BOS Holds Unusual Public Discussion of Commission Appointments Typically Kept Private in Executive Session

One of the primary responsibilities of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen is to appoint residents to serve as members of the town’s many boards and commissions. Procedurally, the BOS typically meets in executive session to interview candidates, and then the board returns at a later point to a meeting that’s open to the public in order to vote on who to appoint.

But at a special meeting last night (Wednesday, Sept. 16), the BOS took the unusual step of having a public discussion about three potential candidates to fill an opening on the Wilton Fire Commission. While the three candidates were not named, the Board members debated about whether it would be appropriate to appoint them–and used details about each applicant’s situation that hinted a who each candidate might be.

It was exactly the kind of situation the Board typically tries to avoid.

“Sometimes it’s competitive and not everybody who applies can be appointed. When you’re applying, you’re really putting yourself out there publicly, and you don’t want to put too much spotlight on the person because one, you want to be respectful of the person, and two, you don’t want to discourage people from coming forward, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton after the meeting ended. “We try to do it as publicly, but also as privately, as possible.”

Vanderslice explained why the discussion was being held in a public open meeting. On Sept. 8, the BOS held an executive session during which the members discussed three potential candidates for the Fire Commission opening and whether they should be considered. She said the BOS had reached a consensus but following the meeting Selectman Ross Tartell had requested she seek additional input from the town’s legal counsel, Ira Bloom.

“I put it on the [Sept. 16] agenda because I wasn’t really clear what kind of legal advice Ross was looking for, and you don’t do that back and forth through email,” she explained, adding, “You can’t really have a conversation about whether or not you need a legal opinion in executive session because you’re not talking about the candidate. That request would be done in a public meeting.”

Additionally, Vanderslice moved the discussion to a public meeting because Tartell wanted Bloom’s opinion disseminated to the public.

Question of “Appropriate”

The heart of the issue was whether it would be appropriate to consider the three potential candidates for an open Fire Commissioner spot, due to concerns about possible conflict of interest.

Vanderslice explained that the concern about conflict of interest for each of the three candidates stemmed from the fact that the Fire Commission has the authority to hire, discipline and fire members of the fire department. The question regarding each candidate was whether his or her particular situation would complicate that responsibility.

Two of the candidates had already formally been put forward for consideration (one himself by petition, the other applied through the Democratic Town Committee; the third person had inquired about the position.

Adding another layer of subtle friction, there was a disconnect between Vanderslice and Selectwoman Deb McFadden over whether or not the Board had actually had a consensus during the executive session, something Vanderslice seemed surprised by.

Vanderslice also wanted to make something clear from the start:  that “anybody who is a registered [Wilton] voter is eligible [to volunteer] for anything”–but whether they should be appointed is at the “full discretion” of the Board of Selectmen.

Former Fire Department Employee

The first candidate who had petitioned directly to the BOS is a former employee of Wilton’s Fire Department. It was a concern for Vanderslice.

Vanderslice told GMW, “That’s really what this comes down to is the proper management of a department.” She agreed that, hypothetically, if a former employee became a fire commissioner, they could potentially be making decisions about former colleagues.

Tartell had suggested that the individual could always recuse themselves from any personnel discussions. “That is certainly within the ethical guidelines and could be a way to handle perceived or actual conflict of interest,” he told the BOS.

But the choice to recuse would be up to the commissioner–the BOS couldn’t make them promise to do so as a condition of appointment. “The commissioner would have to make the decision. There’s no guarantee they are going to recuse themselves,” Vanderslice said.

Still, Tartell and McFadden said that they would both like to interview the candidate; Tartell said that while “that doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns–I [just] don’t know that it’s a knockout factor.” McFadden agreed that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a former employee to be on the commission, but wanted to move forward with an interview nonetheless. Selectwoman Lori Bufano and Selectman Joshua Cole both said they did not want to interview the individual.

With the two-versus-two disagreement, Vanderslice broke the tie and agreed to invite the candidate for an interview. “If the person wants to come forward and still do the interview based on all that, we’ll interview,” she told GMW.

Current Paramedic

The second candidate, who had been nominated by Wilton Democratic Town Committee, currently works as a paramedic in Wilton, as as a result often works closely with the other emergency services, including the fire department. Vanderslice said this situation was “really straightforward.”

“The question is, do we want to consider a candidate for the Fire Commission who has the authority to fire, discipline and terminate fire employees if they are also someone who finds themselves in situations where they are under the command of those individuals?” Vanderslice asked, and later added, “That seems like poor management.”

McFadden pointed out that technically, paramedics in Wilton are employed by Norwalk Hospital and work in Wilton through a contract between the hospital and Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, “which is not a town entity but a separate legal entity…that works in conjunction with the town.”

Vanderslice replied by referring to the state statutes, which puts fire personnel in command over paramedics at incident scenes.

She also spelled out the responsibilities of the Fire Commission beyond hiring, firing and discipline:  “‘…to make all regulations necessary for the fire department; penalties for violations, including suspension or removal from office of any officers or members of the fire department; regulate the duties of the officers and the members of the fire department, in respect to fire matters within the town; and appoint, promote and remove the officers and member of the fire department pursuant to such regulations.’ So it’s pretty much the job, that’s the job.”

Tartell, a former fire commissioner, agreed that there would be too much conflict of interest. “That is such a large part of the job that a person would have to recuse themselves from such a significant portion of the job that they wouldn’t be able to carry out the duties.”

All five agreed not to move forward on interviewing the candidate who works as a paramedic for the Fire Commission.

Member of CERT

The third person the BOS discussed was someone who currently volunteers as a member of CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and had expressed an interested in being considered for the Fire Commmission opening.

Vanderslice pointed out that when CERT is mobilized to respond to an incident scene in Wilton, it is under the direct command of the Emergency Management Director–who, until recently, has historically has been the Chief or Deputy Chief of the Fire Department. Police Chief John Lynch currently holds the position, but Vanderslice said it may revert back to the Fire Department.

“The expectation is at some point [Deputy Fire Chief] Jim Blanchfield will become involved … as the Director of Emergency Management. So the question was, if somebody was in CERT, or remained in CERT, they’re under the direct command–again, it’s kind of the same thing, except they’re not paid, they’re doing it as a volunteer–they would be under the command of the fire chief or possibly the deputy fire chief. And we have the exact same situation as the paramedic,” she said, referring to the prior situation.

McFadden suggested that as a volunteer with CERT, perhaps the candidate would consider changing the way they volunteer, in order to remove the conflict of interest.

“If somebody is willing to serve on one of the public safety commissions, then I think it would be appropriate to ask them if they’re currently a member of CERT, a condition of them going onto a public safety commission would be that they resigned from CERT so that they could eliminate it. It’s a very different situation than employment because you don’t want to ask somebody to resign from their paying job. But I think it would be appropriate to say, ‘If we consider you for this position, would you step down from CERT?’ And often people would be willing to do that. They’re just changing how they volunteer in the community,” McFadden said.

Vanderslice said that question would be relayed “when the application comes in:  ‘If you want to be considered, are you going to step down if you get this?”