Following criticism from residents, a complaint filed with the Freedom of Information Commission, a resolution passed by the Wilton Republican Town Committee and a disagreement at the last Board of Selectmen‘s meeting (on Sept. 8), first selectman Bill Brennan returned to the topic of the search for a new town CFO at last night’s BoS meeting (Sept. 21). He said he was doing so to resolve the matter, and to clear up misunderstandings.

He also added that he wanted to take a vote of the BoS members in order to give the search firm more direction and better focus–either on finding an interim CFO or a permanent one. He also said the vote would make it official that it was the BoS, as the sole entity with authority to do so, that would give the search for a new CFO its direction.

But before the vote could take place, the selectmen had to debate the topic for a while.

Brennan’s Statement

Brennan started by reading from a prepared statement which he said he was doing in order “to clarify some misunderstandings that exist.”

“The search team from day one has been trying to act responsibly for the benefit of the community and the continuity of the town government. At a Sept. 8 BoS meeting, this matter was discussed and NESC was instructed to search for qualified candidates who would be interested in an interim CFO assignment as well as a permanent assignment.

“There is no goal, and there never has been a goal to hire a CFO as soon as possible. I want to repeat that:  There is no goal, and there never has been a goal to hire a CFO as soon as possible. The only objective is to develop a comprehensive list of qualified candidates consistent with the position specs.”

Brennan said that NESC has told him that developing that list will take at least until the end of October.

“By this time, the Nov. 3 election will have been completed, and we will have a first selectman-elect as well as a BoS-elect. As I indicated at the Sept. 8 meeting, the first selectman-elect will be invited to join the search team to review the prospective candidate list and eventually interview prospective candidates, which would include candidates interested in an interim assignment, as well as candidates who were interested in only a permanent position.

“There will not be any decision to hire anyone without the first selectman-elect’s participation. No one will be secretly hired, and given the process and time elements involved, I can assure you that the newly-elected board of selectmen will eventually exercise the final vote of approval of an interim CFO  or a permanent CFO, whichever the case may be.”

Hearing from the Search Firm

Brennan called on Marv Berenblum, of NESC–the search team retained by the town to help find a replacement for Sandy Dennies as CFO–to speak to the selectmen. He explained that Berenblum had overseen previous searches for the town, including the last search for a CFO and the most-recent search for the town’s new director of facilities and energy management.

Berenblum said that he was confident that NESC would compile a long list of potential candidates by the end of October–“perhaps a dozen or so candidates to review”–but that the sourcing of potential candidates doesn’t stop until the position is filled.

He added that the search is focused on interim candidates, permanent candidates, and a third group–interim candidates who might be interested in becoming a permanent candidate for the position. “There will be a full spectrum of people that will emerge,” although he said he believed that the likely candidate pool will be larger for people more interested in a permanent spot than those interested in an interim job. He added that the priority is on finding an interim candidate, “but we’re keeping our eyes open.”

He explained that because there “is a much more limited population” for the interim spot, it would be more difficult to find an interim candidate. “It will perhaps require more effort than in some respects the permanent role.”

BoS member Dick Dubow commented that he thought finding a permanent replacement should be the priority for the sake of continuity. “That’s important, and–to be blunt–it’s more likely than not that the candidate will be serving here longer than the composition of this current board and perhaps longer than the term or successive terms of any candidate elected first selectman. I believe the priority should be on finding a permanent replacement. Should that become more difficult than anticipated, at that point turn to a plan B.”

Berenblum added that the landscape is a competitive one, and there are other municipalities currently conducting similar searches for the same position. “We think this is an attractive opportunity,” he said.

He estimated that the earliest point the search would conclude and a candidate would be in place would be, “if we’re lucky, the end of the year.” That would be once interview, references, negotiations, etc. were completed.

“Our goal is to find the best possible person for the role,” Berenblum added.

NESC has posted the job opening, but Berenblum said that they would also actively contact potential candidates they identify from their database. “We’ve probably made about 25-30 contacts with such people.”

Trying to Find Consensus

As was evident at the meeting on Sept. 8, the selectmen did not agree on whether NESC should focus on finding an interim replacement or a permanent one.

At the last meeting two weeks ago, selectman Michael Kaelin seemed to be most at odds with the pace the search seemed to be taking, and balked at the idea that anyone other than the next first selectman and the next board of selectmen oversee the hiring of a permanent new CFO.

He said that Berenblum and Brennan’s comments last night did clarify much more what NESC would be doing, but he still felt that the priority needed to be on finding an interim CFO, and that it would be best to leave finding a permanent CFO to the next BoS after the election.

“Based upon what you just said, right now–it will probably run through the end of our terms of the current board–you’re just sourcing candidates, and you’re just trying to get as many candidates as you possible can, whether it’s an interim or permanent. I think what we’re all agreed on, is that whoever we hire, that’s going to be done by the next board of selectmen and first selectman, certainly with input from the next board of selectmen and next first selectman.

“When I was talking interim in an earlier meeting, what I meant by interim was, there is going to be a gap between the current CFO’s last day at the end of our term on Dec. 1 and when we hire this new CFO. So I was trying to focus on an interim now to cover that gap. I still advocate if we can find an interim now to cover that gap, let’s do it. But if we can’t, let’s make do, until the next board’s in place and the next first selectman is in place, and you can follow through on the process,” he said.

Kaelin added:  “I don’t think the priority can be anything other than an interim. We’re not in a position to set the criteria and pick the permanent right now.”

Deborah McFadden acknowledged she was trying to be conscious of her role as a current member of the BoS and keep separate her feelings as a candidate for first selectman. Noting that it would be the next board making the decision on the next CFO, she added, “I don’t want to close down any doors of opportunities. I think we ought to continue the search for both. It could take us a while to find a permanent,in which case, as Mike suggested we could have a brief interim. But, if we were able to find the right candidate, I don’t think we want to miss that opportunity.”

She also suggested that even if the job description were to be changed by the new first selectman and new board, a new CFO could help in the process of evolving and changing the role. “I don’t think to have an interim and look at it and then bring somebody else on board; I see that you have the possibility of having a CFO as part of the process of helping evolve that position.”

Brennan said his biggest concern was continuity. “We had less than four months from the day we learned that Sandy was not going to be with us. We have an obligation to find and fill this position. That doesn’t mean we want to go helter-skelter; we want to find a qualified person. We have a potential gap at the end of December. We added ‘interim’ to that position. My concern here  is that we may need to have an interim; my priority is on interim, but we don’t want to give up on identifying some people who might make a good permanent CFO. The focus has got to be on interim, that’s where I’m most concerned. I’m concerned as much for the continuity of government as for the next administration.”

He concluded that he felt “strongly” that focusing on finding an interim candidate should be the priority, but “keep a sharp eye out on anybody who might be a permanent candidate.”

Dubow continued to defend his take that NESC look for a permanent CFO.

Kaelin spoke directly to Dubow: “It is impossible to, even if you have five of the greatest candidates, it’s impossible for us to make that decision, until the new board is in place. The most important criteria for the CFO is that they have the trust of the new CEO–the new first selectman of the town. It’s a two-way street; I cannot imagine anyone be willing to take a job without knowing who the first selectman is going to be and whether they can work with that person.”

Brennan added, “And the new board.”

Kaelin continued, “By necessity, there’s going to be a gap. The interim will cover that gap.”

Dubow countered, “I have a different position; that position represents the interests of the town. The long term interests of the voters, the tax payers, the residents, the citizens of Wilton. The fact that they should have a good working relationship with the first selectman, that’s an added benefit. I want someone that’s independent, strength of character, to challenge the first selectman if appropriate. Their accountability is to the taxpayer, not the first selectman. It’s a different beast than the corporate environment. In my mind, that person would be here long beyond the first selectman and certainly beyond the next board.”

Dubow’s Statement about RTC Resolution

Dubow read a statement he’d prepared regarding the resolution passed by the RTC last week. That resolution called for an interim CFO, and suggested that if that’s not what the BoS chose to search for, the RTC would possibly consider legal or other recourse.

“I’m very much troubled by what I think is offending and that is that the Wilton RTC has chosen to insert itself into the town’s search for a CFO, thereby in my mind seriously tainting the process by making the search subject to partisan interests. The position of Chief Financial Officer of the town should independently serve the interests of the entire town–all of Wilton’s citizens and taxpayers, not just one political party or one public official. Beyond the skills and experience to do the job, one would want to attract candidates with the independence, integrity and strength of character to challenge those in public office when appropriate, and to stand up to public or private pressure regardless of who occupies the first selectman’s office or which political party represents the majority in town or on this board. To the extent that we can identify a person to fill the position on a permanent basis in a timely fashion, clearly that is what we should be doing. That should be our first priority. To the extent we are unable to meet that objective, we can then turn to plan B to name an interim CFO until a permanent candidate can be found.

“In neither case do we want a CFO merely to do the bidding of one party or reflect the predetermined agenda of a newly elected first selectman, whoever that turns out to be. Let’s keep the search out of partisan politics, it’s too important a job. Therefore we should do it right. Since our new CFO is likely to be here beyond the term of our first selectman, whoever that is, and certainly beyond the composition of the next board of selectmen, let’s continue to move forward with our first priority, to independently and as free of partisanship and intervention, fill the CFO position in a permanent basis and in a timely manner. Down the road we can always turn to plan B if necessary.”

Kaelin replied by separating himself from the RTC position, even though they both favor the appointment of an interim CFO. He said his reasons were not political but reflected the fact the body responsible for hiring the CFO–the board of selectmen–would be changing composition, in just a few weeks, and he felt the responsibility should fall to the next BoS, and not the current one.

The Vote

Kaelin made a motion to focus on finding an interim CFO while also not excluding other candidates in order to get the best and largest pool of candidates for potential interviews. It passed, 3-to-1, with McFadden abstaining and Dubow voting against.