photo: Shawn Kahal Photography
There are a growing number of residents who have recently stepped up to get involved and volunteer significant time to serve the town of Wilton. This sit-down interview one in a series of profiles of a handful of these individuals who are helping steer the town forward as members of various boards and commissions. It is our hope that it inspires other residents to get involved with town projects, boards, activities and issues.
Meet Sarah Gioffre, chair of Wilton’s Parks and Recreation Commission. She joined the commission in March of this year and was elected to lead the group very quickly—a daunting role to take on at such a busy time in the department with many things in flux.
Gioffre and her husband, Scott, have lived in town for the past 15 years with their four children. She has a background in management consulting and human resources.
GMW: What was it that spoke to you and made you step up to say, “I want to help out my town’s government.”
Sarah Gioffre: It was the negativity, quite honestly. People complaining and griping. I was starting to think about it when Lynne Vanderslice was running for first selectman and then elected, and with the change in leadership it became something that I’d consider.
Then actually it was an article that Dan Berg wrote in GOOD Morning Wilton, about “Wynarville and Dewarville,” and that put me over the edge. I said, “I’m not going to be a whiner, so I decided to be a doer.”
GMW: That’s awesome! What was it about Parks & Rec that appealed? There were lots of various openings. What said, “That’s a good fit!”
SG: We’ve been in town for over 15 years, and we’ve used the parks and the fields and the recreation programs—with three boys we’ve used those programs! As a resident I can certainly provide a perspective of what works well and what needed to be improved.
GMW: What was the process to get involved and was it easy?
Yes, it was easy. I applied back in the winter, through the Republican party. I am unaffiliated but I was able to go in through the Republicans.
GMW: Did you interview? What did you have to do?
I gave a cover letter and resume to the Republican [Town Committee] and they put me forward through the Board of Selectmen, and I interviewed with the BOS.
GMW: You started in March, April? And just four months later you’re the commission chair. That was fast!
SG: [Laughs] Yes. There was a resignation and another commissioner termed out, so that left a couple openings and an opening for the chair. I was elected to do that role and I stepped into it. I’ve got a steep learning curve but I’m willing to learn and work hard for it.
GMW: For people who don’t know, what does the Parks & Rec commission do?
SG: The commission was formed by an ordinance in 1977, and it was established to supervise and direct the Parks & Rec department. Clearly we’re not supervising them day to day, but we provide the perspective from the residents about what the community may want and need.
GMW: There have been voices critical of Parks & Rec recently, and there’s a lot going on with Parks & Rec—the town is looking to upgrade Merwin Meadows and the football stadium turf is being replaced. Comstock Community Center was just renovated. There’s a lot happening there.
SG: It’s been exciting, it allows me to just jump in and learn. I came when the new Merwin Meadow rules had already been set, the turf is set. I’ve been involved in the end of the process there but clearly involved with monitoring what’s going on.
With Merwin, it’s keeping in touch with the staff down there, and the office, to see how things are going—
GMW: How are things going there?
SG: They’re going very well. I was just talking to Bev [Hodges, Parks & Rec administrative secretary] and she was saying that feedback from residents has been very positive. They’re very excited to have free access and to enjoy the park.
We’re monitoring the usage of the park, and another commissioner, Jennifer Kendra, recommend we do a survey of residents and non-residents at the end of the summer so there’ll be that feedback as well.
GMW: What’s the status on possible renovations to Merwin Meadows?
SG: We have an RFP that’s at Town Hall right now, in the final stages, being reviewed by town counsel. We’ll put out an RFP to landscape architects to propose a concept plan for renovating Merwin Meadows. First, we’d look for an architect to provide a site analysis of the facility, and then have community meetings—either focus groups or one-on-one—with all the different stakeholders across town and what they’d like to see at Merwin. Finally, the architect would provide three concept plans with ideas of what to do.
We still need to, once the concept plan is identified, down the road, funding is a question. So now is very preliminary in getting plans.
GMW: Is the idea public-private partnership?
SG: I think that would be the route we’ve talked about.
GMW: I know that there have been some hitches in accounting and financial operations at Parks & Rec, is that something your commission is trying to get a handle on?
SG: Lynne, in her new role, and town CFO [Anne Kelly-Lenz], have been working actively with Steve [Pierce, the Parks & Rec director] on the financial procedures in place. Right now the commission is not actively involved in that.
GMW: Okay. Talk to me about the Parks & Rec website.
SG: We are going to be getting a new website in the spring of next year. Steve and the town’s CFO and director of technology have been actively working on that, looking at 2-3 different packages, narrowing it down. Steve’s very excited by the package they’re focusing in on.
It’s going provide a much-improved website, as well as things like connecting the information on the TV screen where you walk in at Comstock, so you can update information; in will allow him to manage the field bookings, the Comstock room bookings, it will really add a lot of functionality.
GMW: I’m sure it’s much more complicated than people know, and there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking.
SG: I was just talking with Steve about field usage how he assigns fields, and who gets priority, how that whole process works. Because I do hear feedback from people about who’s using the fields when, when they’re empty why are they empty, or people getting bumped off fields because other sports are getting priority.
That’s how I see my role, and the other commissioners too. To sit down, understand the process, to see if there are ways we can add value or change.
Field usage and field locations, it’s one of our short-term priorities. We’re forming two sub-committees to look at those issues, simultaneously. For field usage, to look at what organizations, be it Wilton youth sports, high school sports, adult outside organizations, and what they anticipate their field usage might, over the course of the next 5-8 years.
The other subcommittee, where can we locate them. This is a priority we’ll start working on in the fall. We’ll look at all options.
GMW: What do you want to say to people who have criticized Parks & Rec, on Facebook, in media, elsewhere?
SG: If you have feedback, if you have issues, please pick up the phone and call Steve, or call me or email me, I have a town email address now. We do want to hear from you.
I see negativity and people venting, but not doing anything about it. I have had people approach me with issues. Great! We’ll call Steve and see if we can find a solution and talk it through, or provide information. Pick up the phone, send us an email.
GMW: Can people come to commission meetings?
SG: The second Wednesday of each month, at 7:30 p.m. at Comstock. And the schedule is posted on the town website.
GMW: Anything you want to say to the entire town?
SG: Last week before our meeting we took a van around for a tour of all the facilities. It’s interesting to go out and see all the facilities.
We have great facilities and programs, and a lot of things happening, a lot of new things—the turf, the new community center where we can offer new programs, the usage on that has been increasing. The Community Gardens at Allen’s Meadow are thriving. They’ve created a number of new garden plots for residents to enjoy.
These are all exciting things. Is there room for improvement? Sure. There’s always room for improvement, in an organization, a company, a non-profit, a town government.
And I’m excited about making some of those improvements. Looking at Merwin Meadows, at our facilities, there are clearly areas in need of updating.
It’s exciting to me that there’s interest in public-private partnerships. There seems to be interest in forming an all-sports booster group. There used to be a Wilton Sports Council that used to raise funds for, broadly speaking, athletic facilities. So I think we’re moving in the right direction. I’m looking forward to making progress.
And communication is another short-term priority. To increase communication with Wilton Youth sports organizations, with the High School athletic organizations, and with residents.