Monday, Nov. 2⎯In less than 24 hours, Wilton residents will turn out to the polls and be faced with a choice in the race for first selectman. To help readers make (or finalize) a choice, GOOD Morning Wilton asked the candidates, Democrat Deborah McFadden and Republican Lynne Vanderslice, to answer several questions about issues the town currently faces. Their answers appear below.
GMW: Communication and transparency are current buzzwords about Wilton Government. What specific steps will you take to increase transparency for the town?
Lynne Vanderslice: As first selectman, I will facilitate and encourage participation and sharing of information:
To allow residents to have a greater voice, I will have First Selectman Open Office Hours for residents to come in and share their thoughts. If citizens have an idea for a new initiative, where appropriate, I will help facilitate their idea. I will use social media to engage citizens in the issues and initiatives happening within town government.
To keep voters informed, I will publish regular updates. Bruce Likly’s “Notes from the Board Table” does a good job of keeping residents informed about the BOE. I will follow his lead.
To increase voter awareness and turnout, I will use social media, increased signage and the town phone notification system to notify voters of town meetings and public hearings.
To improve access to information, we will simplify the website. It will be reorganized with the type of information typically requested by citizens categorized and posted under easy to understand tabs. For example capital projects will have their own tab linked to a page with updated status reports.
To improve the quality of financial information provided to voters, budgeted spending will be compared to actual spending, not budget to budget which is currently provided. I will provide three-year operating forecasts and ten-year capital forecasts. I will extend the lead-time between the discussion of bonding referendums and the vote on the referendums.
Deb McFadden: Transparency is an essential principle in a democracy.
As first selectman, I will set the “tone at the top” through words and actions to insist on transparency throughout our municipal government. Two examples:
- I will champion an environment that fosters transparency, reflected in an open/responsive leadership style. This will be done by making relevant information available and encouraging participation among all stakeholders. As important, I will work to create an atmosphere of trust where open dialogue is valued, respected, and never penalized.
- I will provide reader-friendly quarterly reports from the “office of first selectman” summarizing key issues as well as a vehicle to call volunteers for on-going and new projects.
Communication is a fundamental element of my leadership style and the kind of responsive government I will seek. I have learned from my experience in municipal government among diverse demographic groups, agencies and external organizations that communication needs to be customized based on the circumstance and the target audience. Accordingly, a suite of communication vehicles is desirable, including:
- An improved website with a user-friendly search tool, as a repository of key information and contacts.
- In addition to leading an “approachable” administration, there will be active outreach via event participation, feedback forums, and occasionally a continuation of the kind of “door-knocking” evident during my campaign.
- Especially attractive to millennials, social media is a must. We need to be more proactive in bringing this dynamic, high-energy group into decision-making and execution in our town.
GMW: If you were to be sitting down with Wilton’s budget book tomorrow, where would be the top three areas you’d flip to in order to start considering cuts, and why?
McFadden: It would be premature and perhaps disruptive to identify three areas where budget cuts could be made in the absence of serious and collaborative consideration among those responsible for the expenditures. However, while squashing any urge to micro-manage, one of the first things I will do as first selectman is to bring in each department head and discuss what they are doing to keep expenses down, future expenditures in line, and how they are managing their department in general knowing the pressure the town is under to deliver value and services within fiscal expectations.
Vanderslice: What you propose is not my approach to developing a budget or how one identifies cost savings. The fiscal year 2015 actual spending is more than $700,000 under budget, so using the prior year’s budget as your starting point is the wrong approach. My approach will be:
- Through zero based budgeting. Every department starts at zero. Costs are then put into the budget based on justification for the cost.
- Through putting every service out to competitive bid
- Through continually reexamining and reconsidering the way services are provided including consideration of shared services with the schools and other towns and studying what has been done in other communities inside and outside of Connecticut.
I have spent seven years looking at the town’s actual spending so I know areas where the 2017 budget can be reduced versus the 2016 budget.
GMW: The Economic Development Commission was formed in 2012. The prime directive it was given was to focus on creating a website, which it has done. What specific steps will you ask the Commission to take as soon as you take office?
Vanderslice: In May 2014, the Economic Development Commission presented the Selectman and the town with their Economic Development Strategic Plan. The first step in the plan was to develop a website. The next four steps are establish a rapid resource team, launch a mentoring program, deploy ongoing market research and create a long-term strategic blueprint. My directive will be “do it and how can I help”.
The Commission will need a resource to help them accomplish the next steps and I will find the funding for that resource. Investing to encourage economic development will pay for itself through an increased grand list.
McFadden: We need to look inward and outward in everything we do. When done well, economic development not only bolsters the town’s economics, it should also reflect the core values and character of the community.
As was evident at the recent Connecticut Conference of Municipalities State Conference, economic development is on everyone’s mind and every agenda in each of our state’s 169 towns. I believe an opportunity exists for greater regional cooperation to identify areas of common interest as well as learn from each other’s experiences. No one has all of the answers, but together we may have most of them.
Accordingly, as first selectman, one of the suggestions I will ask the EDC would be to explore benchmark learning and best practices from our neighboring communities that could be applied in Wilton.
Second, in conjunction with our Wilton professional staff, to see how we can streamline our approval processes.
Third, to develop a recommendation for a Rapid Response Team for the retention and attraction of businesses.
GMW: Where are we not spending ENOUGH? Is there any area you see as underserved by Wilton’s budget?
McFadden: I personally feel that aspects of Wilton that provide a long-term, qualitative value are sometimes neglected. They may not necessarily require more dollars but they definitely are worthy of more attention.
Social Services and the schools can coordinate on cases and leverage our resources better. So we would be providing more attention without necessarily more expenditure. Our whole infrastructure of social services operates admirably with minimal support. Sometimes benefiting from public/private partnerships, we should never forget their value.
Further, Parks and Rec appears under resourced and underutilized. I think we need to consider adding more/better recreational areas in town for our residents. Some of these might be public/private partnerships. This will require input from residents on what is desired and what our tolerance is relative to cost.
Vanderslice: In the past we have not spent enough for the maintenance of our buildings and facilities. It resulted in the deferred maintenance which is now part of the both the Comstock and Miller-Driscoll building projects.
It ranges from the bigger repairs to the little things, like the door to the ladies’ room at Town Hall, which doesn’t close because the hinges are coming off the wall. The longer we defer, the more it costs in the long run.
GMW: Paint a picture of what Wilton will look like after four years of your administration. What changes will there be?
Vanderslice: My vision for Wilton is a community that is both affordable and desirable to its residents and future residents, and is as engaged, generous and caring of its fellow citizens as the Wilton I have lived in for the last 28 years.
I expect Wilton will be more affordable in terms of taxes as a result of a cost effectively managed government and an expanded tax base. Plans will be in the works for new housing providing more diversity of options allowing for a community of singles, families, empty nesters and seniors.
I expect Wilton will be desirable through strong, high achieving schools, a downtown frequented by residents and an increasing number of residents from neighboring towns. There will be a footbridge to Schenck’s Island allowing residents to gather and enjoy the view of the river, progress on amenities for residents of all ages either through greater use of our existing facilities or funded through private public partnerships including expansion of the Norwalk River Valley Trail, an upgraded Merwin Meadows park and other outdoor athletic facilities in the works.
I expect Wilton will be a community that continues to value it past and maintain its New England small town charm, a community that has embraced the future through proper planning and efforts to ensure we leave an environmentally stronger community than when we arrived. I hope it will still be a place where my son or my neighbors’ children or grandchildren will want to come to raise their families and be active participants of the town.
McFadden: My recent op-ed in GMW provides a comprehensive view of my vision for Wilton. Here, I’d like to focus on two important areas: citizen engagement and regional collaboration.
I believe that our town’s most important asset is our people. However, there are many who stand on the sideline, perhaps not feeling involved in the direction of our town or not aware of opportunities for service where they could make an impact.
Part of the issue, covered earlier, is communication. And part is expectation. I would hope that a more united Wilton would be known as a town filled with citizens eager to contribute. As is true in most of the challenges our town faces, many of the issues are inter-related. For example, a more open and responsive government would create fertile ground in motivating greater citizen participation. In sum, perhaps more than anything else, citizen engagement is the one metric that defines our success as a community.
Collaboration for mutual benefit among our neighboring towns and, as appropriate, across the state, representing largely untapped opportunities, will also play a greater role in our success.
I believe the strong regional relationships I have grown over two decades in Connecticut will prove useful here as in other aspects of my duties as first selectman. With endorsements from leadership at the state and federal levels as well as among the leaders of Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, and Weston, I believe I am uniquely suited to advocate for Wilton beyond our borders.
GMW: If money were no object, what changes to amenities would you like to see happen in Wilton?
McFadden: First of all, money is always “an object.”
However, if anything was possible, what immediately comes to mind to me is for landlocked Wilton to have a beachfront!
More seriously, on my door-knocking journeys, one of the things I’m hearing is for more initiatives that enhance the quality of life supported by public/private partnerships. As perspective, in a recent discussion I had with Ridgefield first selectman Rudy Marconi, he mentioned the very positive impact “angels” have had in providing financial support for signature projects that visibly benefit the town.
Vanderslice: I’m a pragmatist. Unlimited funds are not available so I am focused what we can and need to do with the funds available.
GMW: We’ve had some bad press lately (lawsuits, accused pedophiles, Sensible Wilton SEEC complaints, etc.) and many local non-residents don’t know we exist. What do you think can be done to improve the reputation of this town?
Vanderslice: We need to work proactively to settle the lawsuits and get people talking to each other. People to need to feel that they have a voice and they will be heard. People need to feel empowered to move their ideas forward. Lastly, we need a community wide focus on civility.
Last weekend I spent four hours at WEPCO with hundreds of Wilton residents and families preparing meal packages for the hungry. Two weeks ago, at the EDC forum I listened as Wilton residents interested in Wilton’s future shared great, thought provoking ideas. Not to steal your line, but there is lots of good in Wilton and we need to start focusing and talking about that too.
Wilton Mom and small business owner, Julie Stein, shared her idea to crowd out the negative, use #love06897 to share what you love about Wilton. Join Julie and me in using it.
McFadden: Unfortunately, bad news is sometimes given too much prominence and is more memorable than the wonderful things that happen in Wilton all the time but are often taken for granted.
Without discounting the disappointment of negative press, our response must not just be to focus on doing what is possible to eliminate the root cause of the issue but also to strengthen and reinforce a positive Wilton brand that is known and acknowledged throughout the area. This allows for proper context and insulates our town from occasional bad publicity. As noted in my vision statement mentioned earlier, our brand is, “less about dollars and cents. And more about how we perceive ourselves and how others see us.”
In addition to determining how to better market our town and celebrate our successes, as first selectman, I will strongly advocate for Wilton among our citizens and across our boundaries.
GMW: What specific vision do you see for Wilton Center?
McFadden: The Wilton Center will be a destination and a gathering place. To be a destination, it must not only be worthy for a visit—e.g. popular stores and compelling events—but also be known for the value it provides (part of the Wilton brand) throughout the area. To be a gathering place, there should be adjacent development (e.g. Schencks Island), ample amenities and periodic happenings.
As first selectman, I plan to work closely with key stakeholders such as the Chamber of Commerce, landlords, and those that can contribute private support. Together we will create an inviting atmosphere conducive to strong businesses and family attractions.
Vanderslice: In addition to the footbridge to a park at Schenck’s Island and more open views of the river, I will work towards:
- A better signage policy. Signs for the businesses should be more dominate than for lease signs, not other way around as it is now.
- Development of a marketing plan for the center prepared jointly between the Economic Development Commission, the Chamber and in-town marketing professionals.
- Installing signage on Rte. 7 so people know the center is there.
GMW: Did you sign either Sensible Wilton petition and what is your position on Sensible Wilton?
Vanderslice: I did not sign either Sensible Wilton petition.
I deal with conflicts by sitting down, talking it out, using factual information and working out a resolution. As an example, a building lot on my street was purchased by an individual who partnered with a national magazine to hold six weeks of tours of his home. Their plan involved coach buses running up and down our street to deliver patrons parked in the nearby school parking lots. At the time, our neighborhood was filled with children who rode their bikes, skate boarded and held lemonade stands.
On behalf of the neighbors, I requested a meeting with then-first selectman, Bob Russell. Bob came to the meeting with a lawyer, I did not. This first meeting lead to a second meeting in my family room with the property owner and my neighbors, which allowed the owner to understand the neighbors’ concerns. I continued to work with the first selectman and the property owner to work out a settlement, which in the end was acceptable to neighbors, the owner and the magazine.
In my experience most disputes are resolved harmoniously if, from the outset, the two parties meet and talk with each other.
McFadden: As can be readily inferred from my recent experience with Sensible Wilton, I have not signed their petitions. In fact, Sensible Wilton has sued the Board of Selectmen as well as its members individually (including myself), at a substantial cost to the taxpayers of Wilton.
Without going into great detail, I am saddened that public discourse (which I favor) has gotten so out-of-hand. And I wonder what the motives are that compel Sensible Wilton to continue their efforts which, at this stage mainly sow discord and hard feelings among our citizens.
GMW: Do you think more should have been done in the renovation of Comstock? Any thoughts about making it more of a rec center, with more amenities, services, etc.?
McFadden: It would have been great to have the earlier plan for Comstock that was abandoned during the recession implemented today. That plan would provide Wilton residents with a facility capable of supporting a broad range of activities and services for Wilton residents from our youngest to our seniors. That said, the current plan makes essential upgrades to the building that extend its useful life another 25 years, provide us with a facility that meets our current needs, and does so in a financially prudent manner. We will be looking at programming in the building once the construction is complete in January, 2016.
Vanderslice: When the bonding for Comstock came before the Board of Finance, as the meeting minutes and video document, I raised the idea of expanding the gym as part of the project. I indicated the need was documented, doing it as part of the renovation work would be more cost efficient and the public would be more supportive of the project if they were getting something more than just a renovation of the existing space. With me as the only person in the room advocating for the change in the project, no change was made. It was a missed opportunity.
I have spoken with a number of residents who would like to expand the facilities within or adjacent to Comstock. I have encouraged them to put their plans together, gather financial support and come forward to discuss a public private partnership.
GMW: Are there any departments that will get stricter oversight in your administration?
Vanderslice: The town will be hiring a new CFO. Until that person is hired the first selectman will need to provide oversight of the Finance and IT department, areas within the CFO’s direct responsibility. I am qualified to do that. I expect the new CFO will be someone who can hit the ground running, but even still they will need time to transition.
The town had two operational audits, one of Park and Recs and one of all town departments. The issues raised need to continue to be addressed.
McFadden: As first selectman, without being unhelpfully intrusive, every department will benefit from appropriately strict oversight. Although this process will be aided by town employees (e.g. CFO) and necessary reports (periodic internal audits), I will not delegate this duty, but instead hold myself accountable for the operation of all departments under my administration.
Every department must command the confidence of the citizens of Wilton in regard to not only operating in a fiscally prudent manner through efficient/effective execution, but also in a manner consistent with the spirit of our town character and culture.