According to "Greenwich Before 2000" (Richardson, 2000), the date generally accepted for the first Town Meeting is February 5, 1664. Seven of the town's original proprietors (land owners) met to request the General Assembly to allow Greenwich to separate from Stamford. This freedom would allow them to appoint their own minister and lay out land plots. In the true New England Town Meeting tradition, all the residents could attend and vote. In those days, this process was not a problem since populations were small enough to allow such meetings. However, when towns started to mushroom, this became more difficult. But this wasn't the only reason Greenwich turned to a representative system. The seeds for this idea were planted as far back as 1879!
On November 5, 1879, a Citizen's Reform Association of Greenwich protested the $200,000 town debt. The Association accused town officials of financial mismanagement, unauthorized borrowing, ignoring lawbreakers and setting their own high salaries. This committee was headed up by E.C. Benedict, L.P. Hubbard and Robert M. Bruce. Citizens must have suspected more financial mismanagement on October 6, 1890, when they appointed a committee to investigate Town officers. Then, on October 3, 1892, the appointed committee reported back to the Town Meeting that it found bookkeeping errors. It suggested changes in the Town Treasurer's accounting procedures. On October 2, 1899, a second investigative committee of 5 was formed to investigate the Selectman, Treasurer and auditor. The following year (1900), the Committee found irregularities with the Tax Collector's records. In December of that same year, Robert M. Bruce proposed a 50% increase in taxes to lower the Town's debt. On February 15, 1901, a member of the Investigating Committee - A.A. Marks - sued Selectman Lockwood, Tax Collector Finnegan and a bondsman for money owed the Town. A settlement on October 30, 1901, gave the Town $21,750 for misappropriation of $144,000 by the Tax Collector.
Things were quiet for a while until investigative reporter Lincoln Steffans wrote in 1903 that he saw cronies handing out $3 to people who voted for "The Machine". Steffans later appeared at a Town Meeting to present a detailed, highly analytical presentation, which convinced many there that something had to be done about corruption in Greenwich government. Perhaps to discourage corruption, the Town Meeting decided to pay the Tax Collector 2% of all taxes collected. Unfortunately, the stigma of fiscal mismanagement stayed with the Town. In December 1906, the Selectmen were accused of graft. They were accused of misappropriating funds and seeking additional funds. Despite the fact that property value had gone up and generated increased tax revenue, the Town's debt had gone up! On December 5, 1908, the Town Meeting appointed a Committee of 28 to continue the work of the previous investigative committees.
The Committee was asked to come up with a plan to ensure better administration of the Town. It found that the Town's accounting practices were sorely lacking. The Committee declared that the Board of Selectmen was. . . "ineffective, un-busineess-like and a damage to the property of this community". It was charged with coming up with a new form of government. On March 6, 1909, the Committee report with recommendations was defeated by a vote of 549 to 1,112! Although it was agreed that change was necessary, voters felt the Committee operated in secrecy and that the sweeping changes proposed were drastic.
Later that month on March 25, a special Town Meeting voted to ask the General Assembly to approve a Board of Estimate and Taxation to monitor the Town's funds. Some claimed that the Town Meeting was illegally called. Nonetheless, several months later, the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing the Town to establish the BET. It also legislated the duties of the board and established a budgetary timetable for town departments.
Once the issue of fiscal responsibility was addressed, the Town Meeting was able to undertake many public works projects in town such as paving roads, installing sewers and providing electric service. With the coming of the First World War, everyone's attention shifted to world events. Once the war was over and our soldiers returned home, the question of efficient government once again made the headlines. Newspapers wrote editorials on adopting a Representative Town Meeting format used in Massachusetts. A Town Meeting on April 20, 1928, voted down a proposition to adopt the RTM form of government and investigate tax matters. On November 10, 1932, the BET set the Town Budget at $3,057,000 - the biggest budget in history! The Town Meeting approved the budget! Unfortunately, in January 1933, the Town debt reached $6,292,000. On October 16, 1933, the first RTM (Representative Town Meeting) authorized by the General Assembly held its first meeting and abolished the old Town Meeting. Representatives were elected from 11 districts (1 rep for 100 people). It was the first RTM in the state!! In the Fall of 1933, the RTM approved a "pay as you go" plan as opposed to incurring debt.
It's safe to say that the Committee of 28 was instrumental in the creation of the RTM as the legislative branch of our municipal government. It shares power with the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Estimate and Taxation. Over the years, there have been several studies on the best form of government for Greenwich. Several reports suggested the creation of a Town Manager to run the Town. Our current Town Administrator is an offshoot of this idea. Regardless, the New England tradition of the Town Meeting is still firmly entrenched in Greenwich. It allows the citizenry to have a say in taxation and the use of public funds.