What happens when it’s election season and after years of uncontested races and no competition, you finally have some excitement with the race for Wilton’s Board of Selectmen, where four candidates are running for just two spots, and you hold a debate to hear those four candidates opine about the pressing issues facing the town, and out of 18,000 residents… only 50 people show up?

If you’re any of the candidates, you talk about how you plan to engage citizens and get them more involved by communicating better than has been done in the past.

If you’re a reporter covering the race, you feel the pressure to get the candidates’ stories out to the public because you’re a little worried that people aren’t paying attention, or at best, are really, really busy and wanted to show up, but just couldn’t make it happen.

If you’re that reporter covering the race, and you live in Wilton, and you really, really care about where the town is headed, you appeal to your neighbors and fellow Wilton residents to please, please, pretty please, write it down on your to do lists and put it into your iCalendars and Outlook and wherever else you remind yourself of what you need to do, that Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, and gosh darn it, come out and vote.

So what did happen at last night’s debate between the four people running for Bd. of Selectmen, sponsored by the Wilton League of Women Voters and the Wilton Library?

The candidates all gave opening statements, and then answered questions submitted by the audience. They each had time for rebuttal and additional thought. For the most part there wasn’t a tremendous amount that separated them, and there wasn’t a lot of disagreement at all. There were candidates who touched on their experience within municipal government roles here in Wilton, and those that talked about growing up here, and others who reflected on what their professional experience would lend to their time serving on the BoS.

They all were respectful and obviously care a great deal about the future of Wilton and wanting to make a contribution by helping to steer the town.

We’ll hit some highlights and encourage readers to check GOOD Morning Wilton in the days leading up to the election for statements from each of the candidates (who submitted them) as well as answers to questions we posed as well

Opening Statements

Dave Clune

My name is Dave Clune and I’m running as an unaffiliated candidate for Wilton’s Bd. of Selectmen. I’d like to thank you for coming out this evening and the League of Women Voters and the Wilton Library for putting the evening together. I’ve just put together an event for the Economic Development Commission, and I appreciate the effort that goes into scheduling an event like this.

I have a vested interest in making sure the town works for everyone, families and seniors. I grew up in Wilton and returned to raise my own family here in 2003. Robin and I couldn’t have picked a better place to raise our children. We’re proud to call Wilton home.

One of the many great things about Wilton is that my parents are just up the road and I get to see many of the people I grew up with who also moved back, whether it’s at school, sporting events or on the train.

I want to contribute to the process of shaping Wilton’s future, and as a member of the Bd of Selectmen will seek the input of our citizens and businesses to support Wilton’s vibrant future. I look forward to answering your questions and look forward to the chance for you to get to know me better.

Michael Kaelin

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My name is Mike Kaelin, hopefully most of you know who I am. I’m looking at a lot of familiar faces out there, with a few exceptions.

The reason you may know me is I’m currently on the Bd. of Selectmen. I’ve been on the BoS since November of last year when I was appointed to fill the vacancy when Hal Clark left town. Before that, I was the president of this library for two years and I was on the board of the library before that. Before that I was involved in a whole number of things which you can find on my website.

I appreciate all of you being here tonight, and am pleased to answer your questions.

Gil Bray

gil bray 2

Hello, I’m Gil Bray running for a position on the Bd. of Selectmen on the Democratic ticket. I am an unaffiliated voter but I am running on the Democratic ticket. I appreciate the League of Women Voters and the Wilton Library for hosting this event. Thank you all for coming.

I’ve been in town for 27 years, raised three children, girls who have all gone through the school system. I’ve been actively involved here for my entire time. Having a leadership position at the Wilton Congregational Church, on the Wilton Y and then participating in long range planning for probably 16-18 years when my children were going through. I spent two terms on the Board of Education, chairman for two years, vice-chairman for three.

Currently I’m employed by Misys, a UK software house, I’m a general manager for a group, which is very diverse–customer support, HR, sales, service, product development, all of which are very unique and qualify me for this position. Thank you.

Brian Lilly

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My name is Brian Lilly, for those of you who don’t know me. I moved here with my family in 1973. My family, my parents are still in the same house I grew up in. My uncle and aunt also live in Wilton, they’re retired. So I have a strong need to work with seniors, to try to make them able to stay in Wilton as long as possible. I have been donating my time with, whether it be CERT or the Wilton Soccer Association, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and many other things within town, and I’ve felt it was time to step up to the Bd. of Selectmen in order to try to guide this town in a way that will better it for all of the Wilton citizens going forward.

Audience Questions

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Questions submitted by audience members ranged from who candidates thought should have oversight of Miller-Driscoll building contract approvals, the current selectmen or the soon-to-be-elected board; to what vision each candidate had for Rt. 7, to how to improve the tone of public discourse in town.

One of the most important and topical issues facing the town right now is the question of how to encourage economic development. We’ll give you the answers each candidate gave to the question on this topic, and the discussion that followed, and then for each of the four candidates we’ll give the best answer we felt they gave to a question.

Q:  How do you envision economic development progressing in Wilton?

Bray:  Certainly, this is one of the areas that has the most potential to actually begin to modify the tax burden in town. We do need to spend a good bit more time and focus on the economic development.

The original proposal that I believe was submitted to the Board of Selectmen for economic development, probably a year or two ago, had a number of criteria, the first one being the creation of a website, which has been done, and done quite well. I wish it did have more information, more substantive information, in terms of the lots that are available, and that sort of thing.

But there are other recommendations that haven’t been exercised yet, one being a quick-reaction task force, I think it makes a lot of sense. I also think it makes sense to at least have a discussion about hiring an economic development coordinator, officer, whatever. It’s worth the discussion.

Being involved in product development most of my life, it’s very close to economic development, and I think we really need to look at a vision for the town, how we want it to be positioned:  Class-A space along Rt. 7, retail space downtown. There are any number of ideas that have come out to stimulate economic development. But the first thing we really need to understand what the town needs to be. Our first selectman Bill Brennan has done an excellent job in terms of marketing the town–he’s built an incredible infrastructure, all the efforts he put into Rt. 7, into downtown:  sidewalks, the lighting, I could go on and on, he’s done a great job. The question now is how do we develop that? We’ve got the marketing but how do we really put a plan in place to market and economically develop Wilton.

Lilly:  That has been the main focus of why I want to be a selectman. One thing I found out by asking planning & zoning, the tax assessor, the town clerk, there is no list of the businesses in Wilton. How we move forward to get businesses in Wilton and to see how healthy the businesses are at this point, we can’t really do unless we know what we have. There needs to be a list made that tells us how many restaurants we have, how many contractors we have, how many office buildings we have, how many manufacturers we have. So that we can look at each one of those sections and we can say, ‘Okay, these are healthy, these are not healthy.’ See what it is as selectmen we can do to move forward and make each section as healthy as possible.

The other thing we want to do with that is use that to try to bring new businesses in. Especially a large business is going to use a lot of vendors. We can then look at our list and see what vendors we have in town that a large business might use and we might be able to bring them in and say, ‘Look, you have all these vendors that can support you right here in Wilton, you won’t have to go far. That might be an incentive you won’t have to bring them in.’ There’s a lot we can do, but the first thing we have to do, we have to get a list of what we have in town now.

Clune:  I am currently a member of the Economic Development Commission (EDC), and back in May of 2014 when they issued a report with a series of recommendations, I wasn’t on the commission at that point in time. But one of the things the report points out is, economic development is a place where the town can spend money and expect a reasonable return on that investment.

Wilton has not yet embraced all of the short term and long term recommendations that were made in the May 2014 report. I would agree there is a lot of room to follow up on those ideas and develop them more fully.

Two of the ones that would be particularly helpful in the near term would be the development of a collaborative rapid reaction team, that allows both existing businesses and prospective businesses coming into town to have a one-stop place to go, where they can learn, “What are the pertinent questions I need to ask, and what are the things I need to be aware of as a business when I want to come to town or expand within town.”

One of the things that businesses have found difficult now is that there is not a fully mapped-out process for them now, so they run into additional expenditures as they come into town or expand within town. That is an area the town can do a lot. A lot has been done but that’s a big opportunity for Wilton.

The Bd. of Selectman, because the EDC reports to the Bd. of Selectmen, the Bd. of Selectmen has the ability to empower the EDC to do much more.

Kaelin:  There’s no question that we have a need for economic development, and that we have an opportunity for economic development. All you have to do is look at all the empty space in town or drive up and down Rte. 7 from Norwalk to Danbury. All you see is opportunity for economic development. The question is how to you exploit this opportunity, take advantage of this opportunity.

The answer in my mind is simple. You need a plan. The only question is how do you get a plan? You have to get a group of people together who are responsible for coming up with a plan in a responsible way, that is not limited to that group of people, but rather they’re charged with presenting to all of you. What we need is a long range plan for conservation and development. We need to identify what kind of economic development we want and how can we get that economic development in town that we want, and how can we get that economic development in town. It goes beyond that. What do we want for the town?

I’m using two words very deliberately here. Conservation and development:  we need to preserve the good that we have in the town of Wilton, the qualities that brought each one of us here. But then we have to look to the future, where the opportunity lies, and where we should be going.

It’s really simple. I’m only hesitating at appointing this committee because I know how people normally react to a committee, and that’s why I want to emphasize it’s got to be a small group of like eight people, who is charged with developing a plan, but ultimately presenting it to an entire town meeting, to all of you to approve.

Lilly:  I don’t think we need to have a meeting to set up a subcommittee of a committee. I think the people are going to elect the selectmen to bring this town forward. One of the things the selectmen should do is look at all the different possibilities, talk to the different people, and the selectmen should come up with a decision on where this town should go. That’s why we’re being elected.

Kaelin:  I’m not talking about a subcommittee of a committee. I’m talking about putting together a committee of people who have expertise. There has to be someone on this committee that knows something about planning, that’s trained in that; knows something about zoning regulation; knows something about putting together plan, and can do it.

Bray:  I would also hope that we would be able to look at the Planning & Zoning regulations, to a great extent our regulations may actually be harming investment in this town, and I’d like to review it, why we’ve lost investment in the past, and how we can correct zoning regulations, or how we can make this town more business-friendly.

Clune:  This group is set up on the current Economic Development Commission through the Bd. of Selectmen can be more proactive, in looking at each of the pieces of property as they currently exist, and rezoning them to allow future uses that could be more beneficial to the particular pieces of property as they become available.

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Q:   Public discourse has taken a negative tone… what can you do to change this tone, and encourage active involvement by citizens?

Bray:  The frustration and divisiveness that we’ve seen over the last year, year and a half, two, three years, four years, probably is to a great extent due to not getting the information that they believe they’re entitled to as a voter. Having served eight years on the Bd. of Education I can tell you there was always this issue.

Technology allows us to do things we couldn’t do even in 2006 and 2007. We now have that ability to make getting that information an awful lot easier. Posting it on the website; a standardized approach to emails for the boards that can be accessed; having all of the reports available on the website. I think the board of education has done an excellent job over the last eight years posting the information that is available.

As far as the BoS, Mike [Kaelin] is exactly right:  we have to set the tone. We have to be civil in our discourse, but we also need to look at the website to see how we can really improve it so we can provide more information about the activities that are going on, the results of the commission to, and the openness of when meetings are going to be held so people can attend.

There’s a sense that we’re denying information, that information is being done behind someone’s back. I don’t believe that’s the case, it’s certainly not the intent of the 150, 200, 400 volunteers of Wilton, that are on these various committees, building committees and other. They’re putting all of their work into it, they’re using their own time. But I think it’s an issue of transparency and using technology wisely.

Q: What is your vision for the future of Rte. 7?

Kaelin:  This is not my idea. Full disclosure, I picked up this idea at the economic development forum that Dave [Clune] organized a week ago. The first speaker was a young woman in town with two  kids at home who submitted an idea to the EDC for  branding the town. She proposed the place to start was identifying and developing a brand, of what we’re going to be. Her idea was to label it as a green town.

What I took from that and took it further, I think it would be terrific to have a green corridor. It doesn’t stop at the borders of Wilton. It’s defined by Rte. 7 going from Norwalk to Danbury. Getting our neighboring communities involved, and getting the state involved in creating a green corridor that’s going to attract people and businesses to all the towns in this area in a green and healthy and good way.

I see Rte. 7 as not something limited to the borders of Wilton, but something connecting us to our neighbors in a positive way. In terms of economic development, we need to take advantage of our roads. We are literally in the center of the most prosperous area in the state of CT and literally all roads lead here. We’re in the center of it all. We should take advantage of it and we should lead in going green.

Q:  What are the key issues to make the town as competitive as our neighboring towns? How would you tackle these issues?

Clune:  The number one issue is taxes, and there’s been some discussion through real estate agents, for example, that people considering other towns where, although the houses are more expensive, the tax rates are perhaps lower and it makes those towns more attractive. I think on the economic development front, there’s a lot of opportunity there to distribute the tax burden so that we’re not just relying on residential taxes.

The second issue is you need to keep the schools in the excellent position they’re in. That has traditionally been a big draw for the town for people coming in. It is one of the true resources of the town. We’re not on the water so we don’t have that. Schools are always something we need to keep in the forefront.

Q:  Because of low voter interest in May budget votes, and because of the expense of holding referendum, should Wilton consider ending the town meeting and have the BoS approve budgets, as many towns in CT have already done?

Lilly:  Absolutely, we keep the town meeting form of government. It’s very important to have the input as well as the vote of all of the town. It shouldn’t just be the few that are elected to the boards that are recycled back and forth between the different committees, but it should be all of the townspeople that have a say in what this town becomes and how this town moves forward. That town meeting is the forum for them to come out and do that.

If we do have a cycle where it’s down and not enough people are there to vote, then by default, it is what it is, the selectment have proposed a budget and it moves forward. Let’s assume for a moment that we’re going to get more people coming out, as more things happen in our town. We don’t want to disenfranchise those people. We want to have all of the input from everyone that comes out. Because even if it doesn’t change this year’s budget it may change next year’s budget with the comments that they make.

Closing Statements

Bray:  Part of the key is voter participation, getting individuals engaged in the process. We need to improve and draw out more volunteers to support the town. The focus of my interest in getting on the BoS really is economic development. That can really drive the tax burden of the town down, hopefully. Maintain public safety and public services. I want to get deeply involved and move forward. There’s another area we haven’t touched on tonight:  social services, and the the roles that social services play for the elderly as well as children at the high school. The coordination between the BoS, the Social Services Commission and the Schools. We are experiencing difficulties in the schools with drugs, with alcohol, with domestic abuse. This doesn’t only impact the students, it falls back and perhaps is caused by the family, and that’s where social services comes in. I question and I’d like to investigate if we are adequately staffing and supporting social services in town. That’s one area I have an interest, and I would ask you to vote for me.

Lilly: You’re choosing between two of the four of us. Whenever you go to the polls, I just ask you to think about the different candidates and make sure you select two. It doesn’t matter what line they’re on, you have two choices you can make. You may have friend or relative that’s up here, but you have another vote. Don’t just focus on that one person that you’re going to vote for anyway, focus on the rest of the people up there for who’s going to get your second vote. Look for someone is going to move this town forward. I hope you feel I am that type of person. I have my parents here on a fixed income, I have an aunt and uncle on a fixed income. I have children in the schools. I have been here since 1973. I really understand and love this town. I have a brother who was a social studies teacher, my mother ran the before and after program at Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill. We’re really ingrained within this town. What I’m here for is the betterment of Wilton for everyone that is here, regardless of what stage of life they’re in, whether they have children in school, whether their children are out of school, whether they’re just moving in and they don’t have children in the school yet. I’m really going to be looking at every different aspect and trying to make this town the best town it can possibly be for everyone that is in Wilton.

Clune: I want to thank Michael, Gil and Brian for running and participating in this debate. I think the town is always better off when more people participate in the process, and allow discussions like the one we’ve had this evening to occur. Hopefully the fact that we have a contested race will draw out more voters. Regardless of who wins, it’s good for the town, because more people have taken the time to educate themselves about the issues facing is.

Tonight we’ve heard a lot of enthusiasm for our great New England town. After this election Wilton will have a new BoS. I hope that after tonight everyone will find a way to stay involved in the process because Wilton relies so heavily on volunteers, and with a new administration, we’ll still need your ongoing participation, ideas and support.

I grew up here in Wilton, I now live here with my wife Robin, we have children, so I’m in the thick of having kids in the schools and all the activities that they participate in. But I’m also sensitive to the needs of all residents, both those with children and those without, and people closer to my parents’ age.

Being a problem solver, a collaborator, a good listener are common themes that have consistently served me well during my career, whether it was working in developing countries with Operation Smile, to ensure that children who needed medical care received it; whether it was at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, working with crime victims, defendants and lawyers and police officers to figure out the best resolution for a case; or whether it’s now at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as a compliance and ethics officer, where it involves training and education and communication. I’ve worked on program development and project development and bring those skills to the table here, and I understand ethics and transparency and the idea of doing the right thing.

As an unaffiliated candidate I have no one else’s agenda in mind, except the greater good of the town and would be working for all of Wilton’s residents. I’m confident these strengths will benefit the town and I ask you to support my candidacy when you vote on Nov. 3.

Kaelin:  I’d like to thank the moderator and the League of Women Voters for putting on this forum. I thank each one of you for being here tonight. I’d like to thank my fellow panelists, and I’d like to compliment especially you, David [Clune] for stepping up and petitioning to run, because you’re proof positive that any citizen can get involved and we need people like you to do that.

I really did learn something by listening to everyone. What I’m convinced of now, is that the biggest problems we have in Wilton are not taxes, or economic development. I really think we have something of a morale problem. There is entirely too much fighting with each other, and not enough working with each other. I’m not putting blame on anyone, I’m putting the responsibility on all of us to work together. As I said, the BoS sets the tone, but it’s up to the rest of us to participate and get involved.

Bob Russell, former first selectman of this town, was confronted with a situation in the late 90s when the budget was rejected, and the school building projects were rejected. And the way he responded to that was by bringing the people who were for and against the project together and making them work together to come up with a solution, and that’s what we should do.