First BoS Meeting in the Vanderslice Era—Efficient and Unanimous

Last night, the Board of Selectmen kicked off its new era with Lynne Vanderslice sitting in the first selectman’s center seat of the board table. Currently sitting at the table with Vanderslice are only three other selectmen—Dick Dubow, Michael Kaelin and Dave Clune, as Ken Dartley resigned and his seat has not yet been filled.

The meeting was very expeditious, hopefully a harbinger of things to come; the meeting ended as just shortly after the one hour mark. One other thing to note—every vote taken during the public portion of the meeting Monday night was unanimous, with all four members voting alike on each matter they considered.

One of the first matters at hand that the new board considered was who would become second selectman. Calling it a tradition, Vanderslice said, “the highest vote getter” is usually named to the post. As Kaelin earned that distinction, he was unanimously approved to take the second spot.

The other major items of note that were discussed:

Miller-Driscoll Renovation Project

Michael Douyard, the senior project manager and on-site manager for the M-D project. He presented the final set of contractor contracts–nine in total–for the BoS members to consider. The contractors were the lowest qualified bidders on the project. The selectmen needed to approve authorizing the first selectman to sign the contracts. While it had been a controversial matter just a few weeks before when it appeared on the BoS agenda for the first time, the selectmen unanimously approved this group of contracts.

Construction Manager Agent or Construction Manager At Risk

Christ BurneyWilton’s recently appointed director of facilities, Chris Burney, talked to the board about the differences between a having a construction manager agent on the M-D project versus having a construction manager “at risk.”

In introducing him, Vanderslice said that, “while the buck stops here, with us and with me,” she said that Burney would be taking a more active role in overseeing the project. She asked him to explain the difference between the two types of construction manager since Wilton had engaged Turner Construction as a construction manager agent, rather than one at risk. That decision had been called into question by Simon Reiff and others affiliated with Sensible Wilton, who asserted that such a choice essentially removed responsibility for oversight of safety on the project from Turner.

After describing his extensive experience and credentials, Burney explained that hiring a construction manager to be the town’s agent is the traditional way of running a project. “They have our best interests at heart; they only represent us. They are on a fixed fee, so if the project value goes up, they somehow caused it to increase, they don’t get any more money. So they don’t have any vested interest in creating work. Their vested interest is in making this project the best project possible so that they get rehired.”

He said that the main difference between that and a construction manager at risk is that the “at risk” manager assumes the risk of building the project. “At that point his allegiance changes from the client–the town–to himself. He is now saying ‘I guarantee to do this project for x dollars,’ and his interest is in saving himself money and making a profit. [He] holds all the contracts.  There is always the risk you will end up in some form of antagonistic relationship, where we’re trying to do something the right way and the construction manager at risk wants to do it the cheaper way.”

Burney added, “You’ve chosen the right way. The construction manager will help the town, I will help the town, and we’ll all work together on making sure the project is done correctly, the specifications are followed, and at the end of the day that we don’t have problems when this project opens up.”

Vanderslice pointed out if Wilton had hired a construction manager at risk, the town would not be the one benefitting from the projected $5 million savings that the $50 million project has realized as a result of a competitive bidding process. “We wouldn’t have seen that. It would have stayed with the construction manager at risk.”

Burney said she was correct. “The town would have negotiated for a flat sum, a guaranteed maximum price. Whatever that number would have been, how would we have known that we had the right number or not? If we had negotiated a price of $50 million or whatever it, the construction manager at risk would have had an opportunity to make a lot of profit when the bids came in less. This way there’s no money left on the table. We’ve had competitive bidding and the lowest price possible on the project. You wouldn’t necessarily have that with a construction manager at risk.

He added that Turner construction, in conjunction with the project’s architects and Burney himself, will be performing observations, inspections and certifications.

Burney vouched for Turner Construction, saying the resources they bring are significant and beneficial to a project. “They bring a huge number of resources. The resources they can bring to the table to support us are huge”

Vanderslice Hopes to Formalize Delegation of Responsibilities

lynne vandersliceVanderslice told the other members of the board that she was trying to formalize the procedures surrounding whether or not to bring items in front of the BoS at regular meetings meetings. Given the kinds of choices and decisions the town needs to make on a day to day basis, regarding contracts and other items like accepting grants, she said she wanted to streamline some of the procedures.

She said she was going to be requesting that, under the town charter, the BoS members would delegate certain responsibilities to her, and she hoped to create more explicit guidelines to specify what situations she could act upon on without having to seek the permission of all members of the BoS.

“I would like that formalized and have it in writing. Would you like to give me a threshold, where if it’s under that amount I can handle those things on my own. Same thing with contracts, if we have a copier contract do you really want to talk about that,” she said.

Vanderslice explained her motivation as wanting to save time and maximize the purpose of the BoS. “I’d like to see this board spend a lot more time on strategic discussions and not as much on administrative–not that it’s not important but some of it. I don’t know that it rises to the level of this entire board.”

michael kaelinWhile the other selectmen seemed to look favorably on Vanderslice’s idea, they agreed that it’s too important an issue to rush a vote. Both Kaelin and Dubow said the question deserved more time and consideration.

“I think it’s a good idea, and I’m glad you raised it, because we don’t want to impair your ability to do your job, and we don’t want to waste the board’s time. Just seeing it for the first time now, I don’t know where you draw the line on it,” Kaelin said.

Dubow wondered whether there was any similar policy held by prior BoS in the past, noting that while he too would like more time to review the idea, “I would like to see it move in that direction.”

The board members acknowledged that they’d need to consult the town charter on the issue, as it does specify that only the BoS has the authority to enter into contracts, but it also allows the members to delegate that authority to the first selectman. “But where do you draw the line, we’re not going to be here approving contracts for copier paper and paper clips,” Kaelin added.

Clune said it would be important for Vanderslice to notify the board about contracts she’d signed and steps she had taken if they did make such policy, to which the first selectman replied, “I can give you a reporting at the meeting of, ‘These are the contracts I signed and these are the grants I accepted.'”

Dubow suggested that once they determine how to proceed and if they establish a formal policy he would want it reviewed annually.

First Selectman’s Salary

Vanderslice said it had been brought to her attention by Sarah Taffel, the town’s HR director, that the first selectman position was due for salary increase. Vanderslice, however, suggested that the salary not be increased.

The board determined that they would need to discuss the matter in executive session rather than in front of the public.

Before moving into executive session, Kaelin said he wanted to speak to the public about the complexity challenge and enormity of the position as a whole. “I want everyone in the public to understand what’s in the job of first selectman. The reality is we could not pay the first selectman what they would earn in the private sector, maybe not even in the public sector. We have been very fortunate in this town that we have very selfless first selectmen. Most other towns of our size have a town manager, a chief administrative officer responsible for much of the administrative work that we rely on our first selectman to do. It’s more than a full-time job. The public should know that. We’re not going to be able to pay you what you’re worth.”

Budget Calendar

The new first selectman said she would be recommending a budget calendar that would be slightly different from the one used in the past.

“Usually the meetings on the budget begin in the first week of January. Instead, I’m going to be pushing that probably to third week in January,” Vanderslice explained. “The primary reason, I read an interview that [former town CFO] Sandy [Dennies] gave, and she talked about that she never has a good holiday season because she is working to get ready for that date. I did speak to Sandy before she left, and we went through the calendar, and she was very comfortable with the fact that it could be moved. Not only does it make the CFO have a much better holiday season but it makes the same thing for all the employees.”

The second reason she cited was that this year both she and incoming CFO Anne Kelly-Lenz are new. “I’m confident that we’re going to be making some changes to the presentation, and that just gives us a little bit more time.”

Appointments of Town Employees

Noting that the charter specified the BoS had to formally appoint all town employees and town officials, and the resolution would cover two years (with Vanderslice noting the exception that Kelly-Lenz would be appointed for six months as a condition of her employment contract; following a review at that point, the BoS could then reappoint her for the remaining 18 months).

The board unanimously approved appointing all current town employees to their current jobs. The only position not on the list of officials being reappointed was town counsel. “We’ll talk about that at the next meeting,” Vanderslice said.

Miscellaneous Items

  • The board approved naming two residents—Jennie Wong and Vivian Lee-Shiue—to the Economic Development Commission.
  • Vanderslice noted that Ken Dartley did officially resign, although she has not received any names submitted as potential replacements.
  • Vanderslice also said, “It’s been smooth transition so far, staff has been great, the staff is very busy, I’ve been very busy. All is good there. I made one organizational change, [information systems director] John Savarese is reporting directly to me.” She said she did so because IT is part of every department, and “strategically, it makes sense.”
  • Dave CluneClune mentioned the many activities that took place in town over the prior weekend, including the Christmas tree lighting, Holiday Stroll, and menorah lighting, as well as the Wilton Rocks for Food event, among other. “A lot of things to do in town, we just have to continue to push those efforts to keep people to stay in town.”

Public Comment

Alex Ruskewich expressed his concern that, “There is definite evidence that these [school] enrollments are dropping dramatically, not only for M-D but it’s for  the entire school system.” He referenced a recent enrollment report by Ellen Essman to the Bd. of Education, projecting a 19-percent decrease for M-D and a 19-percent decrease for the entire school system. He also said that the state of CT is projecting for all the schools in Wilton’s DRG a decrease in the low “30’s’ [percent] up until 2025.”

“In some comments people have made, including from the Bd. of Education, that 25-30 years from now we ‘might’ need an increase in students. Where that number comes from I haven’t the slightest idea. Everything I’ve seen is projecting significant decreases for the town. Not just for the students, there are teachers, they should be for administrators, for space, all of this. We’ve just signed a whole series of contracts, and I’m wondering what’s going to happen as we start going down and basically not have students to fill the place,” Ruskewich said.

He added, “How are you going to justify the tax increases now to pay for something that may or may not happen, most likely won’t, in 25 years? You’re asking the citizens now to pay for it; 25 years from now we might have a need for it. I’d like to hear the rationale. I’m having a difficult time in talking to the the people from Sensible Wilton, they don’t believe that’s the right way to go.

Vanderslice noted that she planned to “ask the BoE and [superintendent] Kevin Smith to come in and talk to us.” She said in her own review of the projections by Essman, she noted that there was a projected increase in the next few years in the numbers of kindergarten students, “not because there have been more births, it’s because more people have moved in with kids of that younger age.”

Later in the meeting, Kaelin thanked Ruskewich for raising questions, but added that, “We are building a school for the next 25 years. If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it? This has been in the process for a long time. We’re making the best decisions we can with the best information we have. Having said that, I still think it’s great for citizens to raise questions and challenge us. That’s how we’ll come to better decisions.”

Gail Moskow addressed the board encouraging them to continue supporting the M-D renovation as is. “We’ve known for a long time that young people move to Wilton because of the schools. They’re obviously coming here with little ones. We have been here for 45 years. Our daughters went to Miller-Driscoll. They are now 48 and 50. That school has lasted us for a long, long time. I am hoping that you as a board are forward enough looking that this school will last us 25, 30, 40 who knows how long. It’s critical that we are building for the future, not just five or 10 years down the road.”

Steve Hudspeth also referenced the enrollment projections. “What I understand is the projections of students generally have an eight year time frame. They are estimates, projections and uncertainties. During the great recession a lot of people deferred having children. I think we’re going to see that change. That plus the people moving in to town, I’d underscore that you’re building for the long term future. You’re not building for the next five or eight years, you’re building for the next 50 years, and you need a building that will serve that purpose. To build something and then have to add onto it, is the least cost-effective way of going about doing something.”