Social Services Commission Regroups After Months of Tumult and Turnover

The Wilton Commission on Social Services held its monthly meeting on Dec. 10, 2020. The meeting came after several months of tension between some commissioners and Social Services Director Sarah Heath, and the resignations of three commissioners, including the commission chair, Deborah List, as well as Genevieve Eason and Paul Nisco.

Before resigning, List, Eason and Nisco had publicly expressed concerns about the Social Services department‘s capacity to meet the demand for services, and challenged Heath on whether the department was being proactive and responsive to mental health needs during the pandemic, and especially among Wilton youth this past fall.

Those sudden departures left the commission with just three members: Danielle Mancuso and two others, Bettye Ragognetti and Peg Koellmer, who had just joined the commission within the past two months.

Though recently appointed, Koellmer is hardly a newcomer. In fact, she described herself as “a veteran of the commission,” referring to an earlier eight-year term she served on the commission, with six of those years as chair.

Peg Koellmer is the new chair of Wilton’s Social Services Commission

During the Dec. 10 meeting, the commission voted to approve Koellmer as the new chair of the commission. Ragognetti will serve as vice-chair.

The meeting also included introductions of two more new members: Maxine Tobias and Suzanne Wakeen. Both women had been named to the commission within one day of the meeting.

Commission Size and Composition

The new slate of commissioners is notable in two ways: the number of commissioners and their demographics.

Even with all the recent appointments, the Social Services Commission currently stands at five members, though it was originally established with nine. In part due to the difficulty of recruiting a steady stream of volunteers for Wilton’s numerous commissions and boards, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice has been reviewing commission membership numbers, with some likely to be reduced. Vanderslice has indicated that a final number for the Social Services commission will be recommended following a review of the commission’s “charge.” That review is currently ongoing.

It is also notable that the Social Services commissioners are all women. As recently as their Nov. 12 meeting, the commissioners had discussed the need to include more diverse demographic groups on the commission. In addition to their desire to see at least some of the open seats filled, the commissioners expressed the belief that the commission needed to be “more representative” of the town, reflecting more diverse demographics as well as skill sets.

The town is dependent on volunteers to come forward to fill open positions. (Details and instructions can be found on the town website.)

Guidance from Lynne Vanderslice

Lynne Vanderslice does not usually attend routine meetings of the Social Services Commission, but after the recent high turnover of commission members and flurry of new appointments, the Dec. 10 meeting was hardly routine. As an ex-officio member of the commission, Vanderslice participated in the Dec. 10 meeting, offering guidance to the commission’s new members and her perspective as the commission begins to regroup.

On a tactical level, Vanderslice emphasized the importance of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements that the commissioners must follow, with the most important being that all discussion is public and all information is available to the public. (The only exception is when commission members of the same political party move to a caucus to discuss issues related to the commission’s work.)

She also pointed commissioners to the town’s Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission for more guidance on their conduct as commissioners.

“All [commission] business must be conducted in public,” Vanderslice reiterated, adding that she is “a real stickler on this” following many claims made against the town that required the involvement of town counsel when FOIA rules were ignored.

More strategically, Vanderslice discussed two priorities that the Board of Selectmen had broached with the Social Services Commission in the pandemic’s early days: 1) tax relief for Wilton senior citizens and persons with disabilities, and 2) support for Wilton nonprofits that were struggling with COVID-related issues. Koellmer indicated the commission would look at current information on those topics and “have a meaningful conversation” about possibly taking a role in new efforts on those fronts.

Liaison and Outreach

Vanderslice clearly wants to see proactive outreach by the Social Services Commission. As an example, Vanderslice talked about the reduction of after-school childcare options when the Wilton Y was under construction; in such a case, the commission could be instrumental in helping to identify an important need in the community and how the town can help fill the void. (The Parks and Recreation Department ultimately provided a solution.)

In their role as liaison, the commission would have their fingers on the pulse of numerous organizations related in some way to social services (such as Trackside, the Wilton Library, Wilton Youth Council, etc.). Based on her past experience on the commission, Koellmer noted this type of outreach results in a healthy flow of communication between the commission and outside organizations “so we know what’s going on in those groups… what they need from us, what we need from them.”

Defining the Commission’s “Charge”

The “charge” for the Social Services Commission (and other town commissions that are under the discretion of the Board of Selectmen) has been the subject of review, initiated by Lynne Vanderslice.

In a Nov. 14 memo to the Social Services Commission, Vanderslice asked the commission to review its current charge and “make recommendations to be shared with the BOS.” The charge was last updated in March of 2015, with an emphasis on being “advisory” in its purview. The charge states that it was “established with the fundamental purposes of identifying the present and anticipating the future needs for human services in the Town of Wilton and making recommendations concerning those needs to the Board of Selectmen” with a focus on “establishing and/or maintaining advisory relationships with organizations and agencies providing social services to the town and its residents.”

The emphasis on the “advisory” role stems from the fact that commission members typically do not have expertise on policy matters or operations of a social services department, and often do not know all relevant information due to the confidential nature of the department’s activities.

But where is the line between the commission’s need to understand the operations and capacity of the department, and having oversight or influence on department leadership? This question appeared to be at the crux of the tension between the previous commission members and the department.

Vanderslice offered commissioners a reminder that they are prohibited from instructing or directing a town employee like the Social Services director, who reports to the First Selectwoman.

Koellmer indicated she would be taking the first step toward clarifying language in the charge and proposing any revisions.

An “Enthusiastic” Outlook

The Dec. 10 meeting was also attended by Social Services Director Heath, who talked openly and at length, giving a nearly 30-minute overview of the department for the new commission members, offering to meet with them (at some point, safely) to review in more depth how the department works.

Heath said she “looked forward to working with the commission” and was “excited” and “enthusiastic” about sharing more about her work with the commissioners.