Michael Kaelin became a member of the Board of Selectmen (BoS) when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in 2014. He was then elected to his current term in 2015–receiving the highest number of votes out of all the BoS candidates, and thus was chosen by his fellow BoS members as second selectman. A lawyer who has lived in town for more than 20 years, Kaelin has volunteered with the town in other capacities as well, including stints on the Charter Commission and the Wilton Library Board of Trustees.

His recent announcement–that he had changed his political party affiliation from Republican to Unaffiliated shortly before the November presidential election–has caught people by surprise and raised a lot of chatter among people who follow local politics. What prompted the long-time Republican and former chair of the RTC to leave his party?

GOOD Morning Wilton asked Kaelin if he’d sit for our GMW Interview. What came out of it is a very revealing, candid conversation about everything from the town budget to gun control–and whether he plans on surprising everyone again and running for a different town Board.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Have you enjoyed your time so far as a selectman?

Michael Kaelin:  Yes, I have enjoyed my time as a selectman.

GMW: What have you liked the most?

Working with the other selectmen to do what we could for the town of Wilton.

GMW:  What does ‘doing what we could for the town of Wilton’ mean? 

MK:  It means doing the best we can, in the sense that none of us can do everything we would like to do because we have limited resources in the town. But we’re making the best of the resources we have.

GMW:  What are things you’d like to be doing but can’t because there aren’t the resources?

MK: We’d like to be able to provide more services–specifically, more policemen, more firemen–but we don’t have the money to pay for that.

GMW:  [Before we talk about the budget]–we’ll definitely come back to that statement–but tell me what your goals were in becoming a selectman and do you feel you’ve accomplished that? What have your personal accomplishments been?

MK:  My personal goal was to instill more trust and confidence in the people who are serving on all the boards and commissions in town, including the BoS, but every other board and commission. Including the building committees.

GMW:  Because your primary job [on the BoS] is to appoint those people who serve on the boards and commissions?

MK:  Yes, but when you use the word ‘job,’ you make it sound like I have a different status or position than everyone else who’s volunteering to serve. I don’t think of it like that. I’m a volunteer just like everybody else. But because I’m on the BoS and there’s more visibility, I’m in a better position to help everybody else understand that we’re a community that’s run by volunteers. The people that are serving are your neighbors and should be your friends.

Ultimately what I’m trying to erase is this idea that it’s ‘us’ in the public against ‘them’ on these boards, or vice versa. I want everybody to understand we’re all in this together, and the only difference between the people serving on these boards and the rest of the people in town is, they’ve been given a specific assignment and task to do. But we all should be contributing to making the town work in whatever way we can.

That includes going to the Town Meeting and asking good questions, and if you don’t have good questions to ask then just pay attention to the information that’s been provided.

GMW:  What about the rest of the year?

MK:   You know that sign in the BoS room about participate? Participate in whatever way you can. What’s unique and special about the Town of Wilton is you really have the Town Meeting form of government in its purest sense where everybody ultimately gets a say in how their tax dollars are spent. Everyone should take advantage of that because the more people involved in the process, the better the result is going to be.

GMW:  Have you seen that increase in the last year or two?

MK:  Yes. Generally there is a greater awareness of how the town works, and who makes the decisions and how the decisions are made. A lot more people are getting involved.

GMW:  That’s come with more, improved ways for them to find out about it and take part.

MK:  It’s been publicized more. It’s been encouraged more. Both by people on the BoS, our first selectman [Lynne Vanderslice] in particular has been very vocal about encouraging people to get involved in the process. But it’s also members of the public who have spoken up at BoS meetings and town meetings and urged people to get involved. You’ve done a good job of that in GOOD Morning Wilton, the Bulletin, the media has done a good job.

GMW:  You’ve spoken about last year’s budget and the trend on town spending. What are your goals for the FY2018 budget?

MK:  I would like to see us not increase spending on either the BoS or the Board of Education side of the budget.

 GMW:  You said earlier you wish you could provide more services but we can’t increase spending. Is it one or the other? Will services suffer? What does that mean if we’re not going to increase spending?

MK:  We can’t increase services. You asked me what I’d like, and I’d like to spend more money on services but I’ve concluded we can’t spend more money on services.

GMW:  Given that the guidance from the Board of Finance (BoF) was a 1.25-percent reduction [from FY2017], where will that come from?

MK:  I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s realistic.

GMW:  Do you have a focus going into the budget reviews? Where will you look first? If you’re saying the Police and Fire Departments really could use more, how will you approach looking at the budgets?

MK:  Well, I’m not going to be talking about increasing budgets or staffing in any department, because the bottom line with me is, I don’t think we can afford to increase spending on anything. I want to erase this idea that I’m thinking about increasing services, I’m not because we can’t afford to.

My approach to the budget is where can we save money? What services can we do without? With respect to that, I want to be clear:  I’m not looking to cut or eliminate any people who work for the town of Wilton right now. I’m not looking to cut or eliminate compensation and benefits that they have. What I’m looking for is if someone is leaving of their own accord due to retirement or some other circumstances, do we need to refill that position?

GMW:  You said other services we might have to do without. What are the things as a town we might have to buckle down and do without?

MK:  I really don’t think there are much opportunities for savings in the BoS side of the town budget. It really is bare bones and it’s maybe even cut into the bone. Where I’m looking for savings is in the Board of Education (BoE) side of the budget. That’s not because of a territorial view that they should reduce spending and we don’t have to reduce spending. It’s based on an objective view based merely on the size of their budget. There has to be more opportunity for saving on their side than on the BoS side.

GMW:  Playing devil’s advocate, could you imagine hearing a member of the BoE say, ‘The schools are the largest employer, it’s really the primary–some would say sole–reason people choose to live in Wilton, and the service we are mandated to provide and are being asked to provide by the people who use our service, that WE are at bare budget, and comparably for the size of our municipal operation, the selectman’s budget is where they can find fat to cut.’

MK:  I would not be the least bit surprised to hear someone on the BoE argue or say that. But I would argue it’s completely invalid, and no one could objectively, reasonably conclude that. 

My view is, which I’ve expressed before, I really think we’ve gotten out of balance with spending on the schools vs. spending on all other town services. The clearest proof of that was when we increased spending on the schools last year and decreased spending on town services. That was fundamentally wrong to do that, and it creates an imbalance that is not good in the long term for the town.

The argument that we need to spend money on the schools because that’s the number one reason that people move to this town is only valid to a point. You reach a point where, if you spend too much on the schools in comparison to what you’re spending on other town services, to the point that it becomes the only reason people are moving to the town of Wilton, then the Town of Wilton will be in a lot of trouble. It’s just not a sustainable model.

GMW:  On the BoE side, what is often cited as the prime reason for the continuing budget increase, is because of Special Education. Some people might say that saying the BoE has more to cut [is code] for cutting Special Education. What is the solution–where do you think the BoE can look to cut?

MK:  I do not know. I’m not in a position to be able to say with specificity where they can and should cut. I want to clarify that I am not talking about cutting the school budget. I really think it’s an important distinction. What I’m talking about is not increasing the school budget.

I was very careful and deliberate when I wrote that Letter to the Editor last year about not increasing the school budget. I did that because the way that the proponents of the school budget have advocated for increasing the school budget is by turning around and arguing that we shouldn’t cut the school budget–cutting implies hurting and reducing. It’s a very effective argument and I am not in favor of hurting the schools or reducing anything. But I think there is a real distinction between not increasing and cutting. Where I’m drawing the line is I’m saying not to increase the budget. I’m not saying to cut the budget.

GMW:  But because of pre-negotiated increases in employment contracts, the budget has to go up in some areas, which means other areas have to get cut. So some place there will be cuts, on both sides, right?

MK:  What I’m talking about is overall spending. The BoE is a line item in the town budget. I’m not looking to cut or reduce that line item. What you’re saying is that in order for the BoE not to increase that line item, specific items within the BoE budget will have to be cut. What I’m saying is that knowing the quality of the people administering our schools, from the superintendent on down, and on up to the BoE, I really believe that with declining enrollment they can continue to provide the same level of services without increasing the budget.

If that means reducing headcount in proportion to the reduction in students, they can do that. And they should do that.

GMW:  Speaking about headcount, let’s go back to what you mentioned before–the numbers of police officers and firefighters that we have in town. For FY2017, after a few years of not being at full staff, the town went back to full staff in both the Police and Fire Departments. Do we need more than what we already have?

MK:  No I don’t think we need more than what we have. The distinction I would make is, is it desirable? Yes. Aspirational? Yes. Necessary? No.

In the current economic climate we cannot afford to increase spending. But we have an obligation to provide the essential services. I believe that we have been and continue to provide the essential services the town needs within the budget we have now.

GMW:  You’ve talked about the number of police officers and firefighters on duty during any given shift–do you think we would be better served with more personnel on duty than what we currently have?

MK:  The terminology is interesting. You use the term ‘better served’; it’s irrefutable that we would be better served if there were more services and more people. But I come back to, is it essential? And I do not think it’s essential to increase the staffing right now in either the Police or Fire Department.

When I say I don’t believe it’s essential, I’m not aware of any instances of anyone’s health or safety being put at risk because of the current levels of staffing.

With respect to the Fire Department, the fact that we only have six firefighters on a shift means to me that we’re providing the essential service of preserving life and protecting the safety of our residents. What we’re sacrificing and losing is protecting property. The way I see it, if there’s a fire emergency in town, we have the level of staffing necessary to get the residents out of their home so that their safety is not put at risk by a fire. But we don’t necessarily have the adequate staffing to protect their home.

GMW:  It’s fun interviewing a lawyer with the precise terminology. So would ‘essential’ be the same as ‘minimum required’?

MK:  [Laughs] Yes, it is, because what I believe the minimum is, is what’s essential to protect the health and safety of the residents of the Town of Wilton.

GMW:  Do you know what’s the cost of more police officers? What’s the cost of more firefighters?

MK:  I don’t think we need more police officers. That argument hasn’t been made to me yet. The Fire Department has been advocating and arguing that we need more firemen. My reaction so far to that, is not that we need more paid firefighters, we need more volunteers. I’m willing to spend money on volunteers before I’m willing to spend money on full-time paid firefighters.

One of the things that’s different than the Wilton Fire Department than virtually all of our surrounding neighbors–including New Canaan, Darien, Westport, where the cost of living is higher–all of their paid firefighters work together with volunteer firefighters and are supplemented by volunteer firefighters. There are viable volunteer fire departments in all surrounding towns and there’s a terrific volunteer fire department in Georgetown. I still don’t know the answer to the question as to why we don’t have a viable volunteer fire fighting force in the Town of Wilton.

But what I do know about the Town of Wilton is that we are full of volunteers, people who live and work in town who are willing to donate their services to help protect the safety of their fellow residents–specifically the Volunteer Ambulance Corps and CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team. We probably have the most robust CERT team of any of the surrounding towns. What that suggests to me is that we have people who are willing to volunteer their services in emergencies, but for some reason they’re not getting steered into firefighting. Because the greatest demand on the Wilton Fire Department is for medical services, maybe it’s possible to steer them into emergency medical services. Maybe the thing to do is to support and build up the Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Find out what the obstacles are to people joining the Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and try to eliminate the obstacles. Or create incentives for them. For example, if the biggest obstacle to joining WVAC is the financial and time commitment to be certified to the level of training the state requires, then pay them for the training or pay for the training (which they may already do). There are other things other towns have done, such as providing health insurance to their volunteers (either volunteer firefighters or volunteer ambulance people). I would look to increase the volunteer force and be willing to pay for incentives to increase the volunteer force before I would be looking to increase the full-time, paid emergency services staff.

GMW:  Let’s move on from budget talk. The big news recently was your change in political affiliation, from Republican to Unaffiliated. What was the reason behind the switch?

MK:  The main thing is, to me, freedom–freedom from the perception that I do certain things or I believe certain things because of my party affiliation. We talk a lot about being non-partisan, which I am to my core. It just seemed that the best way to be non-partisan is not to be partisan. Unaffiliating seemed the logical and appropriate thing to do.

GMW:  You’ve talked about divisive politics. The last election on the federal level was painful, and it crept into local politics. Did that play a part in your decision?

MK:  Definitely–the election was the trigger and why I decided to change my affiliation. We weren’t asked to vote for people, we were asked to vote against people, and that’s an anathema to me. That’s not who I am. I’m not a negative person. I do believe in being positive and doing good things, and I thought the election and the campaign was just the opposite of that.

GMW:  Did you feel that locally too?

MK:   I did talk about this a bit when I was running for the BoS. What I said was, I’m against anything that pits one group of people in town against another group of people in town. I don’t want to sound high-minded about this, but what we need to do is work more with each other than against each other.

What I’m trying to erase or combat are the dividing lines or the things that separate us. Even on the local level, if something divides us and causes us to take sides through the party label, then for me personally I’m going to get rid of that.

GMW:  The timing of your thought process on this also took place while there was discussion on the BoS about unaffiliated voters volunteering for the town, and the process for how people can get involved. The debate about numbers of signatures if there wasn’t a political party pathway to interview and volunteer. You were a proponent of unaffiliated volunteers needing to get a lot of signatures–eventually the BoS voted for fewer signatures. Did that discussion have any impact on your decision? Or did your thinking about it impact the discussion?

MK:  That discussion had no bearing whatsoever on my decision to becoming unaffiliated. That was completely separate.

GMW:  Now that you’re unaffiliated, and knowing that unaffiliated voters is the largest group of voters in Wilton, are you modeling for unaffiliated people about how they can get involved in the town.

MK:  I certainly don’t think that I’m modeling or leading, or that I expect people to follow. If anything, I’m following other people because the trend is away from party affiliation and becoming unaffiliated.

Where I fit into this is, I was motivated to become unaffiliated probably for the same reasons other people have, and that’s the trend. The party politics has become negative and divisive.

The parties seem to represent more the extremes in the parties rather than the moderates. I’ve always been a moderate, and if anything it doesn’t look like there’s a place for the moderates in either of the parties, and that steers me toward being unaffiliated.

GMW:  There have been skeptics who say that [the switch isn’t genuine], since you are a former member of the Republican Town Committee (RTC), a former chair of the RTC even, a delegate to the Republican State Convention this year. Some people have said that maybe this is a ploy to actually get another Republican on the BoS, to skirt the minority representation rules. What do you say about that?

MW:  We’re doing this over the phone, but if we were doing this interview face-to-face you would see me smiling because I’m not surprised that someone would suggest that. But anyone who knows me, knows how I think, how I do things, what my principles are, that’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s why I’m smiling, because I’m just not laughing. The idea that I would do anything like that, to give the Republicans an advantage on the BoS is just ridiculous.

[Laughs] Talk to [RTC chairman] Al Alper, he’s not too happy about it.

GMW:  Your term expires in 2019, but I’ve heard some people suggest that you’re interested in running for the Board of Education this year. True?

MK:  I’m impressed with your knowledge–you get good information. When I originally ran for the BoS, I did not want to–I wanted to run for the BoE. My interest was always prior to last year, being on the BoE rather than the BoS.

There have been plenty of discussions about me going to the Board of Education. But after last year’s debate on the Board of Ed budget, I decided I don’t have any interest in being on the BoE and I’m not a candidate for the BoE.

If you think about the things I’ve said in this conversation, it will make sense and fit together. What I saw in the budget cycle last year, the BoE–and in particular Bruce [Likly] as the chairman–they were real advocates for the school budget and getting as much money as they could for the school budget. That’s not where I’m at. I don’t think I could be a strong advocate for getting as much as I can for the schools, so it’s not an appropriate position for me to be in. So I’m not interested in running for the Board of Education.

I’ll tell you something, so I’m not holding anything back:  I’m on the Board of CT Legal Services, which provides free legal services to the poor statewide in CT. I do a lot of things outside the Town of Wilton that puts me in touch with what the needs are of the towns outside of the Town of Wilton. In particular, this decision that came down from the State Superior Court, about the funding formula for the urban schools in CT and the irrationality of the funding for schools in CT, I’m actually in complete agreement with.

The Wilton Public Schools are in absolutely great shape. They are going to do well no matter how much money you spend on them because of the parental involvement, because of the families, because of the people who are in the schools. Our kids are going to succeed no matter what. But me personally, Mike Kaelin, I’m more concerned with the kids in the schools in the cities of CT than I am with the kids in Wilton.

I want to be clear because I don’t want this to come across the wrong way–it’s not because I don’t care about the kids in Wilton; I’m just convinced that the kids in Wilton are going to do great, and I believe the kids in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, even Norwalk, I think they need the help on the state level, not us.

GMW:  If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you sound more like a Democrat.

MK:  Well that’s part of why I unaffiliated, because on a lot of issues I do not line up with the Republican party. I’m also extremely pro gun control, and I think what [Senator] Chris Murphy did was great. As you know, because you follow politics, that’s heresy in the Republican party.

GMW:  Outside of the budget, and I know economic development is top of mind, but what are the most important issues facing the selectmen for the coming year?

MK:  To just keep doing what we’re doing. I think Lynne is doing a fabulous job as the first selectman. Working with [former first selectman] Bill [Brennan] and working with Lynne has given me a better appreciation for how much professional management skill and time is called for in our first selectman. What I’ve learned in working with both Bill and Lynne now is, the fact that we’ve been able to get by as long as we have as a town with the first selectman role defined as it is now is just pure good fortune that we have people like Bill and Lynne, who are basically willing to volunteer their time–they’re not doing it for the money, and we couldn’t pay them what they’re worth to do it.

What I’ve learned about the BoS, we do need a full-time manager, and that’s the first selectman. All of our peer towns have professional town managers. But we’ve been able to get away with not having a professional town manager because we’ve had the good fortune that people with those skills have run for first selectman and gotten elected.

If you just look at the compensation and benefits that we pay for first selectman, just start with the basic fact that we don’t give them retirement benefits. What that translates into, we would never be able to get a professional manager in the middle of their career to take this job, with no retirement benefits. We’re just fortunate to have people that don’t need retirement benefits, don’t need the extra income, and are willing to do it. And I think we should be willing to say nothing but, ‘Thank you!’ to Bill and Lynne for what they’ve been willing to do.

I also think my most important goal on the BoS was to instill trust and confidence in as many people as we could, and I think we’ve gone a long way to doing that. I’m so relieved and feel so much better that we don’t have these battles going on about the construction at the Miller-Driscoll School. And we don’t have battles going on about lights on playing fields, and stuff like that.

The reason we don’t is not that we gave into one side of the issue, it’s because we talked to and listened to both sides on the issues. What we’ve accomplished on the BoS is we have less people throwing stones at us and making wild accusations against us. More people who feel like even if we didn’t do what they wanted us to do, we listened to them and treated them with respect.