BREAKING NEWS–Monday, July 30, 2018: After interviewing two candidates publicly during a special meeting this evening, the four current members of Wilton’s Board of Selectmen have chosen Josh Cole to fill a vacant spot on their five-person board.
The vote was 3-1, with Deb McFadden as the one selectwoman who voted against Cole.
The BOS had a tight deadline to choose, as state statute set a 30-day deadline for them to make the appointment. Tonight was the 30th day for them to decide.
Both Cole and fellow candidate Ceci Maher had been nominated by their respective political town committees. They sat next to one another in front of the BOS members–first selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, second selectman Dave Clune, Lori Bufano and Deb McFadden–and took turns answering rapid fire questions about their experiences, their skills, their beliefs and their accomplishments.
As Vanderslice noted before taking the Board into executive session to debate the decision, it was the first time the board had made a choice in such a way, and she compared it to running for election publicly–just in one night.
We’ll update the story with details from the interview.
UPDATE: As promised, more details from the meeting and the interviews.
Vanderslice took the lead with questions for the candidates. She asked them what they thought were the top one or two issues facing the town.
Maher said that economic development and growing the tax base were “huge issues in front of the town.” She said as part of that would be looking at “…bringing in younger families, attracting businesses, increasing the type of housing stock for all generations, keeping seniors in town and engaged.” She pointed out that seniors make up 17% of Wilton’s population and keeping them in Wilton and engaged in the town is important. She pointed to the proposed Wilton Heights development as something that she liked, as it would help bring in those younger families. The other issue she said Wilton faces is “reduced funding from the state.”
Cole said that during his bid for BOS last year he talked to residents and heard from them that taxes and development are important issues. That looking at how to grow grand list, while simultaneously keeping in mind that preserving historic properties and the quality of life is a big reason that people move here. Growing the tax base is needed to keep property taxes flat and hopefully go down. He supported encouraging responsible development, in particular commercial properties, and working with developers to find new locations for housing and retail, while also preserving quality of the nature of our town at the same time.
Vanderslice asked what unique skills each candidate would bring to the BOS:
Cole: As a commercial real estate attorney, the ability to work with people with varying stakes on a particular project. “One thing I take pride in is I take conflicting needs and try to find common ground. My real estate background will be particularly helpful as the board is looking at what to do with all the town properties. My background is going to lend a great deal to that discussion. Knowing what developers are looking for as well as my legal training, with how we can protect the town on certain legal transactions.”
Maher: She pointed to 30 years of living in Wilton, raising her children here, and a long history here with a husband who grew up in town. Maher also noted her prior experience in the business world as well as her 20-year experience as the executive director of the non-profit organization, Person to Person. “I have grown P2P from $5 million to $14 million; and serving from two towns to seven towns, I’m fully versed in what happens in other towns, that knowledge of how other towns are dealing with the same issues facing Wilton.”
Vanderslice asked both candidates whether, as nominees of their respective political parties, would it impact their actions on the board, and whether they intended to caucus with other members of their party outside of BOS meeting times? (FOIA laws require that BOS business be done in public, with few exception, including conversations between members of the same political parties. Vanderslice later clarified that she “is not a fan of caucusing.”)
Maher said she’s learned the importance of working collaboratively, both while negotiating business in Asia, as well as in the non-profit sector. “That is a hallmark of the work and what I’d expect to bring. I’ve been nominated by the Democratic party but I will take all views into consideration and not vote just on party lines, I believe doing what’s best for the town.” She added she was too much of a political “neophyte” so answering a question about caucusing would be difficult to handle..
Saying, “…all politics is local,” Cole said, “We all care about the same issues–taxes and development, and not the national issues that divide everyone.” He said he’d be willing to caucus with other Republicans to flesh out ideas and positions that could be brought up with the whole board. “I take pride in professional life hearing all sides, speaking with everyone on both sides of every argument and trying to come to common ground. At end of day it’s important to come together and find common ground,” but that he’d still be willing to caucus.
Asked by McFadden why they want to serve the town, they replied as follows:
Maher: “I’ve been in town long time, I’ve seen positive growth in the last several years, a lot more that can be done. I have an understanding of the needs of seniors–I brought my mom to live at Wilton Commons, so I want to help keep seniors in independent living situations. I have run Minks to Sinks, and I’ve done a lot of community-based volunteering on the ABC [A Better Chance of Wilton] board. I want to take what I’ve learned, and what I hear from people living in town, and be a voice for other people living in town.”
Cole: He said since moving to Wilton in 2007 he wanted to get involved right away, because it was important to give back to the community. As the current chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals, and being very involved with the Republican Town Committee, as well as being involved in Bridgeport through his church, he has enjoyed “outreach in the community and giving back and trying to help.” He also says he brings to the board the perspective of someone with young children. “There isn’t representation on the board of people with young families… I have a good sense of why people came, what families are looking for, the perspective of a young family and how they look at issues.” He also understands issues important to seniors, as his wife’s aunt lives at Wilton Commons too. “I want to continue to be involved and I want to give back as it’s important to be involved in the community.”
McFadden asked what particular strengths they’d bring to the BOS.
Cole pointed to his experience doing contract negotiations and financial expertise.
Maher said her work in public-private partnerships as well as her knowledge of social-service issues, especially for people “who have a tough time living in Fairfield County.” She also noted having an undergraduate degree in marketing and communication, which she would apply to the work being done on town videos, website, outreach, etc.
McFadden asked what professional accomplishments relevant to the BOS each has.
Cole said that he’s worked on many “significant transactions” but that they’re not the type of things that bring awards or public recognition or awards.
Maher said that, “To have weathered the storm as a chief executive of a nonprofit during the financial recession,” was laudable. She said that as an employer, she understands financial need, and that she has to negotiate, and make sure employees are covered for healthcare, wages, benefits, etc. “Those skill sets are valuable to a town going through the same issues. I’m very fiscally aware, I write and build budgets, it’s part of the work I’ve been doing for 18 years.”
McFadden asked about their views on economic development.
Maher: “We need it! It’s absolutely essential. Some of the ideas for Rt. 7–on the corner of Rt. 7 and Sharp Hill is another potential development, the new medical one, those are things we need. Bring workers, and people who live in the town and access services.” She said that keeping Wilton’s housing salable and attracting people to engage in town is very important.
Cole said that as ZBA chair he has been participating in the Plan of Conservation and Development process, and he’s learned much from the experience, including how Rt. 7 has spaces that could be further developed, and how it’s important to grow the grand list without expanding services, “…to maximize the bang for our buck.” He said Wilton should be “re-looking at the center of town for more residential development. With declining retail and empty storefronts, we need to look at it more, encourage building owners about certain opportunities–you can look at Wilton Center as places you can put retail with housing above, to keep people in town center. If we can re-vision Wilton Center not just as a stop on Rte. 7 but as an enclave with housing and restaurants to keep people there and spending money…” like the concerts in Merwin Meadows, do.
Bufano asked about their views on regionalization of town services.
Maher said that it’s “not something which is easily accepted in Fairfield County.” While it’s something that exists in the non-profit world where she works, it has to be done on a very cautious basis in municipal government, to protect the nature of the town. “We don’t want to throw away the value we have in the town.”
Cole said, “It’s certainly something we need to look at with neighboring towns that have similar small smaller commercial tax bases, especially in areas of police, fire and ambulance services. “It makes sense to collaborate and see where there are areas where we can share services. As long as it’s something that doesn’t sacrifice safety.”
Bufano asked about their thoughts on the number of building projects going on in town.
Cole said continuing to let developers know “we’re open for business,” is important and listening to new development ideas is something he supports. “It’s what I do at work. It doesn’t hurt to listen. If you’re not open to hearing, you’re potentially missing an opportunity. If they want to come here, we need to speak to them,” as long as you can continue to preserve the quality of life that people love about living here.
Maher said looking at projects on a case by case basis is good, something like Amazon looking to locate a new distribution hub would probably not be good for Wilton, but you “always have to be looking what is the benefit to the town, so that everyone walks away with a win-win.”
Clune asked what projects they would bring forward if appointed.
Maher said she was a “firm believer in Wilton Heights” and similar projects. “I’ve been working in Darien, and I’ve seen what they’ve done to the downtown, transforming it from a ghost town to now bustling and engaged with housing in the center and it will only increase with a couple of their projects. Wilton Heights replicates that exact same thing.”
Cole said he’d be interested in working on the Schenck’s Island project. “It’s important to have amenities in town center to drive foot traffic, that will generate more restaurants and retail.”
Clune asked that the seat they’re seeking runs through Dec. 2019; assuming all goes well, would they run again?
Cole said, “I would. I committed to run a year ago, I’m eager to serve and get involved, lend my background, I would certainly be interested to continue.”
Maher said she would as well. “I’m ready, I’m qualified. I know it’s a learning curve. It’s a climb, not something I’m going to be immediately brilliant at in the first couple of months, so yes, I’d be willing to run again.”
Clune flipped the last question, asking if they weren’t selected, would they run in the future?
Maher said, “I think so, yes.”
Cole’s answer: “Never say no.”
Clune asked what is one of the most misunderstood issues for an organization they work with?
Cole said he has really enjoyed serving on the Zoning Board of Appeals, working with residents who may not understand the do’s and don’ts of zoning requirements. “It’s been great for me, working with people who don’t understand the process and trying to find a way to help them through a particular process.”
Maher sits on the Board of Trustees for the Wilton Library. “The hardest thing, people do not understand it’s not fully supported by the town. They have to raise a third of their budget every year. It’s a jewel for the town, it’s been a joy to be on the board. They’ve done a good job, they’ve created as a community center, but now what they need to do and they’re working very hard, is communicating that they do not provide services as a fully funded organization. Them working hard to… to get word out about what they do. I give them a lot of credit, they’re aware, they’re focused in their messaging, they’re a tremendous board to sit on.”
Clune, the one unaffiliated member of the BOS, asked each candidate what weight he should give to their party affiliation?
Maher said, “I don’t think you should give any weight. Look at what does each of us bring to the table, what is our commitment, availability, experience and skills. That will serve the town better than political affiliation.”
Cole said a label “doesn’t do anything” for the town. “I’m husband, father, brother, son, neighbor, those are the things I look at. We’re all neighbors and concerned about the same things. Who can offer the most to the board, and whether it’s someone who can bring fresh ideas, new experiences, life, background, is more important, rather than party label.”