Recent rounds of musical chairs on several town boards have prompted discussion about the way open positions are filled outside of election years. Appointing someone to fill a vacancy on the Board of Selectmen has happened several times in the last two years—Michael Kaelin took Hal Clark‘s seat, Deborah McFadden took Ted Hoffstatter‘s, Ken Dartley took Jim Saxe‘s, and Lori Bufano took Dartley‘s; such appointments have happened twice in the last three months alone at Planning and Zoning.
Some people involved in town politics have questioned the practice of looking only to the town’s political committees to generate candidates for officials to consider as replacements for vacant spots. Common practice in recent memory has seen the Republican Town Committee (RTC) submitting names to the BoS when a vacancy was left by a republican, and the Democratic Town Committee (DTC) submitting names when the vacancy was left by a democrat.
However, just because it has been common practice doesn’t mean that’s the only course to take. The practice has been particularly scrutinized of late during the process to fill those two open spots on P&Z, and most recently when Bufano, a republican, was considered to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Dartley, also a republican, from the BoS. In fact, when Bufano was considered by the selectmen, the DTC nominated former selectman McFadden for consideration, and Brian Lilly submitted his own name for consideration as well.
First selectman Lynne Vanderslice has brought up the topic at recent BoS meetings, initiating a discussion about encouraging more nominations to come directly from the public. “We discussed that people can come directly and we said we ought to have some mechanism that people know about the openings,” she told GOOD Morning Wilton, in a conversation about the nomination and appointment process.
How Board Appointments are Made
Whether appointments are made for non-elected boards and committees or for filling vacancies, they are all governed by state statute and case law, as well as Wilton’s Town Charter.
Here’s what the Town Charter has to say (section C-15):
- The Board of Selectmen shall be considered the appointing authority of the Town and shall appoint members to non-elected Boards and Committees, and shall appoint non-elected officers of the Town. The Board of Selectmen shall also be empowered to fill vacancies of both elected and appointed offices, Boards and Committees, except when a vacancy occurs on the Board of Education, the Board of Finance or the Planning and Zoning Commission. However, if the Board of Finance, Board of Education or Planning and Zoning Commission fails to fill a vacancy on their respective boards within 30 days of the vacancy arising, the Board of Selectmen shall fill such vacancy pursuant to the General Statutes.
There’s no hard and fast rule as to how nominees are considered and appointments made. “Each appointment has to be looked at for its unique circumstances, so you can’t give a general answer as to how those positions are appointed,” Vanderslice says.
In the past, the process usually started with a call for residents interested in serving to contact the political town committees. But that’s starting to broaden a bit more, she adds.
“Historically, you’ll see something in the news, from the RTC or the DTC, and you still see that, and it still happens that way. But as has happened since I’ve become first selectman, people are self-nominating, they’re contacting me directly and as we said at a BoS meeting, if you’re interested you can contact me directly. It’s fair to say that the majority, if not all of the BoS support doing it that way,” Vanderslice says.
In fact, that self-nomination trend anecdotally seems to be on the rise.
“We had two recent appointments, both came self-nominated. We have two that we’re going to be talking to at our March 1 meeting—one who was brought to us by the RTC and the other one was self-nominated. Since I’ve been first selectman, people have come through both paths,” Vanderslice says.
There has been a recent flurry of appointments that the BoS has considered of late, especially since the new BoS took office on December 1. Contributing to that were two things: terms for several seats ended on Nov. 30, and there were also several other openings that had been lingering for some time that Vanderslice wanted to get filled.
As for how many seats are open on each town board or commission, that depends. Some commissions are set by the town charter; for example, the town charter specifies three positions on the Police Commission. For others, the number of seats is defined by the Board of Selectmen. When the selectmen created the Economic Development Commission, they specified how many seats there would be. According to Vanderslice, it’s much easier to change the number on commissions like that than it is for boards and commissions that are expressly mentioned by the Charter.
Minority Representation Rules
Another aspect that must be considered is that every commission and board has to comply with the state minority representation rules.
Minority representation law set by the CT state statutes limits the number of seats any one party can have, ensuring that no one party can occupy all the seats on a board or commission.
The responsibility of ensuring that minority representation rests with the BoS. “We have to ensure that when we are appointing the committee that it complies with those minority representation rules,” explains Vanderslice, who adds that it’s spelled out clearly and explicitly in the state statutes [section 196]: “if there are x number of people on a committee, not more than y can be from one party.”
If total membership is three individuals, there cannot be more than two individuals from one party.
If total membership is four, there cannot be more than three from one party.
If total membership is five, there cannot be more than four from one party.
If total membership is six, there cannot be more than four from one party.
If total membership is seven, there cannot be more than five from one party.
If total membership is eight, there cannot be more than five from one party.
If total membership is nine, there cannot be more than six from one party.
If total membership exceeds nine individuals, there cannot be more than two-thirds of the total membership.
These rules put a cap on the number of people that are from any one party. In other words, the statutes don’t guarantee representation to a specific minority party; they only ensure that a majority party doesn’t exceed a set maximum.
It also means that it doesn’t automatically give the right to a political town committee to replace a departing committee or board member with another member of their rank.
“You could have the maximum from one party and then the rest are all unaffiliated voters. There’s no guaranteed number of seats for whatever party isn’t in the majority,” Vanderslice explains.
Another trend that Vanderslice is seeing is the number of unaffiliated voters who are getting involved, something that may have been sparked by the campaign and election of current selectman Dave Clune, who is unaffiliated with any political party.
That, says Vanderslice, “has opened up people’s eyes, and it’s a good thing.”
At the last Board of Selectmen meeting (Tuesday, Feb. 16) Vanderslice added a discussion item about current vacancies on various town boards. “If people want to come forward for those vacancies, whether through a party or directly, they can do that.”
The current positions that are available include:
- Economic Development Commission: one position
- Social Services Commission: one position
- Conservation Commission: one position
- Zoning Board of Appeals: one position (normally elected)
- Miller-Driscoll Building Committee: two positions
The open spots are now also listed on a page on the town’s website.
Vanderslice hopes people will seriously consider serving the town in some capacity.
“I want to see more people involved, and I want people to feel that their government is welcoming of them becoming involved. If you want to come in and interview for a position via a political party, that’s great. If you want to self-nominate, and interview that way, that’s great too. The important thing is that people participate and that more new people participate.”
Overall, she adds, she wants to encourage residents to get more engaged and involved in the process, in any capacity, whether serving in an official position or not.
“I think we have to do things in a way that every resident of the town feels they can participate,” she says.