize the mural project despite not taking a formal vote.

The Greenwich Botanical Center partnered with Sustainable CT to set up a fundraising platform that raised $17,500 through 72 private contributions.

Then Sustainable CT kicked in $7,500 for a total of $25,000, which would include money for an anti-graffiti coating, and cleaning of the wall.

The commission’s standing Resolution 18 within the RTM’s adopted budget states the Conservation Commission can carry out their work using funds from other departments, state and federal sources, and not for profit 501(c)3s and foundations to carry out their work.

Sesto said that under Resolution 18 the commission acted in good faith, working through the office of First Selectman who interpreted Resolution 18 the same way.

“And we had an attorney early on who helped with going through the Dept of Transportation and Dept of Public Works, and that attorney’s interpretation was the same.”

“Once the project was started there were members of the RTM who said wait a minute, this is a gift, and should have come to the RTM,” Sesto said. “That was not our understanding of how the resolution was worded.”

“If the RTM doesn’t feel this was an appropriate interpretation of that wording, so be it. The project was stopped. We jumped on board with the RTM process and here we are tonight.”

Sesto started to explain the growing need for pollinators.

“We’re wandering into…,” Spilo warned.

Sesto changed the topic to the muralist, Nelson Rivas, and said he connected with GHS students through the school’s art department.

“Painting murals is a skillset that not all artists possess,” she explained, adding that a mural can last 20 to 30 years if well cared for and that bright colors last longer than more subtle ones.

Sesto said there was a Memo of Understanding between the Conservation Commission and the Office of First Selectman that spelled out the responsibility for cleaning the mural. The MOU also said the pollinator mural would remain for a minimum of two years.

“After that we can be told to paint over it. Done,” she said.

Philip Dodson said the MOU was done behind closed doors and the committee only learned about the two year minimum life for the mural the previous week.

“I wish there had been more transparency,” Dodson, adding that it had not attained required RTM approval for appropriation of gifts over $5,000 to the town, funding had not been reached before the work began, and neighbors had not been consulted.

Dodson said he worried about precedent, and likened a proliferation of murals to the proliferation of lawn signs in town.

“Eventually someone or a group who wants to put up something controversial or political will take advantage of this precedent,” he said.

“Because of process, I’m not in favor,” Craig Amundsen said.

“We’re not New York. We’re not the Bronx or Brooklyn…” said Don Conway. “We’re Greenwich. I think this is not the place for it.”

Sesto said Ridgefield, Darien and Fairfield each have a mural.

“It has not proven a floodgate for those communities,” Sesto said.

“I think it is courageous of (Sesto) to go out on a limb to provide this mural,” Ms Lomazzo said.

Cheryl Moss said she didn’t believe the mural would set a precedent.

“If this is approved, it doesn’t mean people can put up a similar project,” Moss said. “All the gifts have to come before the RTM, as was found out, and has been rectified by them bringing it before us.”

Ms Wasserman said the 2019 POCD includes an objective to make Greenwich a world class destination for public art.

“Why can’t art be accessible to everyone, something to enjoy without having to make a trip to a museum?” she asked.

Allison Rogers also brought up the issue of precedent, noting there were many other “blank canvases” in town.

Tom Agresta said the discussion should be about procedure.

“In the past there was a time clock in Bruce Park that didn’t follow procedure,” he said. “People can find a back door on this thing, again and again. That’s what we need to fix.”

Mr. Spilo said there should have been a public hearing that included neighbors. He also said the artist selection should have focused on Greenwich artists.

“Having the town pay an outside artist to put up a mural seems distasteful,” Spilo said. “It’s something that Greenwich feels student art isn’t good enough.”

Spilo asked what would be the process for a mural costing less than $5,000. All gifts $5,000 and above require RTM approval. “Does whoever is the First Selectman get to decide the use of these walls for art and whatever agenda they’re trying to promote?”

Ms Moss said mural painting was a different skill than painting on a canvas, and was not appropriate for GHS art students.

“They’re having a mural done at GHS and are putting out an RFP,” Moss added. “They’re not having their own students do it. It’s a red herring.”

“To have a process for art in town, put together a SOMR or an ordinance change,” she suggested. “To stop something that is beautiful and will be enjoyed by the entire community just because of a process discussion, it’s just not a valid reason.”

State Rep Meskers said the Bruce Museum was considering a mural in the adjacent I95 underpass on Steamboat Rd and the Byram Neighborhood Association was considering a mural project in the I95 underpass by Byram Park.

“I don’t think this is an attempt at an urban environment,” Meskers said. “I think the project is well intended. We’re not permanently installing a wall. We’re creating a mural that can easily be remedied if the town decides it doesn’t like it.”

“I’m not sure we want the RTM to be the arbiter of what kind of art goes where,” Meskers added.

Ms Klockenbrink, of the Pollinator Pathway ad hoc committee said eager students at GHS had stepped forward immediately to become involved in the project.

“The muralist had agreed to instruct the students on how to install a mural and give them hands on experience,” she said. “If we vote this down and paint this over, all that possibility stops right there. This is more than a mural. It included the bus shelter as a mini museum. We were going to plant a garden to the east of it. You can imagine them taking selfies in front of the wall.”

“The thing about it becoming ‘urban,’ this is not street art. It is an installed piece of public art,” she added.

VOTE on the Pollinator Mural was 8 opposed and 4 in favor

district 1, Lihong Zhang: no

district 2, Don Conway: no

district 3, Sylvester Pecora: yes

district 4, Ronald Carosella: no

district 5, Allison Rogers: no

district 6, Arline A. Lomazzo: yes

district 7, Jill Cobbs: No

district 8, Philip Dodson: No

district 9, Melissa Evans: Yes

district 10, Svetlana Wasserman: Yes

district 11, Michael Spilo: No

district 12, Craig Amundson: No

Meanwhile the Finance committee voted on the mural. The vote resulted in a tie.

The BOC discussed the item but did not vote.