After Nov. 5 Special BoS Meeting, Have We Hit Rock Bottom Yet?
We work very hard to keep opinion and editorial tone out of straight news reporting. As the founding editor of GOOD Morning Wilton, and as someone who has writing an opinion column in the past, it’s something I’m very conscious about when it comes to our coverage of Wilton news and politics.
But it may be difficult to hold back any opinions in writing about the special meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Thursday, Nov. 5. It was a meeting that at times seemed to devolve into one characterized by sniping, accusation, rancor and loud grumbling both from members of the board as well as from the crowd who had come to watch and speak up.
The meeting had been called after the regularly-scheduled BoS meeting three days prior (Monday, Nov. 2) failed to find the BoS in agreement over whether the first selectman should be given authority to sign contracts with construction vendors on the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. At issue was an objection raised by selectman Michael Kaelin, who said he was surprised that the question had come up for a vote, when he’d been told the contracts wouldn’t be considered until later in November, and as none of the selectmen had had time to review the contracts he didn’t think it was appropriate to cede authority to someone else to sign them without knowing what the contracts actually said.
Because Turner Construction‘s Ty Tregellas, the construction manager for the project, said time was of the essence and that there were 13 contracts that needed to be signed ‘urgently’ so that the project could proceed on its tight schedule as planned, a compromise was worked out for a special meeting later in the week. And while it was a compromise, it wasn’t one that was reached easily, as that Tuesday meeting was sprinkled with its own tension and raised voices.
Watching the dispute unfold during the special meeting, and seeing the meeting’s tone and some participants’ conduct take a negative, and sometimes personal, turn was, in truth, depressing and saddening enough that I couldn’t bring myself to quickly turn around an article for the next morning, as I typically strive to do.
The four hour meeting (which was recorded and is available for viewing on the town’s website) showed some of the worst things that happen when town government turns personal, and when people on either side of a disagreement dig in their heels without any ability to hear the other side, no matter how loud everyone yells.
Despite the historic objection some residents have had to the idea of the Miller-Driscoll renovation–whether because of its $50 million price tag or just out of principle about what the town’s needs are–what the dispute represented was whether or not people felt Wilton officials are being transparent about the decisions they make on the town’s behalf and whether officials are listening to constituent concerns.
Ultimately, the board of selectmen separated out six of the 13 contracts that Turner Construction deemed most ‘critical’ and, despite objections from Kaelin, first selectman Bill Brennan brought the question up for vote. The measure passed, 3-2 in favor of giving Brennan authority to sign the six contracts, with Brennan, Dick Dubow and Deborah McFadden voting to approve, and Kaelin and Ken Dartley voting against.
(Undoubtedly, there will be more conversation at tonight’s regularly-scheduled BoS meeting. That takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall and televised on channel 79.)
Overview of How the Meeting Went
Brennan, along with Tregellas and other members of the building committee emphasized the proscribed, state-mandated bidding process by which the trade contracts were chosen, stating that bidders for projects above $500,000 had to come from pre-approved lists and that the town had to choose the lowest, qualified bidder, or likely risk a lawsuit. They also said that the project had gone through a lengthy planning and vetting process, ultimately passing a town referendum vote, and that the focus should be on moving forward and getting the contracts approved rather than continue to debate the project’s merit.
Kaelin summarized where he saw the problem however, which was allowing both him and the public to see, understand and weigh in on the $26 million worth of contracts that the building committee was recommending he and the rest of the BoS approve–something, he said, was not planned for by the building committee:
“We have a major political problem here, it should be obvious to everyone, that when you’re doing the planning, nobody thought to include the presentation of $26 million worth of contracts to the BoS for review at a public meeting?” Kaelin asked.
Dubow, who represented the BoS as a member of the building committee said that such procedure had been standard for every major capital improvement project going back at least 20 years, and which he said saved the town up to $1 million in soft costs. “This is identical to the process we have used as recently as the Comstock project for which you [Kaelin] voted for in the same context. It has worked extraordinarily well over 18 years, 20 years in which projects have come in under budget and on time. It is a tested process that has worked well and has given the town good value for their dollars.”
He added that he believed that the building committee had fulfilled its responsibility of understanding and vetting the project on behalf of the residents.
The next exchange between the two summed up the divide quite well.
Dubow: “There are 18,300 people in Wilton and I see a handful here this evening. I see the same handful at a lot of meetings and they have objected to this project from the beginning, and I think it is just a continuation of that.”
Kaelin: “Their main objection has been they don’t understand why certain things are being done, and the response we keep giving them is that, ‘They don’t understand.’ If they don’t understand, that is not their fault, that is our fault.”
Dubow: “Like it or not, we as a community came together September a year ago and approved the project. We approved it by a slim margin, I think people had difficulty with that. Ever since there has been an effort to re-litigate it. That’s not what we’re here to do tonight. We’re here to take a next step in the completion of the project.”
The tension and disagreement continued between the two, with Kaelin saying that through his campaign for re-election and following his objections at the meeting three nights before, he heard from many people who said all they ever heard was, ‘This is the way it’s always been done,’ and Dubow saying he heard from as many people who supported the project moving forward.
Brennan later asked first selectman-elect Lynne Vanderslice and selectman-elect Dave Clune to comment on what their thoughts were. Vanderslice encouraged the BoS to do their due diligence, but to be expedient about it.
“There’s an opportunity to have more special meetings,” Vanderslice said. “I think you have to look at the information and make your own decision; that’s what you were elected to do. If you’re not ready to make it tonight, and you feel like you need some more information, if you have to meet next week, you meet next week.
Clune agreed, but urged the board to not waste time. “If you feel that there’s more for you to look at, then, by all means, you should take that opportunity. But if there’s a way to continue to move the project forward now, and do what Mike wants to do, to share more information with people — can we do those two things simultaneously? Meaning that you have a resolution that allows you to move forward so you don’t lose very much time, but then, whatever additional information that is possible to provide, that can be made available for people that want to see it.”
Questions Raised about Legitimacy in Town’s Eyes
Kaelin pressed Tregellas on what a delay in signing the contracts would cost the town, even by one month. “One month is potentially $200,000-$250,000,” the Turner Construction manager told the BoS, explaining that the way the job was described to contractors who bid to work on it, the schedule was so exceedingly tight that any deviation would result in escalation and price increases. “That is part of the contract, that is part of the bid documents. If we had been able to go out to bid six months earlier, then we’d have more float.”
Selectman Ken Dartley responded, “We pushed ourselves into a non-float position,” adding, “I’m still in favor of the contract, I just don’t understand the rush, right now. I think it’s unfair to ask us to shovel it off to the next [board] without them here to express their opinion.” He was referring to the BoS members-elect who had been elected just two days before.
Tregellas added that there was no upside to delaying the work, given that there was abatement of hazardous materials that had to be done before other work was begun, and that such work had to be done when children were not present–thus it was scheduled to be started over the Thanksgiving break. “If we wait until December, we’ve missed that first window.” He added it would likely push much of the necessary work to February and warned it could even be longer, given the scheduling that had been done to take advantage of summer breaks.
But for Kaelin, what would be more important would be the added legitimacy he felt the newly elected board of selectmen would bring if they were the ones making the decision once they were sworn in.
“This is the most important point of the evening. What we get by doing that is added legitimacy for this project. The whole problem from the beginning is half the people in town voted for it and half the people in town voted against it, in September 2014. We’ve been promising the people since September 2014 that we’re going to sell this to them, that we’re going to convince them this is a really good thing. The worst thing that could happen to this town at the outcome of this process is if we spend $50 million on this project and half the town thinks it’s a mistake.”
Kaelin said having the new board make the decision would make a difference.
“The great benefit to waiting until Dec. 1 is we can get a unanimous vote of this BoS to approve each of these contracts and we remove whatever cloud there is over it. Part of the reason that may work, is because we just had an election two days ago, and we’ve been trying to get people out to vote and we’ve been telling them their votes matter. I can tell you they want to feel their votes matter. They would be happy if the people they voted for two days ago were the people who voted in favor of this contract and they voted unanimously. My fear is, if you force us to put this to a vote tonight, it’s going to be 3-2 vote, and we’re going to be in the same ugly mess we were in Sept. 2014. I’m trying to build consensus, bring us together, make people feel positive about this project and not negative about it,” he said.
Selectman Deb McFadden countered, “My fiduciary responsibility did not end election day, mine ends Nov. 30. I have a fiduciary responsibility and I can’t relinquish it just because I lost the election. I have a responsibility to save as much money as I can for the taxpayers to keep this project on schedule. It was my suggestion to have this special meeting to give people more information. I’m trying to be part of the process of including more people. If we delay, we’re costing the town not only some money, but we’re costing the whole project is going to be teetering. We’re running huge risks and it’s being irresponsible to the next BoS, it’s irresponsible of us to put them in that precarious situation, where they’re in an even worse situation because we have delayed this.”
Later on, Kaelin told a commenter what would be gained by delaying the vote, and letting members of the public review the contracts: “What we have gained is preventing them from saying that they didn’t have the chance to look at the documents, they didn’t have the chance to tell their elected representative what they thought of it. It completely takes away the opportunity to complain. By compressing it, all we’re doing is fulfilling what they’ve accused us of doing for a year or more, which is short-circuiting the process and keeping them out of it.”
Kaelin said an “overwhelming majority” of the town’s residents did not want the BoS to approve the contracts that evening. “If we vote for these contracts, all we’re doing is proving to them what they’ve been saying about us all along.”
“If 100-percent of the BoS, the BoE and the BoF and the building committee voting in favor of it, and half the voters vote against it, we’re out of touch,” Kaelin said. He noted that since he first joined the BoS, he had tried to listen to what members of Sensible Wilton were talking about and said that to him, they’ve started to sound sensible. “They seem like reasonable and intelligent people who were concerned about the project.” Kaelin, however, found the building committee less reliable: “When I tell them what Sensible Wilton’s concerns are, all the people on the building committee tell me, ‘They don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just out to kill the project.’ They were demonizing them and attacking them.”
Kaelin pointed out that he also paid attention when more people voted against the town budget at the annual town meeting–but it passed on a ‘technicality.’ “All of this is fueling the impression that this town is run by a group of insiders and they’re excluding the outsiders. All I was advocating was including all those on the outside in the process.”
In a somewhat surprising statement, Kaelin gave Sensible Wilton a large pat on the back with regard to its effect during the election. “The candidates who were endorsed by one of their members got a lot more votes than anybody else.”
He said that a vote to approve the contracts that night would “kill the legitimacy” of the project. “I promised to the people that elected me that we were going to do things differently, and I’m going to start doing that tonight. I am not voting to approve any contracts tonight.”
When Brennan made a final appeal to pass the evening’s vote, saying that any delay in voting would likely still wind up without unanimous support and it would only add more cost to the final bill presented to the town at the project’s conclusion, he said it was “for the children of Wilton”: “I am very much not interested in seeing delays that cause potential increases in the cost of this project. We’re all concerned with the children of Wilton — this is about the children of Wilton.”
Dartley took exception to that, saying Brennan was forgetting about the seniors who would now have to foot that bill. “We will end up with a town with no seniors. The school children cannot sustain the tax rate. You don’t understand Bill, you’ve got a problem.”
Kaelin reiterated, “Voting on this tonight, you can’t believe the message you’re sending to the people in this town. It’s so incredibly arrogant I can’t articulate it.”
When Dubow seemed to try and speak over Kaelin to silence him and move to a vote saying a motion had been made and seconded, Dartley objected sharply at Dubow: “No, it’s discussion. You’re not overriding anything here. Yes, you are, and I’m sick of it!”
Public Comment that Turned Sour
Once public comment started, there was a glimmer of hope: Richard Creeth, a former BoS member and current Board of Finance member, encouraged people to “get more constructive” following the contentiousness of the meeting three days before. And some of the other commenters were calm and cool, presenting their questions and comments with polite disposition.
There were even explicit suggestions about what decorum, diplomatic debate and even disagreement should be like. Take former first selectman Paul Hannah‘s remarks, reflecting back on a time when he served the town, which he felt had better behaved participants:
The many projects were done on time, within budget, led by dedicated volunteers, and without a single FOI request, lawsuit, or appeal to the State Election Enforcement Commission.
Does that mean there was no opposition? No Way!
Votes were heavily contested, some were not successful, but ultimately all projects were approved. Did the opposition leave town? No! Did they claim all was unfair? No! Did they file frivolous FOI claims and expensive SEEC objections? No! Did they sue in Superior Court? No!
Did they cost the town at least $200,000 in legal fees? No, they accepted the results of the votes!
Where has that concept gone? What has happened to the town which used to fight hard at the Town Meeting and then accept the will of the majority of the voters? It seems we have turned into a Town where those who lose in the democratic way automatically claim foul.
At the other end of the spectrum, catcalls from the gallery, members of the public grumbling, “Fraud!” at speakers or officials they didn’t like or agree with. Others raised voices, pointed fingers and hurled accusations. Since the meeting, several people in attendance or watching on TV have told me they were upset watching what occurred.
There was the feel of “Gotcha!” grandstanding and ‘Us vs. Them,’ as Sensible Wilton’s lawyer Simon Reiff stood almost toe-to-toe with town attorney Ken Bernhard, who at one point cautioned the members of the BoS not to answer a question posed by attorney Reiff. Their exchange grew testy, with Bernhard at one point saying, “Then just be quiet for a moment,” when Reiff spoke over him. And that was just the first interaction of several. Bernhard later called Reiff’s points, “hocus pocus and misdirection.” Grumbles from the spectator gallery can be heard during several moments.
Reiff also made a plea to the selectmen that voting yes on the resolution would effectively give Brennan the right to review all contracts. The interaction ended with Bernhard characterizing Reiff’s comments as “mistaken,” and that the only responsibility the selectmen were delegating to the first selectman was an administrative one.
Toward the second half of the meeting, there was an exchange between resident John Kalamarides, who came up to comment, and Kaelin, that took a personal turn. With Kalamarides saying the two were old friends, he criticized Kaelin directly, telling him he was “wrong.” He added that questioning Tregellas was like an “inquisition,” that the delay was like “beating up [Brennan] on his way out,” and that, “what you’re doing tonight is just awful to the children, to the Miller-Driscoll committee, to the people of this town, to the teachers, to the principals, to the employees, this has gone too far.”
Kaelin responded later in the meeting, saying Kalamarides’ comments made him very angry. “Anyone who would suggest that I do anything in this seat other than what I think is ethically, morally and legally correct in representing the people that elected me just does not know who I am.” He later added that he felt attacked.”
At the conclusion of the vote, which passed 3-2, and earning grumbles and boos, an audience member shouted out, “Bill, a mistake! You have screwed up for 12 years. You’re terrible.” Several members of the public loudly argued with one another even as the meeting continued.
Public Comment that Found Some Inconsistencies
One moment during the meeting felt ripped from an old episode of TV’s “Columbo.” Resident Liz Hanson, citing a professional background in commercial real estate construction, questioned Tregellas on the schedule, and asked him to point to where abatement was scheduled to begin. According to Hanson, no abatement was scheduled to begin until Dec. 24, directly contradicting earlier statements Tregellas made about needing the Thanksgiving break to begin such work.
Tregellas said that there would be “opportunity” to work before Christmas break, but wasn’t scheduled as such.
“So it’s an opportunity, which is a great idea but it’s not in this timeline and it’s not what the contractors bid for,” Hanson asked.
“That’s correct,” Tregellas answered.
“So it’s wishful thinking, and therefore doesn’t have an economic consequence,” Hanson suggested.
Asserting that there were other gaps, inconsistencies and inaccuracies on the documents prepared by Turner Construction–the same documents used by contractors to bid on the project–Hanson told the BoS, “If neither one of them hold water, why are we rushing into this. It does not have an economic consequence.”
Hanson then critiqued one asbestos abatement vendor’s qualifications, point by point, questioning their suitability and qualifications, including their home base in New Jersey, 74 miles away. “The government of CT asks us to please give preference to CT companies. There are 253 certified, qualified CT asbestos abatement contractors approved by the state of CT; 137 of those are based physically in the state of CT–and we’re going 74 miles away to the state of New Jersey? It doesn’t seem to fit.”
Kaelin said Hanson’s efforts proved that what he was trying to do–giving members of the public opportunity to review the contracts–was the right thing to do. “I go to church with Liz Hanson every Sunday and I had no idea how much she knew. With all due respect to Turner Construction, if I was in that jury, I’m ruling in her favor on that.”