Lynne Vanderslice, Candidate: The GMW Interview
One week ago today, Lynne Vanderslice was endorsed by the Wilton Republican Town Committee and chosen to be their candidate to run for the office of Wilton’s first selectman. GOOD Morning Wilton had the opportunity to have a conversation with her this week about her run for office.
GOOD Morning Wilton: For the most part in the races for first selectman and the Board of Selectmen, the nominees aren’t necessarily people who are so entrenched in politics.
Lynne Vanderslice: It is a good thing. Even though I’ve been on the Board of Finance for seven years, that’s not the bulk of my experience in town. I haven’t been on the RTC. Mike Kaelin, he’s been involved in the Charter Commission, but he’s only been on the BoS for less than a year. The other two people coming into the BoF are totally new. Like I said that night, it’s great that we have new people coming in, you always get a new perspective when that happens.
GMW: Why did you decide to run?
LV: I’ve lived in town 28 years, I really truly do love this town. We came to Wilton, just getting married, looking to buy a house, and my husband’s aunt and uncle lived here and were raising four children. We loved the environment–I grew up in a small New England town, where everybody knew everybody. I wanted that. As I was raising my son, I got more involved in the community.
It really has been a 20 year period of really interesting, worthwhile things I’ve been involved with, and I’ve just met so many great people. I first got involved in ABC (A Better Chance of Wilton). I knew no one in the organization. From there, [former first selectman and town historian] Bob Russell spoke to me about joining the Wilton Library board. Things developed from there, and it kind of happened.
Friends and people have suggested I run, but after a BoF meeting, well over a year ago, [former BoF member] Jim Meinhold was the first person within town government who said it. I love the town, we’re here, we’re staying. If my son wants to come back, I want it to be the kind of community that he wants to come back to. I meet people who were friends with my husband’s cousins who come back to raise a family in Wilton, and I want that for my child too, or for any of the kids who grow up here. I want to keep the town going and vibrant.
GMW: That speaks to me, like why I do GMW. We take from Wilton and to have the opportunity to give back is an important thing.
LV: A community is only as good as the people who are in it, engaged, and in all my years, this has been a really engaged community. I think that’s what makes the town attractive to people. It makes you want to stay and be a part of it. It builds on itself–the more you become involved, the more you want to be involved.
GMW: What will make you a good first selectman? Why should someone vote for you?
LV: They can look at my experience. That’s the most important thing. I do have a lot of experience in Wilton. The funny thing about being a candidate is you’re talking about yourself all the time, but when you govern you have to be collaborative. That’s what it’s all about. Within the experience you’ll see the kind of collaborative work that I’ve done–whether it was at ABC and getting the second house built on Cannon Rd...
There’s a lot of committee work, a lot of consensus building that goes on–the same thing when you’re on the board of finance, and pretty much everything I’ve done, the Wilton Playshop, the same thing. They were all working boards, so we had to work together as a board; everybody has something to contribute and everybody can learn from each other.
GMW: What sets you apart from your opponent, Deborah McFadden?
LV: I’d go to experience. I have a lot of experience involved with organizations in town; she has a lot of political experience. It’s a different kind of experience. I have the executive experience in my professional career; I’ve managed a department with 150 people, about the same size as the town. I have a financial background, and I have had to do a lot of communicating in the role, particularly at ABC. Even though I’m not a communication professional, I have had to in all the roles that I’ve had–certainly when you’re doing development, actively fundraising, or in the case of building the second ABC house, that required a lot of communicating out in the community. I feel I’m bringing a whole different type of experience than she brings.
GMW: One thing she’s talked about is the ability for her as a Democrat to connect better in Hartford. If you’re first selectman, how will you be able to do that?
LV: First of all, we have Toni [Boucher] and Gail [Lavielle] in Hartford and I’m going to work with both of them, I have a good relationship with both of them–I was on the BoF with Gail and I’ve known Toni for years. We have two strong advocates–and let’s not forget Tom O’Dea, because he actually represents me where I live. I have a longtime connection with him.
There are certainly lots of opportunities for me to testify on different issues, and I intend to do that. I intend to, just as Bill [Brennan] has, work collaboratively with other area first selectmen.
Hartford is my biggest concern going into this job, because there are potentially a lot of negative things that could come out of there–with the large deficit, there’s already been some reaching into our property taxes, we’ve got to be concerned about the grants. We’ve seen them accept a budget with a big deficit, so Hartford’s going to have to change that thinking if they’re going to help us as a town. I can continue to be an advocate, as all Republicans can advocate about what they see as concerns are.
GMW: There’s been talk about getting newer, younger people involved on town boards and committees, in grassroots activities. Do you think Wilton needs to see newer people stepping up?
LV: Having been a parent–and I only raised one child, but I have friends who raised several children–I know how difficult it is to be engaged in your children’s lives, especially if your spouse works in the city or far away, or if you’re both two working parents, or even if you don’t have kids and you work in New York City or Hartford. It isn’t unusual that it’s the empty nesters and beyond that tend to volunteer. But I would like to help engage more of the younger people in town.
If you look at the voting it is skewed to the people who are older. The schools are 75 percent of the budget. They’re why a significant number of people come here. They’re very, very important. Besides the other amenities–everyone wants their roads plowed, everyone wants to be safe–there are a lot of reasons why parents with younger children would want to be engaged, and at least vote. I’d like to make outreach in that area.
Yes, I’d like to see more people involved, but we’ve got to find some realistic ways to get them involved with their time constraints.
GMW: You’ve talked about ways to get people more engaged–selectmen listening hours. How do you want people to have more input in what’s happening? People can talk a big game on Facebook or elsewhere, but how do you get them to really come out and vote, or get involved in other ways?
LV: A couple things. One is what I want to do with the first selectmen open listening hours is give people the opportunity to just come in and say what they want to say. Some might be during the day, some at night, on Saturday. But the best engagement is one-on-one engagement. In a one-on-one conversation, you get a dialog which you don’t get if it’s just an online post.
If people know the person who’s first selectman, if you have a relationship, then you’re paying more attention. That’s the idea of opening it up and inviting people to come in.
There are other ways we can work to push out the vote–do a better job with more signage, more notices, social media. Let’s collect emails and get notices out to everyone. Twitter. If someone is sending you a message right there, you don’t forget. If you hear it enough, with enough people encouraging everyone, you’ll see more activity.
When I was younger, many of my friends formed a group called “Citizens for Wilton’s Future.” They were out there driving the vote. I think we can get there again.
GMW: Let’s talk economic development. What do you want to say to local Wilton business owners who live in town?
LV: I am very pro-business. We were at 11-percent of the grand list was commercial; we’re now up to 14-percent. That’s in the years that Bill has been here, and I want to continue that growth. I support business.
We’ve got to have the right blend. I love the semi-rural, I love looking out at the stone walls and trees, and want that kind of community. But in order for it to be a vibrant community, we have to have a strong business element. In order to move that grand list we need continued investment. So I support the idea of investment in the community.
I’m thrilled we have an Economic Development Committee (EDC); that’s a good step. Their website just came out, there’s a sign progress that’s been made. I’d like them to be a resource for businesses in town.
Last night I went to the Planning & Zoning meeting, and there three business related hearings: we had a large property owner looking to attract new tenants; we had an existing business looking to expand; then we had a small new business looking to come in. I think that was great, and I’d like to work with the EDC, and P&Z, that’s really where it’s at.
They have the Plan of Conservation and Development that they’re responsible for, and I would like to continue to work with them but I want to move that needle, from 14-percent to higher, but in a responsible way.
GMW: The word ‘responsible’ is an interesting one. Because I’ve sat through a lot of those P&Z meetings, and I see–it’s local government and you’re dealing with volunteers. Sometimes it moves at a glacial pace. I’ve heard businesses complain about having to go back month after month, having to pay an architect for another drawing, having to adjust something else. Do we need to perhaps take a look at the way that process works?
LV: I’m not an expert on the P&Z process, and can’t really answer that question. But I went last night to listen and learn. I’m somebody who listens, asks questions and that’s what I tend to do. I definitely want to work with them.
GMW: In terms of landlords, you mentioned in your acceptance speech last week about talking with the largest commercial land owners in Wilton. People have an impression that commercial rents are “too high” in Wilton for businesses to have a fair chance to survive. Is there a need to address this with Wilton’s commercial landlords? In our interview with Bill Brennan, he talked about the landlord at Town Green who takes steps to improve the property for his tenants, or others who look for good balances in types of businesses they rent to, to encourage business health. I’ve also talked to landlords who say that stereotype of “Wilton’s too high rents” demonizes landlords, and businesses need to have a better business plan.
LV: At the end of the day, if you own a building and you want to rent it, there are generally market rents in the area. If you put the rent at an appropriate rate, you’ll rent your space. If you don’t, then your space doesn’t get rented. It’s supply and demand, basic economics between landlord and prospective tenant.
In Fairfield County, we have one of the highest vacancy rates in the country. Wilton is doing better than that, so I think some of that works itself out. A landlord evaluates a business as a prospective tenant, but I don’t think we should be in that business, as a town government. I don’t think rent prices is an issue the town should be involved with.
GMW: All the same, as part of that complicated puzzle, drive along Rt. 7 and through Wilton Center, and count the number of “For Lease” signs. Our overall occupancy rate may be high, but the visual of sign after sign after sign of commercial “Space For Rent” signs isn’t great.
LV: Sure, when you go through it does concern you because it says something about the vitality of the town. That’s where you go back to Planning & Zoning. What they were discussing last night was changing–increasing–parking. Down on Rt. 7, in the corporate park area, currently we’re currently at 20-percent of the property can be [parking] and they were looking at increasing that to accommodate that office density has changed. Those are the kind of things that need to happen.
GMW: What do you think about lower Rt. 7?
LV: Lower Rt. 7 is the gateway to the community. There are some areas that need improvement. There are some businesses the town has been working with and should continue to hope we can see some improvements. There are some other businesses, in the time I’ve been here, there have been some significant improvements in our corporate parks. They’re beautiful, tree-lined, flowers…it’s a commercial zone but it has the feeling of the community. When you first come into Wilton, you don’t get that same sense.
When town planner Bob Nerney spoke to the League of Women Voters, he talked about the building owners he was trying to work with. I support those efforts by Bob.
GWM: Along the same lines, what about Rt. 7 in general. It could be our biggest asset in terms of bringing dollars into Wilton businesses. Think how many thousands of people drive up and down every day and don’t know Wilton Center is there. I have a friend who complains that the pretty blue and white Wilton signs are in places that you see when you already know you’re going there, not where it tells people who don’t.
LV: I understand the issue you’re raising, that signage to Rt. 7 would be very helpful in directing traffic [into town]. I don’t know the history on what has happened because I’m sure it’s something Bill has worked towards, and I will continue to work toward.
GMW: You mentioned signage. Any thoughts on the recent signage discussion and issues being talked about in town?
LV: I’m happy they’re doing that. What you saw was a business owner, who had a strong opinion and went to P&Z, she got some support from other people in the community, and then P&Z was responsive. I think that’s the way it should be.
I feel that way about everything in town. Whether it’s something you want–the people who want to turf the field, they got the support around them and then came to the town, and that’s the way it should be. The town is made up of other townspeople; it’s a government for the people that live there. That kind of responsive approach by the board is the correct thing to do, and people should feel comfortable to come and raise these issues.
GMW: The night you were nominated, you talked about taxes and the need to lower costs in town. What are some of those costs that need to be examined? Where do residents think about cutting back or sacrificing?
LV: In general, what I think citizens want is a government to deliver the quality of services, they expect it to be done cost-efficiently and timely. They also want the government to serve as their partner, to keep their property affordable and attractive should they ever want to sell that property. That’s the basic premise.
As first selectman, I want to continue to build on the success I think Bill has had in his 10 years here. Three years in was the downturn. That’s about the time I joined the BoF. It really caused the town to pivot and work towards minimization of taxes. Bill was successful in getting the town unions to freeze wages. Some things were done to minimize taxes. I just want to continue that same approach.
I don’t have any set statement now of what I think will be done. But that’s going to be my focus also: minimizing the taxes. But you still have to provide the quality services, in a timely manner.
I am open, I want to hear everyone’s ideas. The more ideas you hear, the more you might hear something you won’t usually think about.
But I’m very aware of what’s happening in Hartford, most people have just had a tax increase, and there’s nothing to indicate we’re going to get any relief from Hartford. I go into this position knowing we’re fortunate, we’ve been well-managed, we are in strong financial health, our pension is well-funded (unlike a lot of other places), so I’m not expecting any surprises from the town. I know I can go in and work with the other BoS members, there’s a strong message coming from the BoF.
At our last BoF meeting, we discussed the vote on the last budget, the fact that there’s a need to respond to that. Fully expecting based on those discussions, that’s going to happen, and as the first selectman I’ve got to lead with that. It’s on everybody’s mind.
GMW: Yet there’s been criticism that, even with the minimization that’s been done in the past, there’s still too much spending.
LV: That’s what that vote was telling us. As a BoF member you have a certain amount of knowledge. Then as first selectman you develop even more knowledge. I will go into that position and you’ll see the same thing I did as a BoF member–learn it, ask a lot of questions and figure out what those opportunities are.
I would love people to come forward and say what they think [the opportunities] are. I’ll certainly be looking for them.
GMW: There’s been steady criticism in the last few years, particularly about the Bd. of Education, that, “20 years ago it wasn’t so expensive, and our return on investment with how much we’re putting in now to the education budget has dropped. Performance and scores have gone down but we’re spending more.” Administrators took a look at it and proved it was the opposite.
LV: A lot of it comes to communication. On the BoF we started having public hearings. They were fairly well attended for the first maybe three years, and then everybody said, ‘OK, now I understand what the BoF is doing and how the mil rate is calculated.’ I think you need to do that same thing whether you’re the BoE or the BoS–more communication, getting that info out there.
I think people want people in government to be approachable. Reaching out and communicating helps people feel you’re approachable.
GMW: Perfect segue to my next question. Transparency has been a buzzword this year, whether it’s said by Sensible Wilton or elsewhere. What are your concrete ideas, in addition to selectmen open hours, to increase transparency?
LV: I’d like to improve the town website, to make it easier for people to find information. I hear that from people. Maybe, where it’s appropriate, allow for more discussion or back-and-forth on some issues. If you look at my years on the BoF, I have been an advocate and participated in those public hearings. I met with the PTA, I did the outreach with other members of the board. I also never hesitated to share my view. We engaged with the public. We made our decision-making very transparent by developing that mil rate model that we put up on the screen.
Part of that is an educational aspect. If you look at what was done on the BoF and my role in that, I think you’ll get an indication of how I will operate as the first selectman.
GMW: I’m going to toss out some topics, and I’d like your kinda quick response. Eversource natural gas pipeline.
LV: I think that’s been great. That is a big cost saver for people and a big cost saver for the school. It’s a big positive and I applaud Bill and the BoS for getting that done.
GMW: Artificial turf field.
LV: In general, I’m very much an advocate for public-private partnerships. They need to be well planned out, well documented, and all the financial aspects need to be well-researched, understood and agreed to up front, whether it’s the current or future costs associated with it. Then it just needs to go through the normal process anything will go through. That’s what’s happening now, and it will play out. Get the facts, get all your numbers, and then come to the town.
At this point I honestly don’t know a whole lot about turf fields, though I am actively seeking to learn more. I have a nephew who played football at Boston College on turf so I have spoken with him and other former BC players. One former player upon graduation worked for BC’s athletic department including during the installation of a new field. Therefore he was able to provide me with two perspectives. He shared information about maintenance and how the new field addressed some of the issues noted with the prior turf field. I will continue to try to learn more on the subject and listen to all views.
GMW: Parks & Recreation. The BoF has brought it under closer scrutiny. Some residents have criticized management, or the condition of Merwin Meadows.
LV: I’ve always had a good opinion of Parks & Rec. When my son was growing up, we used it–classes, Merwin Meadows, my husband helped build that playground. I’ve known [director] Steve Pierce for a long time, so I expect to have a good working relationship with the Parks & Rec commission.
You raise things that are different issues, though. The audit that was done of Parks & Rec, and the fraud assessment is a completely different issue than what happens at Merwin Meadows.
GMW: Okay, let’s start with the audit and financial controls. Is the department on a better track?
LV: The Parks & Rec Commission themselves have assigned two commissioners to work on this. There is more work to be done. The BoF had a fraud assessment done and that indicated areas that need to be worked on. That’s now with the BoS and the BoE and they’ll get back to the BoF with their plan. But obviously this is something I’ll continue to work on as the first selectman. You have audits to identify areas that need to be improved and then you do the work to improve it.
I’m happy the BoS authorized the audit, I’m happy the BoF did the audit, now we just have to implement the recommendations.
GMW: In the last couple years there have been some bumps in the road with Miss Sharon’s On School Road program, Merwin Meadows, the condition of the tennis courts…anecdotally, it’s something people criticize.
LV: Because people see it more and interact with the department more. We have a Parks & Rec commission. If people have concerns, it’s important they go to the Parks & Rec commission. That’s the first place you should go to, because they’re responsible for the management of it.
As a community, we have assets–our buildings, our parks, Merwin Meadows. We need to invest to maintain them. If people see things or have concerns, bring it to the Parks & Rec commission, because they’re the people that are responsible for dealing with it.
GMW: As the potential office-holder who oversees these departments, what are things that you as a resident and potential town official see that you’d like to introduce, change, fix, direct?
LV: I don’t have an agenda that I want to fix or that I want to see the town invest in. I don’t have that, other than I want to see us properly maintain what we own. If people do, if there is something they want, bring it in as a public-private partnership. If you’re looking for some town land that you want to use for some idea that you have–formulate your idea, get it in place, get your supporters, and then come to the town with your idea and I’m happy to listen to it.
GMW: Let’s play word association. First thing that comes to mind.
LV: You’re kidding me. [Laugs]
GMW: Mil rate.
LV: Calculation. Complex.
GMW: Lower Rt. 7.
LV: Business driven.
LV: Democrats for Lynne Vanderslice. [laughs]
GMW: Anything else you want to tell readers?
I hope people will look at my 7-year record on the Board of Finance where they will see that minimizing tax increases and increasing transparency has been my focus. I like the way the BoF operates–we’re open, we say what we think, we talk like we’re in our living room. We’re not politicians, we’re just citizens. I’m not a politician and I will never be a politician.
I am running as a Republican and I truly am honored to have the Republican nomination. But, I am seeking the support of everyone. When I am first selectman, I’m going to represent everyone in the town. I want to be a first selectman for everyone.
I also want to say a couple comments about Bill Brennan. He’s been a strong leader for the community over the last 10 years. If you go back and you read some of the articles from way, way back, when he was on the BoF. They were talking about an 8.5-percent increase or a 9-percent increase. The numbers were so different. And Bill was the guy at the table saying, ‘We can’t be doing this, it isn’t sustainable.’
He has moved the town forward on a lot of things. He’s had some big accomplishments as first selectman–Wilton Commons, the idea to work with the developer and move 44 Westport Rd. to Station Rd., putting the bridge over the river to town from the train station. Bill’s done a lot of really great things for the town and that needs to be recognized.
He could have spent the last 10 years golfing. Instead, he chose to work full time for the community, and he has to be applauded for that.
That’s my goal, as first selectman, to be as successful. And to be as committed to this town.