RTM Vote Approves OG School Building Committee Nominee after Apology for Controversial Facebook Comments

During Monday’s RTM meeting, the consent calendar included numerous volunteers, including people to serve on Old Greenwich School, Julian Curtiss School and Central Middle School building committees, as well as the Harbor Management Commission, the Parks & Rec board, the Historic District Commission, and the Board of Human Services.

The nomination of James Waters to the Old Greenwich School building committee was taken separately.

Michael Spilo at the Sept 19, 2022 RTM meeting at Central Middle School.

Over the weekend, Michael Spilo, chair of the Public Works Committee, emailed RTM members reminding them of an incident in 2018 when a nominee for the Human Services board, apologized for online comments he had made on Facebook.

(Mr. Spilo shared his email with GFP on Tuesday afternoon.)

In the email Mr. Spilo wrote, “Mr. Waters attacks fellow RTM members and injects partisanship. He labels those who disagree with him ‘extreme’ and worse. While this sort of behavior is common online, especially on Twitter, the RTM has always frowned upon such ad-hominem commentary by RTM Members directed at fellow RTM Members or Town residents.”

“Tom Byrne (former RTM moderator) would often say: ‘You can call a statement incorrect and present your correction, but don’t call people liars,'” Spilo continued. He described Waters’ comments as harsh personal attacks and juvenile name-calling.

“Such attacks are not conducive to the sort of informed debate we expect at the RTM, and are not in the spirit of collaboration or compromise required in a Building Committee,” he concluded.

At the RTM meeting, Mr. Spilo, said his committee had met on Sept 12 jointly with the Education Committee and that candidates’ detailed biographical information had been circulated in advance.

He said after candidates were interviewed, his committee split off to discuss and vote.

“Our discussion of Mr. Waters was extensive. An objection was made that Mr. Waters’ online comments are inappropriate ad hominem and may spill over into committee business demeanor at committee and district meetings,” he said. “Another concern was Mr. Waters’ highly partisan perspective. All these were presented as impediments to cooperation at the building committee.”

The vote on Public Works was 3-7-0.

First Selectman Fred Camillo spoke in favor of Mr. Waters, praising his background, service to the country, and passion for his hometown.

“In the past 48 hours I received a lot of comments and outreach from friends and RTM members about online comments. I did speak with the nominee this afternoon and he agreed this was the moment for a re-set,” Camillo said.

Mr. Waters is a product of Greenwich Schools and his children attend the public schools today. The Harvard graduate and former Navy SEAL regularly appears at GHS and North Mianus School as a speaker or panelist on Veterans Day or Memorial Day.

Lucy von Brachel spoke in favor of Mr. Waters. She said no one should be judged on their missteps in life.

“If I wanted to put myself forward for an appointment I would think twice, maybe three or four times, knowing that a group of 230 people might single me out for greater scrutiny and debate me,” Ms von Brachel said.

“I feel strongly that voting against an appointee should not be taken lightly,” she said.

“Given the controversy and information circulated prior to this meeting I thought I’d share my perspective about why James should be appointed to the Old Greenwich School building committee.”

Ms von Brachel said she also serves on the Budget Overview Committee where Mr. Waters is a delegate, and that she was surprised at how quickly got up to speed on the mechanics of the RTM.

“We are all elected to represent our community Mr. Waters clearly takes that role very seriously as a representative of his district. He is not shy or timid about sharing his point of view, which might rub some people the wrong way, but he is always measured and respectful in our meetings.”

Scott Kalb said he was troubled by what he described as double-standards on reviewing candidates for volunteer positions.

“If we are going to comb a candidate’s social media history for what we believe are objectionable comments, the same should be done for everyone. It should not be done selectively, especially when we are collecting comments from years ago,” he said.

Second, he said people should not be rejected on the basis that their views do not align with our own.

Matt DesChamps from the BOC described Mr. Waters as a committed public servant with a perfect attendance record who was always extremely well prepared for meetings.

Dan Quigley, former RTC chair, and Greenwich Schools parent said he supported Mr. Waters being included on the Old Greenwich School building committee.

He said he and Mr. Waters used to go after each other on social media frequently.

“He was just a resident of the town and felt passionately about the schools,” Quigley said. “Once you become an elected member of RTM and other committees, BOC and other things in town you approach things with a little more gravity, and see how hard people work.”

“Having gotten to know James, he’d be a great member and add a lot of value to the building committee,” Quigley said.

James Waters at the Sept 19, 2022 RTM meeting at Central Middle School.

James Waters said, “Let’s cut to the chase. I am not perfect. Far from it. One thing you learn when you go through (Navy) SEAL training is you always have a lot to learn.”

Mr. Waters is a product of Greenwich Schools and his children attend the public schools today. The Harvard graduate and former Navy SEAL regularly appears at GHS and North Mianus School as a speaker or panelist on Veterans Day or Memorial Day.

Waters said that prior to being elected to the RTM last fall he vocally defended Greenwich Schools in social media.

“I felt it was important to stand up to repeated attempts to undermine an institution so important to so many in town. Our schools should not be about politics. They are about our kids and, yes, their fundamental impact on property values.”

He said politics consistently invaded schools lately, and in ways that are detrimental.

“I felt it was important to hold people accountable and shine a light on how local figures were impacting our schools,” he said.

Waters noted that prior to this week no one had indicated to him they took personal offense at his social media posts, and that he felt badly if anyone did take his comments personally.

He said that in District 12, his constituents were aware of his advocacy.

James Waters who was a US Navy SEAL officer for 12 years, spoke at the North Mianus School Memorial day assembly. May 27, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

“They elected me because of it,” he said.

Waters has an extensive budget and finance background. He explained that while at the White House Office of Management and Budget he managed multi billion dollar budgets.

He also directly oversaw multi-billion dollar budgets for his unit in the military.

“I was surprised when I heard this week that I must not work well in teams,” he said. “Building and working with high performance teams is what I do. In my view the best teams are those that give voice to constructive dissent rather than stifling it.”

Also, Waters said, “I built and led platoons of Navy SEALS on demanding combat missions around the world.”

He said that for his team leadership efforts he was awarded the Bronze Star medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, and the Presidential Unit Citation twice.

“My advocacy shows I speak up when I see shared objectives at risk,” he said. “I want to keep this committee focused on the task at hand and avoid losing sight of our goals.”

“I’ll ask tough direct questions but won’t pretend to be an expert at something that I’m not,” Waters promised.

The vote on Mr. Waters appointment to the Old Greenwich School building committee was:

126 in favor; 56 opposed; 16 abstaining

On Tuesday, Mr. Waters shared a response, saying, “I thank the RTM for its support and am excited to join the Old Greenwich School building committee.This is an important project for Old Greenwich, our public school system, and the town and I’m humbled to join such a strong group of members who’ll lead the charge. It’s well past time to renovate the oldest school building in town.”