At Tuesday night’s (Jan. 4) meeting of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen (BOS), the subject of town employee staffing was a key part of the discussion. The topic was prompted in part by the departure of one key member of town leadership and a move by the first selectwoman to explore a major administrative shift in the way town operations are managed.
Replacing Wilton’s Dual CFO
As GOOD Morning Wilton reported earlier this week, Wilton is losing Chief Financial Officer Anne Kelly-Lenz, effective Jan. 14.
Kelly-Lenz, who acts as CFO for both the Town of Wilton as well as the Board of Education (BOE), is highly regarded across town departments and boards. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice called Kelly-Lenz’s resignation “a tough one” and described her as “integral in many innovations that have happened in [Wilton’s] Town government.”
“We’re all sorry to lose you,” Vanderslice told Kelly-Lenz.
Vanderslice’s subsequent comments suggested the high demands of Kelly-Lenz’s job had taken a serious toll, impacted by not only the CFO’s dual responsibilities to the Town and BOE, but also the financial stresses to the town caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We knew it was going to be initially very demanding,” Vanderslice said, referring to the process of adding Board of Ed CFO duties to Kelly-Lenz’s plate in 2017. “We then thought it would settle down and be more manageable, and then the pandemic hit. It was really time-consuming. Anne never got a single break.”
The Town had budgeted for a mid-year hire to support Kelly-Lenz, but that hire has not yet been made.
Vanderslice also revealed the scope of Kelly-Lenz’s new job for the Town of New Canaan would not include board of education duties.
Not all towns have a single CFO overseeing both the town and board of education finances, but Vanderslice is still recommending the dual responsibilities for Kelly-Lenz’s replacement.
“The consolidation under single leadership has been very beneficial for the Town,” Vanderslice stated, citing the significant financial and operational efficiencies that have been achieved during Kelly-Lenz’s tenure.
The search for a replacement will begin immediately. Vanderslice noted that Wilton has successfully hired several senior-level positions without the help of a search firm, but held out the possibility that a search firm might be needed if qualified candidates do not emerge in a timely way.
Vanderslice proposed an interview committee that would include herself, Wilton Public School Superintendent Kevin Smith and a representative of the Board of Finance.
Rationale for Creating Town Administrator Position
As officials hasten to find a suitable candidate to fill Kelly-Lenz’s sizable shoes, Vanderslice also took the opportunity to ask the BOS to consider adding another position: a town administrator.
Vanderslice presented the selectmen with a detailed rationale for adding the position, arguing that such an administrator would not only support the new CFO but also help to alleviate some of the administrative duties of the First Selectperson. (Vanderslice’s presentation document is posted online.)
Much like the need for support for the CFO, the need for additional support for the office of the First Selectperson is well-documented. It has been discussed by the BOS since 2019.
Vanderslice says her position has evolved in numerous ways since she first took office:
- The responsibilities of the First Selectperson have increased and become more complex, requiring a wide range of skills and professional expertise.
- Vanderslice holds leadership roles within the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG), the Southwestern Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (SWRMPO) and the Western Connecticut Economic Development District. Though these are not job requirements per se, Vanderslice believes the time she commits to these organizations, as well as her engagement at the state level, has had measurable benefits for Wilton.
- Vanderslice also says residents have come to expect “a 24/7 government and an equally responsive first selectperson, accessible by multiple means of communication.”
Vanderslice is at the top of an organization chart with over 150 employees, through 12 department heads or individuals as direct reports. With the addition of a town adminstrator, that number of direct reports would be greatly reduced.
Vanderslice noted that Wilton’s Charter allows for the creation of the town administrator position by authorizing the First Selectperson to delegate administrative functions:
“The First Selectman shall be the chief executive officer and chief administrative officer of the Town… To assist in the discharge of the duties and responsibilities of the First Selectman, the First Selectman, subject to the approval of the Board of Selectmen, may delegate any of the administrative powers and duties of the First Selectman to any Selectman or Selectmen or to any person responsible to the First Selectman.” [Article V, Sec. C-18]
Several Fairfield County municipalities — including New Canaan, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, Westport and Weston — have a town administrator or similar full-time professional.
Vanderslice made the case that a full-time town administrator would help provide continuity in government services, even with a change of first selectperson; ensure professional management of the town; allow the first selectperson to focus on long-term, strategic issues; and possibly even expand the pool of future candidates for the first selectperson’s office.
Vanderslice concluded her remarks with a simple message to the board.
“[A Town Administrator] is greatly needed, whoever is First Selectperson,” Vanderslice said. “This is the direction we need to go in, because this job just has gotten too big.”
There was clear consensus among the board members that a move to add a town administrator is necessary and desirable.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Second Selectman Josh Cole said, emphasizing the benefits of continuity and professionalism when it comes to the administration of Town matters, but also the realities of Vanderslice’s role.
“The world we live in today requires so much more of your attention outside of Wilton,” Cole said. “This is much more than a Wilton-centric job where you can sit in your office and just deal with Wilton issues. It’s much more regional and even state-wide now.”
“We owe it to the people of Wilton to ensure we have a vibrant, efficient and effective town government,” Cole added.
Selectman Ross Tartell agreed, emphasizing the key point that the addition of a town administrator would free up the first selectperson to focus on the most strategic issues facing the Town.
“This allows Wilton to really take a lot more charge over its future and builds a much more resilient organization to support that [future],” Tartell said.
With the unanimous support of the board members, Vanderslice will finalize a job description for the new position and schedule a special BOS meeting for the board to discuss it.
Other BOS Business
The BOS also took up the following topics at the Jan. 4 meeting:
- Board of Ed Chair Debbie Low and Superintendent Kevin Smith spoke to the BOS about a change they would like to see in the budget process for BOE operating capital expenses. At issue is the inability for one year’s BOE budget to carry over planned expenditures to the next fiscal year. The problem arose most recently during the pandemic, illustrating that when planned expenditures are interrupted, the budgeted money is returned to the town’s general fund at the end of the fiscal year. Any change in the process will require the buy-in from the Board of Finance, which Vanderslice will pursue.
- A scheduled update from Wilton’s Social Services Commission was postponed.
- Following a presentation by Wilton Fire Department Chief Jim Blanchfield regarding participating in a purchasing cooperative program that could be used to help in the upcoming replacement of a fire truck, the BOS authorized Vanderslice to join purchasing cooperatives provided there’s no cost to the Town to do so and with approval by town counsel.
- Following a strong endorsement by Vanderslice, the BOS voted unanimously to promote Frank Smeriglio to Director of Public Works, a position that will be vacated by Chris Burney, effective Feb. 1. Smeriglio will also retain his role as Town Engineer.
- The BOS also re-appointed Nicholas Lee to the Inland Wetlands Commission, which has been identified as being in need of new members for some time. Though Lee had previously termed out after several years of service on the commission, his experience on the commission was a key factor in his re-appointment.
- Vanderslice surveyed the board members for their opinions on continuing with a remote meeting format or whether there was consensus on hybrid or in-person meetings. Board members agreed with continuing to hold meetings remotely (via Zoom).
- Selectwoman Kim Healy raised the prospect of a public forum that would educate residents on the Town government, an idea she also discussed during her election campaign. Healy felt the need for such a forum was even more timely with the possibility of a new town administrator. The board agreed to investigate an outside organization that might host such an event.
- Selectman Bas Nabulsi raised the subject of a potential “proactive role” the Town could consider regarding the School Sisters of Notre Dame property on Belden Hill Rd. The BOS formed a sub-committee, with Nabulsi and Cole as members, to obtain more information about the property and begin to explore what the Town’s interest might be.
- Nabulsi also suggested the BOS consider the transfer station and “opportunities for [it] to better serve the community” as a future agenda item.