His campaign signs are all around Wilton. He’s filed suit against the Board of Selectmen. He’s peppered town officials with multiple FOIA requests. So, just who is this Michael Powers guy?
Michael Richard Powers has lived in Wilton less than four years, but already he’s making waves, especially within the Republican party. At the Wilton Republican Town Committee (RTC) nominating meeting in July, just four months after becoming an RTC member, Powers challenged party leadership–attempting to unseat fellow GOPer Lynne Vanderslice, the current first selectwoman, as the party’s candidate for re-election, and he later questioned steps the RTC took to slate her.
At that nominating meeting, Powers nominated himself from the floor. His effort was unsuccessful: the RTC officially endorsed Vanderslice to be its candidate in November’s municipal election by a vote of 29-1 (with one abstention). He later told GMW that he questioned the validity of the RTC’s endorsed slate of candidates.
Even before the meeting, Powers had made things complicated for the RTC, filing for a temporary injunction on the party’s nominations, alleging the RTC had violated the law by creating rules “specifically” to block him from nominating himself for the party’s slate. He eventually withdrew the legal papers when the RTC deemed the proposed rules invalid prior to the vote.
After the meeting, Powers then considered two other options–push the RTC to a primary in September to try and knock Vanderslice off the ballot or get onto the general election ballot as a petition candidate unendorsed by any party. He eventually opted to take the latter route, and he’ll be on the ballot in November’s municipal general election, vying against the officially-endorsed Republican Vanderslice and Democrat Deb McFadden for Wilton’s chief executive office.
Most recently, Powers has accused the Board of Selectmen of violating town procedure, filing a lawsuit on Sept. 30 seeking an injunction on 37 motions made during several BOS meetings in 2019, saying members didn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order. The motions he wants the court to declare void range from votes involving budgets and contracts, to whether the town should accept a grant to participate in DUI enforcement or give permission for an Eagle Scout project.
According to First Selectwoman Vanderslice, the Board of Selectmen has never adopted a policy to follow Robert’s Rules. The town did recently publish a Guide to help residents serving on town Boards and Commissions that suggests Robert’s Rules can “assist…with parliamentary procedure.” However, Vanderslice says BOS members have never voted to adopt the Guide as official procedure. Furthermore, the BOS is not mandated to use Robert’s Rules of Order by any local or state laws–including Wilton’s Town Charter.
GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve sat down with Powers in August, and–in what was supposed to be a one-hour interview that mushroomed into a four-hour-plus conversation–posed a wide range of questions to Powers.
The unedited interview with Powers, a self-described talker, runs over 50,000 words. We have decided to NOT publish some statements he made, including opinions about several members of the RTC that we feel are not in line with GMW policies. We are also not publishing comments Powers attributed to others that cannot be confirmed. What we are publishing, we’ve edited for brevity and clarity, and we’ll run the multi-part interview over multiple days.
Here, in part 1, Powers talks about why he’s running, and his version of events when he decided to challenge the RTC.
GOOD Morning Wilton: Why are you running?
Michael Powers: There’s massive deficiencies within the town government as it is now. Everything people think is going on is really smoke and mirrors.
Property values are dropping, expenses are going up, which means the mill rate has to go up. The problem is that expenditures–the formula is, the grand list times the mill rate equals your budget–they’re doing it backwards: this is how much money we need; this is what the grand list is; and they back into the mill rate. Instead of saying, here’s the funds we have available, they’re turning around and saying this is the funds that we need,and it creates a vicious cycle. One, property values are dropping because the mill rate goes up; once the property values drop, the grand list drops, and they have to increase the mill rate again.
And expenses are going up. Sixty-something percent of the overall budget is from the Board of Education. Enrollment is dropping and the Board of Finance has said multiple times that the single largest change going to happen next year is the cost per student. It’s going to jump dramatically–even more than it has in the past–because costs are going up, student enrollments are dropping, and the town is mismanaging its money completely. Some of the buildings–I think we have a community center called Comstock? That’s what’s it’s referred to, I don’t know if that’s the official name. That just went through a $10 million renovation. When I moved to town three and a half years ago, people were saying $10 million was spent [on it].
The money doesn’t show where it was spent. For $10 million or something like that, I have a problem.
Also with [schools’ superintendent] Kevin Smith, when they created a new program, the ‘new school’ which is going to be an alternative high school for some students, and the Board of Education approved the program, Kevin Smith specifically said–and I think it’s on [GOOD Morning Wilton] too, because you quoted him–he will not take a penny away from any existing program, nor will he even look at any existing program to take the money to fund this new school program.
That program which got approved at [a prior] Board of Finance meeting, is $480,000. [BOE chair] Christine Finkelstein turned around and said that she has approximately six to seven students who may be attending the new school program. That would be a cost of $71,700 per student who actually attends this school. [Since the interview, 10 students have enrolled in the alternative Genesis program.]
My question was, what are these students being moved from, and the information from Christine [Finkelstein], Kevin Smith at a Board of Finance meeting, and an assistant superintendent for special services (I don’t know her name) gave a presentation that they were going to be introducing the school, in addition to other programs they have outsourcing students with IEPs.
My first question came about because of my background as a fraud examiner and forensic accountant. Forensic accountant is more of numbers; fraud examination is process and procedures. Are you actually doing what you’re supposed to? Are you not doing it because, your competence–you don’t know the job you’re supposed to? Or is it for nefarious reasons? Are you trying to cover up something? Or you want a specific outcome?
I review everything. With that same thought mentality, my first question came down to, these students and their issues, where does it fall into the spectrum of IEPs? Will these children need one-on-one care? We have some students who need to two-on-one care and some of it’s done in-home. Or are these students being moved off–to use a financial term–off balance sheet? Are they performing so badly that they’re putting them into an IEP and then moving them out of the high school, so their test results don’t impact the overall high school?
I have no answer to that. I have a FOIA request that I’m filing specifically for every single question, so I look forward to what the answers will be. What really starts to scare me about the way the school system is being run, when Kevin Smith came in and actually implemented some programs, one gave no math homework to the students in high school; he restructured the English program, and grammar was being taken out of the curriculum. [Editor’s note: GMW has confirmed math students at the high school do receive homework and grammar is still in the curriculum.]
People have asked for the curriculum, asked for an inventory of books, materials. They’ve been blocking access to what was going on. There were articles–personally, directly, firsthand knowledge I do not have–that parents are having to hire tutors to teach their children so they can actually pass (or with a higher rate of success) standardized tests because the school isn’t giving them what they’re required to.
There was articles going back two years about atrocities happening with the math program, that it has to be restructured [and] retaught, that teachers have to be retaught how to teach math, in the high school.
There needs to be light to show what’s going on. Everything can be justified, by saying, ‘These are the programs that we were required to do. This is what the state put out and this is the disconnect.’
However, that information isn’t being released. My thing is to come in and put light into the darkness to show what’s happening and to tell, ‘Things will happen, things will go wrong. Why are they going wrong?’ No one can understand why they’re going wrong because information is being withheld.
That same information is being withheld on the town side. Look at the June Board of Finance meeting, the last 10 minutes–Ceci [Maher], who’s a member of the Board of Finance asked the other board members, ‘I don’t like what happened at the Tri-Board meeting,’ where the Board of Education, Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen got together to discuss how the town was going to deal with some impacts generated from Hartford at the state level.
The Board of Finance in totality states on the video that they were blindsided by the Board of Selectmen and Board of Education. They thought there was going to be an open discussion, and then someone called for a vote and had 30 seconds to say yes or no.
GMW: That wasn’t the Tri-Board meeting, that was the Board of Finance meeting that happened after the Tri-Board meeting.
MRP: Okay. You can be correct on that. I didn’t start watching that, but the Board of Finance says they were blindsided and had to basically vote right there and then because somebody made a procedural call to order for a vote. They did not know at that time, because there was no parliamentarian put forward, they had no ability to ask any questions because they didn’t know they could, to whether and how they could postpone the vote until they had time to think about it. They had to vote right there and then. The chairman is now saying that the way the proper procedure was, as a unanimous board, to postpone. So, when I’m saying that the electors, the residents of this town don’t know what’s going on, the boards of this town are keeping information from each other. The Board of Education is keeping stuff from the Board of Finance. The Board of Selectmen is keeping stuff from the Board of Finance. If the people you elect in the representative position don’t know what’s going on, how can they ever act appropriately?
GMW: Having watched or attended all these meetings, I believe you’re mashing together some of the details. Ceci was talking about being blindsided by her fellow Board of Finance members, not by the Board of Education.
GMW: Not by the other two boards. She talked about being blindsided by the other members of the Board of Finance, she felt they had gotten together ahead of time to decide to cut both budgets.
The Board of Finance and the Board of Education actually have members that sit together on an operation subcommittee, so they do have the information.
The boards actually have taken steps to be more open: meetings air on TV; you’ve got cooperation between the boards on operations and finance and budget building together; two representatives from each board work together on school operations and budgets–Peter Balderston and John Kalamarides from the BOF, and Deb Low and Glenn Hemmerle from the BOE.
Do you not feel like steps have been taken to be more open, to be more cooperative, to be more collaborative?
MRP: Peter Balderston says to Ceci’s response that she thought [she was] blindsided, as you said, by the other members of the Board of Finance, [Balderston] said, ‘I’m tired of the Republicans being bashed for this. We had no idea what was going on. All these subcommittees. I was not a part of them. There was no public meeting for the subcommittees when these people got together, had conversations.’ He says on the record, ‘The Board of Finance, the other members outside of Ceci had no idea that that was going to happen. We’re not prepared for anything that happened and that’s why they had to do it.’ It’s not what I’m thinking he did. I am telling you what he said.
GMW: What he actually said was that the four Republican Board of Finance members hadn’t gotten together ahead of time to decide what was going to happen at the [Mill Rate] meeting. Peter Balderston is part of the subcommittee and has information.
GMW: Those subcommittee meetings are all recorded, and they have minutes, those are all on the record.
MRP: What he perceived to happen was not what happened. He was blindsided at that meeting. You should review that because that’s specifically what he said, that he thought there would be open discussion. We would talk about each topic, go back and forth, have the ability to say, ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ or basically have some input. He says that none of that existed. There was no debate that happened on anything, that they just called for a vote immediately and that’s why the Board of Education…
GMW: That discussion was about the Board of Finance, not about any other board. Board of Finance member John Kalamarides was the one that called the question, and that there could have been discussion that happened after that.
MRP: There could have been discussion and as the chair says, they didn’t know the process or procedure to follow.
GMW: You mean Board of Finance chair Jeff Rustishauser.
GMW: Some reasons you give as to why you’re running for first selectman seem to be in reaction to things under Board of Education or Board of Finance–not necessarily the Board Selectmen or Lynne Vanderslice.
MRP: I wanted to get involved with politics on the local level. I’ve been on boards, charitable organizations, I was president of the Lion’s Club, president of nonprofits, whether it’s community-based program or a professional based program. My wife didn’t want me to get involved in politics until we found our forever home. She didn’t want a position in politics to restrict where this forever home would be.
I believe it was Jan. 23 or 24 when the Republican Town Committee was having an open meeting for people to join the RTC, to be part of either commissions or boards, and learn about the process and procedures. I was extremely excited by that.
Powers then describes his interactions with RTC chair Bill Lalor and RTC nominating chair Peter Wrampe, regarding his RTC membership and running for office. GMW reached out to those RTC officials, and they recount a completely different set of events and dispute remarks Powers attributes to them. Because these were private conversations and it’s one person’s word against another’s, we cannot confirm what really happened or what was said. GMW is publishing only what we can confirm.
Powers says that he first considered running for a spot on the Board of Finance.
MRP: The Town of Wilton does a great thing and posts the minutes online. I read every single minute online that was ever posted on the Board of Finance. Some questions popped up, just on procedural issues, some substantive issues. Then I watched all the videos they had posted online
I attended another Board of Finance [meeting], and this new school came up. Two people were not there–one was on the phone, one was actually on an airplane, and what they tried to do was pass additional funding from the Charter [Authority] of $480,000 to fund this new program.
The member on the phone (and I don’t know his name), was having concerns about it. Peter… Peter? The chair, the chair of the Board of Finance…
GMW: Jeff [Rutishauser].
MRP: Jeff, okay. Jeff turned around, told the Board of Finance, ‘Don’t worry, let’s vote on it, and I’ll tell you what it’s about later. I’ve had long in-depth discussions with Lynne about this.’
It was the regular Board of Finance meeting [on Tuesday, April 16, 2019], and they were trying to put it onto that Board’s meeting’s vote, because the vote had to be taken before the Board of Education turned around and made their vote on it. And all that vote was, was that the Board of Finance would bring it to a vote in the next fiscal year…
The chair of the Board of Finance wanted to call the vote that day. The gentleman on the phone said, ‘Well, I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Two other members said, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The chair said, ‘I know what was being discussed. I spoke with Lynne in depth. Vote yes, and I’ll tell you what it was.’ The gentleman on the phone said, ‘No, why don’t we do it next week.’ The chair said, ‘Fine.’ That brought it to a special meeting.
[Editor’s note: a review of the meeting video shows different events than what Powers describes. Lynne Vanderslice and Chris Finkelstein presented a proposal to the BOF on how to fund the alternative school using the Charter Authority. BOF member Ceci Maher questioned why she wasn’t told about the presentation in advance. Chair Jeff Rutishauser explained he had learned of the proposal only one day before, and the presentation proposal hadn’t been scheduled until the afternoon of the meeting. Rutishauser actually suggested NOT voting, and said to postpone any vote until the subsequent meeting. Rutishauser said, “There was no decision made, and the recommendation is to evaluate it and have a meeting next week when we can debate it when our people are back. We only have two-thirds of our [members] here. That makes sense. Nothing will be decided here tonight.” He did not push for a vote.]
That [following Tuesday, April 23, 2019] was the special meeting. And it wasn’t a vote to approve it, it was just a vote that they said they would go ahead and vote on [funding the alternative school] in the new fiscal year.
There was an agenda put out. Jeff stated as the chair, that there would be no public comment except for Lynne Vanderslice as First Selectman, and Christine Finkelstein as Chairman of the Board of Education. They proceeded to speak. Christine then brought up Kevin Smith, and the assistant superintendent of schools of the special program, I don’t know her name, to give a presentation to speak and give handouts.
I raised my hand at that point in time. I wasn’t acknowledged by the Board. They gave their presentation and gave their handouts. I raised my hand again after they spoke. As I raised my hand, [BOF member] Walter [Kress] told the chairman to recognize me. The chair turned around and said, ‘We’re not taking public comment.’ That’s when I brought up a point of order. My point of order was, ‘You specifically outlined an agenda. The agenda on a special meeting cannot be amended at any point in time. However, you allowed specific parties for public comment who are not on the agenda, Kevin Smith and the assistant superintendent.’
Lynne jumped up at that point in time, turned around and said, ‘I can do that. I can do whatever I want,’–it’s on the video [Editor’s note: a review of the video shows Vanderslice did not say this].And she said she was going to get a legal opinion from Ira [Bloom], the Town’s counsel, that this was allowed to happen. There was other people in the room, some who were interested in speaking, who got into an argument with Lynne, and actually a yelling match. [Editor’s note: A review of the video shows no evidence of yelling between Vanderslice and any public member. In addition, GOOD Morning Wilton was present at the meeting and did not witness any yelling as Powers described. In fact, the only person who addressed the members of the public was BOF chairman Jeff Rutishauser, with no yelling observed.]
Powers then describes his version of events leading up to his decision to run for First Selectman rather than for a seat on the Board of Finance. He says he felt that some people were unhappy that he challenged town officials publicly during that April 23 BOF Special Meeting–which he says prompted him to decide to directly challenge the town’s top official, Lynne Vanderslice in November’s election.
He also recounts conversations with the RTC’s Bill Lalor and Peter Wrampe–whose versions of events and conversations differ from Powers’. Because GMW cannot confirm either version, we are publishing only what we can confirm.
Leading up to the RTC candidate endorsement meeting on July 23, 2019, Powers challenged some procedures and rules the RTC was going to implement for the meeting, saying, “They changed the rules specifically because they were trying to stop me” from nominating himself to be considered for First Selectman. Powers provided GMW with a stack of printed emails showing communication between members of the RTC, concerning rules the RTC intended to use for the July 23 meeting. He also alleges that the RTC scheduled its meeting for the last possible day to make it harder for him to potentially file for a primary.
At that meeting, the RTC endorsed Vanderslice over Powers, by a vote of 29-1 (with one abstention).
MPR: Yes, it was a unanimous vote [for Lynne], almost. One person abstained; I don’t know why. I had no conversation with that person. I had no conversation with anybody on the RTC, I didn’t ask anybody on the RTC to vote for me. I didn’t ask anybody in the RTC to put forth a nomination. I asked nobody nothing because I knew I could do it myself.
GMW: Are there people who are on the RTC who weren’t there who support you?
MPR: There are people who were [at the nominating meeting] who are supporting me.
GMW: Yet, 29 people out of 31 dramatically all voted, one at a time saying, ‘Lynne. Lynne. Lynne.’
GMW: If people there supported you, why did the vote go that way?
MPR: Anybody who asked if they should nominate me, I told them no. I never asked for anybody to nominate me. Anybody who did ask, I told them no.
GMW: You believe the rule was created specifically to stop you. But the RTC has had this ‘no self-nomination’ rule before, in prior nomination meetings.
MPR: That’s fine. They could have had the rule before, and it was wrong when it was done then.
That’s the problem with a lot of things going on in this town. Things have been done and they go, ‘Well, that’s what happened, that’s how we did it last time. That’s just the way it was done.’
Everyone goes, ‘Well that’s the way we used to do it.’ The way they used to do it was basically, ‘Well we’ll just agree to this and that’ll be fine because we don’t need to tell anybody.’
That is the underlying problem with this entire town political system as it goes to those three boards. They believe they can do whatever they want, however they want, without anybody challenging it. Before I even brought my interest into running for this, they had a problem with FOIA because of these closed room little meetings, these discussions beforehand, these agreements before putting it into the public.