After 10 years as first selectman, Bill Brennan is saying farewell to the job as the top official for the Town of Wilton. Serving during a period of incredible change and activity, Brennan oversaw and managed a vast array of town capital projects and facilities improvements; improvements to the village center; financial management; economic development; environmental championing; affordable housing development; municipal government initiatives; and emergency management system upgrades.
As he began to wind down his tenure in early fall, Brennan sat down with GOOD Morning Wilton to talk about his years of service at Wilton’s helm⎯although ‘wind down’ may be an underestimation of what Brennan was really doing as it’s almost impossible for him to turn off his drive and dedication to the job and to the town he’s called home for almost 40 years.
Read our interview and see his video goodbye at the end of the article…
GOOD Morning Wilton: I drove by late one night and your car was still here. Your job is never ending…
Bill Brennan: I came in one day, I guess it was a Tuesday. I didn’t have a lot of meetings. I figured I’d really get caught up. By the afternoon, calls come in, People show up. I figured it would be kind of quiet in August and in Sept., it just goes like that. I really enjoyed the job. One big thing about this job, I can really see what I accomplished. When you’re in Hartford, etc, you can’t get anything done, unless everybody votes together. But here, I can see a lot of things that I had a distinct or total control over it and did it and then move on.
GOOD Morning Wilton: What are your top three highlights?
BB: I don’t try to put them in any order of priority, but I do think in terms of the town. Certainly the Yankee gas project was an enormously complex project that took a lot of time. And it has the potential of a really big effect on the town in terms of savings. All of our schools will have natural gas, and the Community Center, a lot of businesses will have it, and many residences have connected onto it. And we were the first municipality, in the state, to come under the governor’s comprehensive energy strategy. We had started two years before they even had the idea. We went thru hell with Yankee Gas to get it done. I remember when they said, “I think you’re going to be really happy when this comes out…” I thought we’d have some kind of contribution, but it was zero. It was terrific. So I think that was a major accomplishment.
Wilton Commons and affordable housing. We have added affordable housing here. That took ten years. The last six months of Wilton Commons, the way we got it done, we met in my office every two weeks, the whole team, and kept narrowing down the remaining issues. When the governor was in his car, coming down, they were still talking to the lawyers up there, they still hadn’t gotten it done. We finally got a call,. a sold sign from an attorney up there. So people think these things happen, they don’t happen without a lot of work. But Wilton Commons, we spent a lot of time on that, and I give many other people credit, I don’t take all the credit for many of these. This is a team effort, but I’ve been involved in all these things and in some cases, I’ve been the leader of the thing. But Wilton Commons accomplished something that is becoming a model for other communities. Two million dollars contributed by the residents to support it, that shows tremendous interest in it. The town contributed six acres of land so they could build it. Then we got tax credits and funding from the governor. So you add up all these things; they got kind of a model of how to do these things. But now we got it. It’s been fully rented for some time.
The people who were screaming, “It’s going to be all these people coming from some place else.” It’s just not true. More than 50 percent of the people in there are either former Wilton residents or they’re related in some way to Wilton residents. A mother and father whose children live here. We’re adding 23 more units. That construction’s going to happen. So that’s 70 some odd units of affordable housing for seniors in our town. And we’ve just solved a big problem with Dudley Road [44 Westport Rd.]. That reached a high crescendo of dissent and concern and we knew we had to do something. And I give [town planner] Bob Nerney credit..… he came up with the idea, “Why don’t we do a land swap?” That’s a good place to have it. Walking distance to the town, train station, a transit hub, we’re going put a pedestrian bridge in. All these thing, take a lot of time. But that’s what made this job so exciting, because I like to get things done.
I think when you think of this town, there’s been a lot of things that we’ve done. When you look at the list of capital projects we’ve gotten through. I was very pleased that we were able to do things that will be forever. One of those is we had two sections of open space that we were able to put away, Both with development easements. We did the Offinger Farm and we had 39.5 acres on the Keiser property.
When you drive by that, that land will be into perpetuity. It’s not going to be built on. There won’t be 12 or 14 homes there. That took a lot of work to get that done, too. We talked about it with the Keiser family for eight years. They were going to sell it. Then the market dropped and we finally got it together. And then we were working with the state to get a grant. And we didn’t get that. Then we got the land trust. That was exciting to get that, land, because that had kept the profile of the town, forever.
GOOD Morning Wilton: There are still some people who don’t agree with the amount of money that was spent on the Keiser land deal, $2.2 million. Explain why its’ so important for the town. You say it “keeps the profile of the town,” but what is so important about that?
If you allow every single property to be built on, you’ll be building more schools. So pay me now or pay me later. The second thing is, you need to have the environment you live in. You got to have woods. Remember this open space is available for people to walk on it. I fish on that river up there, legally. Any citizen can, because it’s available to us. It adds to the ambiance of the whole town. It increases property values.
The Norwalk River Valley Trail. Why have I been so supportive of that? Because trails add to the community. They add recreational activity. Kathleen and I ride our bikes on Sundays. We meet so many people. Elderly people, joggers, other bike riders. In the winter, you can snow shoe on it. Trails have always added to property values of the community. I didn’t learn that here at first. I learned this in Boulder, Colorado and Aspen where I have had kids living. And all those trails. Everyone’s out running, mountain biking, hiking. It’s added value, people want be outdoors.
This is going to go from Danbury all the way to Broad St. down in Norwalk. And that will be a great accomplishment. It will take a number of years to do it, but we now have three segments that are open. If someone had asked me to predict how many get built basically raising the funds, I would never have predicted the three segments would be open in a couple of years. Mike Lindberg has done a fabulous job raising the funds. We have tremendously generous people in this town. When I did that Valley Forge Washington, I had the money raised in three week. I get great letters, saying “Bill we’re delighted, to support….”
We have a particularly wonderful community, but I don’t get upset with the naysayers. You know, I wanted to mention somewhere along in this interview. That the amount of time I spend on legal issues, has gone up in the last several years…It used to be five or ten percent, of my time. Now it’s been more like 15–20 percent. And it isn’t just lawsuits, there’s so much. when you do something like Yankee Gas–there’s easements, there’s agreements…
GOOD Morning Wilton: How long have you and Kathleen have lived in town?
BB: I guess it’s close to 40 years. We’ve raised our children here. And now we’ve got grandchildren here. So all of this makes it very important, because you’re doing something for your town. Someone said to me the other day: “What are you going do with your free time?” Like I don’t have any other outside interests in my life? (chuckles) So I said: “Look, we’re going to still be very active in this town. A while back, we bought a cemetery plot so we’re planning to stay.” So we’re not leaving. We’re staying. [laughs]
I’ve got plenty of interests. I’m going to keep things up that Kathleen and I want to do.
GOOD Morning Wilton: So before being first selectman, you were on the Board of Finance…
BB: Typical of many of the younger people who are here, raising children, I had a corporate job. In the latter two-thirds of my career, I was traveling a lot. Fortunately I was able to take Kathleen on many of those trips too, so we don’t have this passion that we have to travel, now that we’re free. We’ve done a lot of traveling.
I was at my mailbox one day, and my next door neighbor, Bob Wiseman said, “Bill, there’s an opening on the Board of Assessment Appeals. You’d be terrific for that.”
So I said: “Well, what is it? What does it do?” because I didn’t even really know what it meant. I didn’t know where Town Hall was hardly. I mean I knew where it was, but I was there for a town meeting now and then, that was about it. So, I started with, “I’d be very interested. I’d like to serve, if there was a way where I can help. I travel….”
So I was on the Board of Assessment Appeals for about a year and then they asked me to be on the Board of Finance. I went on the Board of Finance, for two years and ended up being chairman for three years. After five years I had had enough. You know the presentations to the town, it was a lot of work. And I was still employed. But I had been asked to be president of the Historical Society, and I said, “I would love to do that,” because we were very active in the historical society.
When they asked me to run for first selectman, I didn’t immediately say yes; I had retired from American National Can, and I was doing consulting. It was really was busy but near the end of the third year, I was starting to feel I was no longer really current in my industry. I thought I’ve really got to bow out of this. I had clients in Australia, in Brazil… you know, enough.
I thought the first selectman job would be more interesting, so that’s where it started. And I have not been in any way disappointed. I have been honored to serve really. It’s a great community, a highly educated, affluent community. And 98-percent of the people, 99-percent are just fabulous. It’s an honor to be the representative of the town. I’ve enjoyed it. I like people, and as you know I’m very organized. So, it’s helped me to, I think, run the town professionally, and we are in very good shape financially.
That’s a key element. Every year, for ten years, when I was responsible for it, we came in under budget. I would say that almost all of the departments are under budget each year. And it’s my corporate experience that, “You got to make your numbers.” I told them that, right in the beginning, “This is your budget, this is what’s approved. So you’ve got to do it.”
We did it, through thick and thin. Recession years. So far all the numbers for the last fiscal year, for 2015. We’re in the black. We’ll be returning funds to the general fund again. So I’m pretty proud of that; that we’ve been able to run the town and be on the money.
GOOD Morning Wilton: And there’ve been some very difficult years.
BB: Within the first month or two, we had a tremendous snow storm here. We were buried. And that’s when I became aware of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). We had one phone! So we started scaling that up, getting more phones in there, and getting computers hooked up. Now we’re state of the art. Absolutely, state of the art. I’ve been down in Norwalk’s EOC. It’s not as good as ours. We can put it all up on a display, and all of the information can flow into that. We have computers at every station. Road closings, road opened. We have it all visual.
We didn’t do it crazy, we didn’t spend $50,000 to do it, we didn’t do it because we wanted to have a fancy EOC. We did it because these were needs we were going to have met there. A credit to the town. No one ever mentioned it being excessive, people realized they like the idea, that we’re prepared. And as much as I harp about being prepared, the Simsbury people found out big. Some people lost their power for ten days up there. But were a lot better because of our relationship with Eversource and our tree trimming program. So that’s made a big dent in storm damage to trees and power.
When we were in that recession, that was a tough time, to be managing a town. We were all trying to keep our budgets, we eliminated a lot of things. I used to do a ‘State of the Town’ message–I eliminated that, there was a cost. We used to do a big day here with the equipment and trucks, and invite everybody here–we eliminated that. There was a cost to that. We eliminated the glossy town report we used to send out. These were all cuts we had to make, to reduce expenditures. The concern I had, back in 2008, a lot of people were losing their jobs. A lot of people were unemployed. And Gary Richards and I were having a meeting and I said, “You know, what we need to do, is you and I, from the top down, we all decline a salary increase for one year. Because in this world of municipalities, everybody gets a raise every year.” Like clockwork. So I said to the school and the town, that would be like seven figures. So, Gary said, right away, “Totally agree.” So we started it. That started right here. And I was proud to see we got our budget in lower, because of that.
This town is different then other towns. It’s highly focused on the schools. And, you have to participate to enjoy, to enjoy and have a wonderful life here. And that participation is important. I encourage anyone new who comes here, to participate, be on a board, be a coach, do something, because it will enrich your life. This has been a good ten years. I’m really pleased, that, I don’t think, I haven’t stepped on any landmines. I’m still here. I’m still standing. [laughs]
GOOD Morning Wilton: Anything that had been on some mental checklist, of something you wanted to do, but priorities went in a different way or, was there something that you kind of thought: “Gee, I wish we had done that.”
BB: Well I’ve tried very hard to improve the village, and make it an attractive shopping destination. It’s a series of things we did, from the lampposts, to the banners to the flowers, all of that makes it an attractive destination. We’ve added curbing, We put in conduits. We put in more sidewalks. We’ve added park benches. We’ve added trees. All these things have been programs we’ve really pushed.
Walk around, see how many trees we’ve planted. A lot of this has been done public and private. People contributed, and that was exciting, because people take ownership. When people are willing to contribute a bench, it’s there forever and it adds value. I see people sitting on these benches and I get delighted, because it was needed. When you walk, you can rest somewhere. And we did it with teak benches, we didn’t put a lot of junk in.
[The new sidewalks]. We’re gonna put brick paving across the cross walks. That’s going to make an entirely different look of the town. And we did it all with state money. A little bit of our money, because you have to have a contribution. I didn’t want to hit the merchants for it. Getting that grant will make the town look better. And when the town looks better, it attracts better restaurants, better stores, people want to come down and shop. The sidewalks are good. They can walk around.
Another thing I was very pleased that we were able to do was the Veterans memorial green. That was not simple to do. It was a big project, and we had to raise the money too, we had to totally landscape the area, we had to put in lights for the monument. It gave a lot of satisfaction to see something like that.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Anything you didn’t accomplish though? Anything that you wanted, to get done, but….
BB: Well, I wanted to get a river walk through the town. It was on my list. We partially succeeded. I wanted it to go right along the river, right behind the various office buildings, right behind Portofino, behind the Village Market. It’s very complex. A lot of people own the property. There’s a lot of liability issues. I still think we can do it. If we had more time, I think we could do it. We did accomplish one thing, we’re going to run the Norwalk River Valley Trail, come up River Road, come across the bridge and we’re going to run it right by that side of the river there. Physically make the trail run there, and I’m very excited about that because it starts the River Walk.
I’ve wanted to have more cutting of some of the brush that tends to grow faster than you can cut down. We have park benches where there are beautiful vistas of the river, but it’s grown up and cut off the vistas again. So, I’m a little frustrated. I would have liked to have been able to see that cut down. I’m a fly fisherman. I have fished that strip, it’s a great little river. You have it to yourself. I put my waders on at my house, I come down, I go fishing, and go back home and have lunch. It’s wonderful. It’s a nice life here.
It’s just a great potential idea. Wilton is a town with a river flowing through it. We need to have more visible river sites and a river walk. So, I don’t want to say I failed at that, but it was one of those objectives. I told them we could do an easement down the back, the town would take over the easement and we would be responsible for the liability, just like every other building. It wouldn’t add to our insurance much at all, it’s just that we’d have that easement. [But the land owners were] always afraid–“Well, if we have people allowing them to walk on our property and they stub their toe, we could be sued.” It’s a lot of this resistance. So I said: “We could eliminate that concern, if we just do an easement.”
GOOD Morning Wilton: What words of advice do you have for to your successor?
BB: It’s very important when you come into a job, when you don’t know everything about it–no candidate knows till you get there–I would do a lot of listening. Listen to the staff. We have very good people here with lots of good experience. Things are more complicated than they originally appear on the surface. If you have some idea that you’re going to come in here and change the world within the first few weeks… you really have to listen and talk to the staff, get to know the staff and get to know some of the issues.
Second, I’d say, keep a sense of humor. Because this job can wear you down. It’s a lot of hours. But, I’ve always kept a good sense of humor and you know, humor is a great tool for breaking up tense meetings. If you can tell a great joke, it relaxes people. And to keep people informed. As soon as I got here, we started an operating committee meeting. That wasn’t being done. They’d meet once or twice a year but I wanted all the staff in one room once a month. And we’d review the key projects for the town and then we would go department by department, each one would report where they were, and we’d agree on the key priorities, and we’ve been doing that ever since I’ve been here. That way everybody knows what’s going on in the town.
My job is to always anticipate, and solve problems before they’re problems. That’s when you’re a Chief Executive, it’s not just the everyday pushing of paper. It’s trying to anticipate what’s going to be a problem for the town. What should we do now, that will be less costly. It’s always this anticipation role. That’s what I always tell the new Fire Chief and the new Police Chief. “You no longer have someone telling you what to do and you say, ‘All done Chief.’ Now you’ve got to set the tone, you’ve got to set the standard. The young troops we’re bringing in here, you’re setting the culture now. You’re the experienced guy, you have to set the culture. Honesty, integrity, how you want to run the department.”
I’m going to say “I’ll be pleased to spend as much time with you as needed. I want to be sure the town continues to run smoothly.” That’s part of my job for the last month, that I have that opportunity. Now, if someone doesn’t want to take that advice, that’s fine. But I’m going to be willing and able to do it, because there is so much stuff there. They do not have any idea of what comes across here. And I didn’t really either. Because I had been chairman of the Board of Finance, I was comfortable with the finances. I was comfortable with a lot of the boards. But the things you get hit with in this job. The issues you get hit with. It’s definitely been very interesting.