Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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What’s in a Name? In Westport, Always Controversy

State Rep. Ken Bernhard, a Republican whose 136th District now includes only Westport, wants to name the Post Road bridge over the Saugatuck River in honor of the late Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen.

Ms. Steinkraus-Cohen, who died last year, was a longtime Westporter and friend and supporter of the United Nations.

Each summer, the bridge is decked out in flags of the U.N. members on “jUNe Day” when the town hosts U.N. delegates, mission members and U.N. employees and their families for the day. But nothing is ever easy in Westport.

Because the bridge is state-owned, Bernhard proposed state legislation to make the name change.

“Ms. Steinkraus-Cohen was a remarkable woman with an extraordinary commitment to public service and was active in promoting peace through the United Nations,” Bernhard said.

Bernhard’s bill (House Bill No. 5272) called for the bridge to be named the “Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Memorial Bridge.”

Bernhard asked First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell to have Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) endorse the proposal to make sure the townspeople were supportive of the effort.

As RTM Moderator, I suggested to the First Selectwoman that the Board of Selectmen (which includes her, fellow Democrat Carl Leaman and Republican John Izzo) take up the matter first, as it would under the town’s “Policy for Naming Town Property,” which deals with town-owned property.

The Board of Selectmen considered the issue Tuesday (March 4, 2003). The motion passed 2-1 and will go before the RTM next month. Izzo voted against it.

According to the Westport News, “In a statement released after the meeting, Izzo said he didn’t know Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen, but explained he felt that it wasn’t fair to other Westport notables who might be worthy of such an honor.”

You can’t say party politics was a factor. Or was it? Perhaps Izzo for some reason looked at it as a partisan issue (as he does with many things). But Steinkraus-Cohen was a registered Republican. And it is a Republican rep who is asking the state to approve the name change.

Before Izzo’s vote, some Westporters anticipated opposition might come from those unhappy with the U.N. Security Council’s stance on efforts to disarm Iraq.

Bernhard says he has time to “derail” his proposal before it gets to the General Assembly if Westporters don’t back it. Never take anything for granted in Westport.

Update: At its April 1 meeting, the RTM voted 26-5 in favor of endorsing Bernhard’s bill to rename the bridge.

Congressman Shays Westport Town Meeting Now on Web

No matter your views on a possible (likely?) war in Iraq, you had to be impressed with the “town meeting” Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) hosted last week (Feb. 23, 2003) at Westport’s new Bedford Middle School.

Despite the frigid night, several hundred turned out for the four-hour meeting. Unknown thousands more watched the first two and a half hours live on C-SPAN. The complete recording of the session is available on the C-SPAN Web site.

Few people seemed to know in advance that the session was to be nationally televised. First Selectwoman Diane GossFarrell says she didn’t know and got a scolding from her parents who found out afterward they missed her on TV.

One viewer from Cody, Wyoming, sent a note to me as Moderator of the Westport Representative Town Meeting saying how much he enjoyed the session and how impressed he was with questions from Westporters and others.

“Great comments and insight by all,” he wrote. But he added: “It is a shame that one lady had to lower the quality of the program by venting her own personal vendetta against the President.” (He apparently confused “town meeting” and RTM, but his comments were interesting nevertheless.)

Don’t hold me to it, but the session may have been the longest nationally televised live broadcast from Westport since Edward R. Murrow interviewed Martha Raye on CBS-TV’s “Person to Person” in the 1950s—and that was only 15 minutes.