Changing Times in Town Government: Wilton’s Volunteer Commissions Struggle to Find Purpose

Some Town officials and commissioners say there is "nothing to do" on previously busy commissions such as Social Services or Energy and Utilities. Are they outmoded or simply in need of revamping?

From left: Economic Development Commission Chair Prasad Iyer, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, and Social Services Commission Chair Peg Koellmer

Does Wilton need a Social Services Commission? What is the mission for the Economic Development Commission? Is the Energy and Utilities Commission tasked with anything at the moment?

Those types of questions are being raised by some Town officials and even by some members of those very commissions.

Some Background

The long list of Wilton’s boards and commissions shows just how heavily the Town relies on residents to help the Town function. Several are elected positions, such as the Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Finance, but the majority are unelected, volunteer roles.

They help the Town manage everything from trees and deer to housing, conservation, economic development, and ethics, just to name a few.

At the moment, the Town is actively seeking candidates for six different boards and commissions. Others now operate below full capacity on a routine basis.

Anecdotally, it appears that over time, it has become more challenging to attract qualified candidates and to retain them for their full terms.

Perhaps related, the work of the boards and commissions has come under increasing scrutiny, as the Town has strongly enforced the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements under the state law that governs all members’ communications and actions.

Highlighting the issue in a Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting last June, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said, “I took office following a period when the Town had experienced a significant increase in FOIA violation claims and the Town spent significant resources [in time and attorneys’ fees] addressing those claims. I made FOIA compliance a priority. A number of initiatives were implemented in an attempt to achieve 100% compliance with the Freedom of Information Act by town board and commission members.”

FOIA rules can initially appear daunting — they mandate how and when members of a commission or board can (or can’t) communicate with one another, how meetings are noticed publicly, and more. As noted in the published Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission, members must sign an agreement to abide by FOIA rules, as well as a code of ethics. FOIA training is provided for volunteers.

Party politics is part of that picture, too. Residents who wish to serve must apply through the Republican Town Committee (RTC) or Democratic Town Committee (DTC), or by petition with 25 signatures, verified with the Registrar of Voters.

The April 19 BOS meeting recently brought the struggles of some Wilton boards and commissions into view.

Social Services

At the April 19 BOS meeting, Social Services Commission Chair Peg Koellmer told the selectmen that, at a minimum, the role of her Commission needs to be reexamined.

She began by introducing some recommendations for changes to the Commission’s current charge, primarily to emphasize the commission’s role as “advisory” in nature.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice noted that the charge had not been amended in many years. (Koellmer confirmed it was 2014 when, in a previous term as the Commission chair, she had proposed changes to the BOS. Some, but not all, of those recommendations had been accepted by the BOS at that time.)

But in the April 19 BOS meeting, Koellmer’s comments went further, revealing that she felt the Commission simply did not have meaningful activities to do.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was so much to do there,” Koellmer said. “We had to re-do the Senior Center and all of the spaces. We moved from a really small food bank…. to the lower level with a private entrance. It went from some canned goods on some old classroom shelves to a beautiful food bank that runs well.”

“We were really busy. There was so much to get done,” Koellmer said, in contrast to today, when Wilton has a professionally-staffed Social Services Department.

She also mentioned that the nine-person Commission has dwindled to just two members.

“We haven’t had our meetings in the last couple of months. There’s not enough to do,” Koellmer told the selectmen. “That’s an issue with keeping members. People come on many times with a social services background and then they’re disappointed when they can’t get into the nitty-gritty of the functioning of the department.”

As recently as 2020, due to some differences in how the Commission’s charge was interpreted, some conflict developed between the Commission and the Social Services Department over the Commission’s scrutiny of Department operations and whether it could or should provide any “oversight” of Department actions.

“That’s not our position,” Koellmer stated, emphasizing the Commission’s purely advisory role.

Koellmer also pointed to what she called “an increasing trend” with “a number of towns that don’t have this [type of] commission anymore.” She did not cite specific examples.

“I’m not really sure what we’re supposed to be doing at this point,” Koellmer said. “I don’t know what to do with it, honestly. I thought the first step was to try to modernize the charge.”

“I have the same question,” Vanderslice said. “When this commission was originally formed, we didn’t have a full-time [professional director] employee… there were a lot of things done by volunteers because we didn’t have paid employees to do them.”

She also cited the creation of Wilton’s Community Assistance Fund and Wilton Rocks for Food (which largely funds Wilton’s food pantry) that did not exist to support the Department in the early days of the Commission.

Selectman Ross Tartell pushed back strongly on the prospect of the Commission being minimized or disbanded due to a temporary lack of activity.

“Help me understand,” Tartell asked Koellmer. “Are you saying the world isn’t going to change and we’re set?”

“I’m not saying there’s no future for this,” Koellmer replied. “But if we’re going to stay as a Commission, we need to redefine ourselves, and I’m not sure what that definition is.”

Tartell believes the need for the Commission remains critical.

“Social Services deals in the complexity and emotionality of the people of this town,” Tartell said. “Having a commission that connects to those people is an important communication vehicle for the residents of the town. That’s important.”

“The commission becomes a thermometer on what’s going on in the town. It’s one data point, but I think it’s a really important data point,” Tartell added.

Tartell also pushed back on Keollmer’s comment about “sketchy” attendance by commissioners.

“That’s a recruiting issue,” he said. “You haven’t had any people on the committee for months.”

Indeed, the Social Services Commission, charged with nine members, had dwindled down to five members in late 2020, and currently has just two.

When pressed by Tartell, Koellmer conceded that a redefined commission could continue its interaction with local organizations such as the YMCA, Trackside and other non-profits as a way to keep tabs on community needs.

But Koellmer quickly added that those organizations are not “terribly open” to frequent calls for information from the Commission.

“It’s a big ask,” she said.

“They’re not even Town organizations, so they don’t have an obligation to do that,” Vanderslice added.

Selectwoman Kim Healy also pressed for clarity on Koellmer’s comments.

“Is it your opinion that this commission should be disbanded? Is that what I’m hearing?” Healy asked.

Koellmer stopped short of calling for that, but reiterated that was a trend she saw in other towns and that the need for such a commission in Wilton had changed over the years.

“I don’t know what value we’re bringing,” Koellmer said. “It’s difficult to come up with things that we can do of value for the Department.”

Not Just Social Services 

“You’re not the only commission [with these issues],” Vanderslice told Koellmer. “We have other commissions where people come on and leave fairly quickly because they have nothing to do.”

“Some [commissions] are regulatory. They must exist and they have a true function,” Vanderslice said. “Others are set up by ordinance. And then there are others, like this one, that were set up at one time by the Board of Selectmen.”

She cited the Energy and Utilities Commission (EUC) as another key example. The EUC was originally set up with nine members, but currently has three.

“People keep leaving because there’s nothing to do,” Vanderslice said.

According to the Town website, “The mission of the Wilton Energy and Utilities Commission is to promote resource conservation, energy efficiency, explore means to reduce the carbon footprint of the community through the use of renewable energy and other initiatives in public buildings, homes, and local businesses and make recommendations to improve utilities services in the Town of Wilton… It also provides education to the community on energy and utility-related topics.”

Vanderslice noted that the role of the EUC has been eclipsed to a large degree by the success of the Wilton Go Green initiative, which began in 2009 as a sub-committee of the EUC. It later spun off from the Commission as a thriving non-profit organization with goals “to develop a wide range of sustainable initiatives in cooperation with the Town and other area nonprofits.”

That’s a theme echoed in other organizations that, like Wilton Go Green, work cooperatively with the town outside of the more rigorous rules of municipal governance — for instance, the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, the Kiwanis Club, Wilton Rotary, and Trackside Teen Center — often making it easier to introduce programs or pivot. It’s something that residents with less experience in the regulations and laws governing municipal operations sometimes find difficult to navigate when they volunteer on a commission.

Economic Development Commission

Vanderslice also revealed that the chair of the Economic Development Commission, Prasad Iyer, had recently contacted her with a request to discuss “the future role of the Commission.”

Vanderslice said the EDC was plagued with high turnover and meeting absenteeism.

At its April 13 meeting, the EDC formed a sub-committee with the purpose “to better determine the mission and vision” of the EDC, starting with a discussion with Vanderslice. Iyer and EDC member Jake Lubel are on that sub-committee.

Lubel outlined a few of the limitations the EDC faces.

“We don’t have a budget, we don’t have authority, and we’re not in a position to have conversations with businesses [the Town] is trying to recruit,” Lubel stated.

The April 13 EDC meeting also highlighted the uncertainty the Commission feels with respect to its role in the Wilton Center Master Planning process.

EDC meeting (via Zoom), April 13, 2022

The commissioners had a lengthy discussion about their observations of the Master Planning process thus far. They posed wide-ranging questions such as whether the EDC might gain access to useful data collected by the consultants, whether the consultants would really be “thinking outside the box,” and whether the meeting schedule for public input was sufficient, to name a few.

Selectman Ross Tartell, who serves as the BOS liaison to the EDC, seemed to think those were not the right questions for the EDC to be asking. He attempted to re-frame the discussion.

“What role does the EDC want to play in that [Master Planning process]? How do you want to shape it? What part can you play?” Tartell questioned the commissioners. “What do you want to do?”

As the discussion went on, Tartell offered more concrete guidance.

“You have had critical themes that you are very consistent about — all sorts of things you have talked consistently about — to build a stronger commercial base in our town and to market our town,” Tartell said, referring to the need to drive customer traffic to merchants, improve signage, and other needs.

“Those are messages I think you take to the Master Planning team,” Tartell advised. “As a [commission], you have the capacity to meet with them and talk about your views.”

“I don’t think you can use them as a data collection tool,” Tartell cautioned, “But you have a point of view that they should hear about because that’s part of your job.”

At that point, Iyer called the discussion “helpful” and took Tartell’s cue.

“Perhaps the best way for EDC to participate would be [to] create a checklist of key things that are very important for us… the key things [for the Master Plan] to hit from an economic development perspective,” Iyer said.

Iyer also suggested asking for “regular checkpoints” as the Master Planning process unfolds, “to ensure those items are considered or acted upon.”

Commissioners agreed to come to the next EDC meeting prepared with their thoughts and priorities for the checklist, which could then be finalized and forwarded to the Master Planning consultants while still timely.

Have a Point of View or Wish to Serve?

Do you believe there’s a role for resident-led commissions to support and advise Town departments? Think they’re no longer serving a critical purpose, or just in need of revamping? Let the BOS know your thoughts as they prepare to discuss the topic at an upcoming BOS meeting. Residents can also offer public comment at a BOS meeting. Look for BOS meeting agendas, which contain a Zoom link for attending meetings, on the Town website.

To volunteer for a commission, check the “Residents>Volunteer” tab on the Town website for a listing of open positions and instructions on how to apply.