It’s not even November yet, and Wilton has seen one of the most surprising events happen already in its election season. Longtime Republican Town Committee chairman, Al Alper, sought his party’s nomination to run for the Board of Selectmen (BOS) but was not endorsed. Since then, he has filed paperwork with the Secretary of State and has begun the process of gathering signatures to challenge the candidates who were endorsed by the RTC at a Sept. 12 primary, and, if he’s not successful there, to get on the general election ballot as a petition candidate.
In his first interview since the night the RTC endorsements were made, Alper talks with GOOD Morning Wilton about why he is continuing to pursue a run for selectman, why he is looking to take the run to a party primary, and what his thoughts are on the events of the night of endorsements. The conversation was wide-ranging, and what follows has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
GOOD Morning Wilton: So you’re definitely moving ahead, collecting signatures, to try and primary?
Al Alper: That’s correct. I’m also collecting signatures for the general election, but I haven’t made the decision yet. The hurdle for the general election is 44 signatures. Every time I ask somebody to sign the primary petition, I ask them to sign the general petition as well. I just haven’t made up my mind yet.
I’ve only spoken to a handful of people adamant about me not running. The majority of the people who have taken a position about me running, they’re kind of evenly split on do the primary, don’t do the general, or don’t do the primary, just do the general. Everybody has their own opinion as to what it would do to the ballot and what impact it would have on the party.
As a longtime party member and a great believer in the two-party system, this is a long row to hoe to make this decision. But I’m a big believer in the process. The process includes a mechanism, for going back to the people. This was one of the things that weighed heavily on my decision.
A lot of people, including people in the RTC who were there and who went through the endorsement, they complained a lot about the opacity, the lack of inclusion, the closed doors. What is more inclusive than a primary? Nothing. If you want inclusion and openness and a chance for everyone to weigh in, have a primary. Hear what we have to say. Don’t leave it in the hands of a few people. If you don’t like the process, you should be fully supportive of a primary. It is literally the most open process you can have in a democratic society. It gives everyone a chance to weigh in. Every man and woman of legal voting age has a right to vote, if you’re a Republican in the Republican primary. And they’ll all have a voice and they’ll all be heard, as opposed to leaving it to a handful of people on the committee.
I believe in the process, so I believe in the endorsement. If I had gotten the endorsement and one of the other two candidates chose to primary, I would’t talk them off the ledge. That’s the process. Let the voters be heard.
GMW: I’ve been asked the question, who pays for a primary? The answer is the town does.
AA: That has weighed on my decision too. I could make it cost nothing to the town, go the petition route and go straight on the ballot and be part of the general election, which is certainly something I’m thinking about.
Everyone who knows me knows I’m one of the most fiscally conservative people there are. Everybody knows how I feel about lower taxes, the cost of housing, and that in order to offset the high cost of taxes in Wilton, everyone is lowering their housing prices to make them more attractive on market. We keep lowering prices because our taxes are going up.
Unless and until we figure out a way to either reduce the cost of running this town, or enhancing the zoning base. You can fill up every retail and business establishment and it will have marginal impact on tax revenue. You have to do something with Planning & Zoning (P&Z), but P&Z has to adhere to the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD). Unless and until you change the POCD, the zoning regulation changes are also de minimisly impactful on the tax base.
That’s why I’m a strong advocate for a POCD that allows the character of the town to be sustainable, while reducing the tax burden on her citizens. So that the people who make up this town can actually afford to stay here.
I’m a strong advocate for that dynamic that will help us reduce the tax burden, and the way the town runs.
GMW: You’re not really saying anything markedly different from the first selectman race two years ago and what the candidates said then. Actually, it’s the same argument and formula that everybody makes. You don’t think that’s being done right now?
AA: Changing the underlying structure of the way that we zone and develop this town is not an overnight process. But unless and until we do change the way we zone and develop this town, the burden of taxes is going to be borne on the citizens who own houses in this town. If you’re paying for a $120 million budget, that burden is all theirs to bear. The budget doesn’t change no matter what price your house is. What changes is the mill rate so that you pay more.
GMW: So you’re running because you want to push for deeper cuts?
AA: I’m going to push for smarter government. I know there are members of the BOS and Board of Education (BOE) that are working on this. I’ve got daylight into the budget process, that excepting for Lynne, nobody on the BOS has, only because in my eight years on the Board of Finance (BOF), I looked at the line item level at the budgets for the BOE and the BOS. Most people only look at the BOS budget. I have daylight into those line items and I see a number of areas that can be relieved through cooperative services, shared services. There are lots of ways to get where we need to get, you just need to take a bite out of all of those apples. In a primary I’m the only one that brings that to the table, I’m the only one with daylight on those line items. I come to the table with that already–it’s one less burden to have to overcome to be a more effective selectmen.
GMW: I want to make sure we stay away from campaigning for the time being–there’s time for that down the road. Why are you considering going to a primary?
AA: I’m considering because the BOS needs a strong counterbalance to what I see as an imbalanced relationship on the BOS. They need a strong counterbalance in favor of the taxpayers and citizens, and I don’t see that right now. It’s weighing more heavily on one side. I want to see stronger and better leadership, as a board. It needs a stronger voice and a proven leader. And I’ve got both of those skills.
GMW: When you say it’s ‘weighing more heavily on one side,’ what does that mean? Are you talking about the Democrats?
AA: I’m not talking about party, I’m talking about more personality. We need a countervailing weight of personality, one that will be more questioning of the status quo. Look at the way I behaved on the BOF, I didn’t accept the status quo, as the way it’s always been. I think the prevailing weight on the BOS is that. Not everybody, but that’s the prevailing weight.
It needs a stronger counterbalance if for no other reason than to question and ask questions, and demand additional information. So that the decisions are more informed. Who doesn’t want better and more informed decisions?
GMW: Since you’re also the chair of the RTC, it’s hard for me to go talk to somebody about how the RTC views going to primary.
AA: If I put my chair hat–but not speaking on behalf of the RTC, I’m speaking more about the mechanics of party politics–the process is defined by statutes, laws, by-laws, rules and regulations, and those allow for a primary process. There is nothing wrong with a primary or it wouldn’t be allowed. As a party, the party allows for it.
How do the individual members feel? Ask individual members. I can just tell you that the party allows for it.
It’s not the first time we had a primary. Tina Gardner primary’d–she was successful. Marilyn Gould primary’d. So these aren’t anathema to the party. Individual members may or may not like it. I’ve had individual members sign my petition and individual members out there getting signatures for me.
In a primary, the party backs no one. Those are the rules. In a primary, there is no party-endorsed candidate candidate. That tells you how the party feels. If somebody can demonstrate that enough Republicans want them to run–in this case 210 or more–that person should be allowed to run, the party committee has to step aside and not weigh in at all. The rules say that. The party can’t have an opinion, because the Republican body politic has to weigh in on it.
All those naysayers who say the process was exclusive, not inclusive; opaque, not transparent–you should be signing my petition today, knocking on my door. You should be demanding a primary because it’s open and transparent. Everything you’ve said that’s wrong, I’ve heard you. You’ve helped me make this decision. If you truly believe in this position and weren’t throwing spitballs from the corners and sidelines, come down and sign the petition.
GMW: Devil’s advocate–there are people who’ll say you’ve suddenly changed your tune. That you never wanted it to be open, but now that it suits you, and you need it…
AA: They can say what they want, the rules are the rules. Do I want things to be more open? That’s not relevant. As chairman, I don’t represent my opinion, I represent the party, its rules and processes.
My themes have never changed, my belief system doesn’t change. As a chairman you represent the rules, the bylaws, and the voice of the people who operate within those rules and bylaws. Those rules and bylaws allow the process to bear out the way it’s been bearing out.
Whether I like it or not is not relevant. No chairman should allow their voice to have more weight than the other members of their committee; if it are then it’s malpractice.
GMW: The argument could be made that the voice of the members of the RTC were heard, and the process the way the party has built the process happened, and those voices were heard with the two candidates they endorsed.
AA: You could say that, but again the rules call for another opportunity for the voices to be heard if it went against their representatives. I that was the be-all and end-all, then there’d be no opportunity for primary.
My belief system is the same. I believe in rules, in process, in the obligation for members to follow them. The rules say those are the endorsed candidates, unless somebody wants to primary. If they get enough signatures to represent that they want somebody else on the ballot, those people are given an opportunity to weigh-in in a primary. I’m just following the same rules.
Those people that think the process leading into, and out of, the meeting that endorses candidates? Come sign my petition. Because a primary gives you absolute transparency, not opacity. Absolute openness, not closed doors.
GMW: Who is supporting your effort?
AA: There are people who are carrying and getting signatures. They’re clearly supporting me. I want to be careful before naming them, because I didn’t ask. I did ask one person, and he said yes. Even though they’re getting signatures–and they’re in town, if you run into them, clearly they support me–I believe trust and loyalty is paramount, so unless they give me permission, I can’t use names.
[Second selectman] Mike Kaelin said he supports me and supports my petitioning process. Mike can’t sign a petition because he’s unaffiliated, and Mike can’t collect signatures because he’s not a republican. But I think that makes a big statement. He’s a former chairman of the RTC. A member of the BOS. A strong, elected official, who carried significant votes in the last election is supporting something. That says something. And it’s another reason why running makes sense.
GMW: I’ve heard you want to be first selectman.
AA: I do not want to be first selectman. My business is growing by leaps and bounds. I have no interest in being first selectman. Zero. I can’t say that strong enough.
I am a much better voice as a member of a larger group than I am standing at the front of the group. It allows me the opportunity to take sharper positions for the benefit of a narrower constituency in support of them, so the board can be better informed in making a decision.
My principles never changed. Much like I said before, as the chairman of the RTC my opinion is but one voice, and I have no business saying my opinion when I’m representing the RTC. Same thing when you’re chairman or first selectman, you can’t take on those roles in the leadership position. Real leaders never should take on those roles in the leadership position. Because real leaders lead everybody. Real leaders have to be contemplative and reasoned in their approach, for everybody.
As an individual member you’re afforded the opportunity to have sharper elbows at times.
GMW: In other words, you want to make sure you’d be a Republican-on-the-BOS?
AA: I don’t think party matters in that statement, I don’t know where that figures in to those statements.
GMW: When you talk about constituency, who else are you talking about?
AA: When I was on the BOF, I was a staunch advocate for taxpayers–that’s a constituency. I was a staunch advocate for senior citizens–that’s a constituency. I was a staunch advocate for low-income families–that’s another constituency. When I talk about constituencies, I’m talking about silos of groups of individuals that have a specific position, viewpoint, set of values, whatever that is, and they need a voice, and be heard loud and clear. You can’t do that when you’re in charge of a board or commission, which a first selectman is. You can’t take those positions and be their advocates. Because you carry too much weight.
A leader carries more weight in the room. As a leader, chairman, or first selectman, people listen to you; they’re moved by you; they believe you have more information because you do. They believe that information informed your opinion, and therefore it might be theirs too. And therefore they should be giving that a higher consideration.
As a chairman or first selectman, you should never be swaying people that way with how you personally feel. You’re supposed to mete out governing, as a leader evenly, responsibly. I never want to be the first selectman because I don’t want to give up that voice. I want my opinion to come through which is why I’d prefer to be just a member rather than a leader.
GMW: What’s coming through is that you’re dissatisfied with the person who is first selectman now.
AA: No one does a perfect job, myself included. In many ways I do a worse job than many other people. My personal opinions about any of the board members, first selectman or otherwise, are not weighing on my decision to primary. My decision to primary is based on what I see as a board needing a counterbalance.
You could argue that boards and commissions are reflective of their leadership. I agree to some degree. We need more leadership on that Board [of Selectmen]. But every member of that Board is a leader in their own right. So that responsibility falls on all of them proportionally. The chairman or first selectman carries more weight, therefore they take a bigger proportion of that responsibility.
In that way, I’m dissatisfied with the makeup of the [BOS], the way it’s weighted today. That’s not party weighed–because clearly we [Republicans] hold a majority on the Board as a party. It’s just in the way it’s meting out governance, it’s weighted poorly. It needs stronger leadership, it needs sharper elbows on certain things, if for no other reason than to raise questions that others won’t. To bring insight that others don’t have because of my exposure to the greater town and its governance through my near decade as chairman of the RTC, eight years on the BOF, years on P&Z, Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), the Southwest Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA). I’ve been around so long that that footbridge we’re looking to build across the river from the train station–I’m the guy that brought it to [former first selectman] Bill Brennan when I was on SWRPA. That’s how it got to Wilton all those years ago. I’m not patting myself on the back, I’m just saying that’s how long I’ve been doing this.
I’m talking about the outcome, the vote, the way they’re meting out governance. They need a stronger contrast to counterbalance the way it’s being governed today. That’s all.
I have no interest in being first selectman. As the first selectman I could never be the counterbalance, with no opinion. I don’t want to be first selectman.
GMW: What specifically are you pointing to, where governance hasn’t been meted out properly?
AA: No, I don’t want to go into the specifics. It’s too easy for people to jump to conclusions. They use the specifics to think they’ve been successful in identifying who I’m speaking about. And I’m not. I’m speaking generally because it’s really more principle than anything else. It has nothing to do with the individuals, it has everything to do with the principle.
I don’t want to talk about specifics because it’s what the hammers in search of a nail would use to find the nail. I look at social media, I look at the emails I get more regularly, I look at all these people, they believe under every rock is the conspiracy they knew existed. That in every decision is a criminal exacting their trade on the taxpayer and the citizen. It’s the con man (or woman) trying to get something more for themselves. It’s sad.
In many ways, they so much love to hear themselves talk, that they forget (or don’t care, because they can’t see past their own ego) that what they’re doing is actually hurting everybody. They’re the con man. They’re the criminal. What they’re doing is devaluing everybody’s houses and the town, by publicly leveling accusations that… who wants to move here?
When I sat on the Board of Finance, the real estate agents have said this, this isn’t something I’m making up. Then they blame those who govern the town for not lowering taxes. We wouldn’t have to necessarily so much, if you’d stop bashing the town! Find me the evidence and I will stand by your side, and bring it to justice. Instead of picking up every rock and finding conspiracy that doesn’t exist. Stop throwing out innuendo, vaguely disguised as a question, turning neighbor against neighbor, as if you know something mythical. That’s what’s hurting the town.
That’s also an example of the voice I think needs to come out on the BOS because nobody is saying things like this. But if I were a member on the BOS I could still say it. And the first selectman couldn’t say that, and shouldn’t.
For all those reasons I want to run.
(If you would like to support that effort, I’ve got petitions in my office. I say this to your readers. Plenty here to sign.)
GMW: Anything else you want to add?
AA: I love this town. From the minute I came into this town, I raised my hand to get involved. I did that because I’m a great believer that if you love something you should fight to keep it. The way you fight to keep a town is not by throwing bombs in social media, but by raising your hand and getting involved to make a difference. I did that the day I walked in, because I believe in this town, I believe in its character, and its culture–but for the few characters that make us look bad.
I want this to be a place my kids could come back to. The only way they’ll come back is if they can afford it. That’s going to take leadership.