Focus On: Westport First Selectman, Jim Marpe

Ohio Native, Jim Marpe and his wife, Mary Ellen, have lived in Westport for 31 years. Previously an executive at Accenture, Marpe served on Westport’s Board of Education and on state-level education boards. Active members at Green’s Farms Church both Marpes serve on multiple non-profit boards. Marpe is also an avid wine collector who says “sampling the collection of excellent wines in my wine cellar is a pleasant way to end a challenging day.” He shares his thoughts on being at the forefront of the COVID-19 crisis management on April 30, the original proposed end-date for social distancing measures. 

“As the First Selectman, I have been working seven days a week to help lead Westport through the COVID-19 crisis. Unlike most of my fellow residents, I haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy the “new normal”. Most of my time is spent working virtually from my office and Zoom studio at home. A typical workday now begins at 7am and rarely ends before 9pm. At least some traditional evening meetings are being moved earlier in the day because of greater resident availability and flexibility. 

Mary Ellen spends a significant part of her time working as member of the Westport Country Playhouse to help the Playhouse manage through this crisis and plan for future re-opening and fund raising. She is also playing a lot of virtual Mahjong with her friends. 

As the chief community advocate for social distancing, I’ve gotten used to it and find it surprisingly natural now. We’ve been able to slow the spread of the virus throughout Westport, and this is the way to do it. We’ll need to stay disciplined about the distancing into the summer months as we begin to open public facilities. My personal style is to meet with people “in-person” as much as possible, so I’ve had to shift my communication approach to deal with many more telephone conferences and Zoom-based meetings. My observation is that Zoom forces a more disciplined and efficient meeting; making them more productive and less contentious.  

I’m very pleased with the way the majority have responded with our request to stay inside as much as possible and to socially distance and facemask as much as possible when in public spaces. Most have taken to the motto. “You’re not stuck inside, you’re safe inside”. As always, there are those who don’t want to follow the rules, but for the most part are willing to if confronted politely.  

We are fortunate to have experienced, professional, Town department heads, deputies and employees who are leading the various dimensions of the Town’s response from first responders to public health officials to human services social workers. Our seniors are surprisingly resilient given their vulnerability to COVID-19. It is interesting to see how part of the community is ready to “open up” right away and other parts are wary of opening too soon and, in fact, continue to encourage me to place more social distancing rules in place. But most of all, the great thing about Westport is the creative ways people have found to volunteer and help their neighbors as well as find alternative and creative ways to pass the time. 

All of my skills, experience and beliefs have been called upon to lead the Westport community through this life-threatening event: 

  • faith in God to give me the strength and inspiration I need more than ever 
  • quantitative and analytical skills from my schooling and professional career  
  • leadership experience throughout my professional and personal life 
  • respect for experienced professionals and the ‘chain of command” 
  • trust in my team and support of my family  
  • listening more and speaking less  
  • motivated to act  
  • no “analysis paralysis”  
  • planning for the return to the “new normal” as well as for tomorrow  
  • need to inspire  
  • speaking with confidence and empathy  
  • dealing with my own fears and anxieties while speaking with confidence and positivity 

My hopes are that we come through the next weeks and months with a limited loss of life and that this terrible journey ends as quickly as possible; that we learn the lessons of preparation for such events in the future and that we take what we’ve learned about operating government and business in a more efficient and technology based manner and apply that to future productivity and cost savings; that we learn to pay more attention to those among us that are having challenges of all types and commit to helping them; that we learn to be satisfied with a simpler lifestyle and realize how much less “stuff” we need to make a difference.  

My biggest fear is that we “re-open” too soon without the necessary testing, contact tracing and personal health condition ID information, which results in going back to the current situation or worse. My biggest long-term fear is that we don’t learn the lessons noted above and rebound to our previous collective lifestyle. I also fear that in our rush to get back to “normal” we may forget the enormous environmental challenges that our planet still faces, and which have had to take a back seat to our battle with the Coronavirus. 

It has been a privilege to be placed in the position of trust and responsibility that my leadership role has placed upon me. I appreciate their words of support and encouragement and their willingness to participate positively in the greatest mass discipline effort we will likely ever know. I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals who are our Town employees who do know the answers or know how to get them and execute them. I have been energized by the responsibility and believe we will emerge as a better community when we’re at the point where we’ll look back at this as a major historical moment and that it was our finest hour. 

I don’t have all the answers, but we are fortunate to have the experienced professionals…who do

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.