The GMW Intern Q&A: Talking with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice
Every year, GOOD MorningWilton takes part in the Wilton High School senior internship program. This year our three fabulous interns are Grace Bracken, Lily Kepner and Reed O’Brien. As we try to do every year, GMW puts them in front of Wilton’s top official, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, and gives them the opportunity to ask the questions they want answered. Here’s the conversation they had, edited only for clarity and brevity.
Lily Kepner: What is your daily routine?
Lynne Vanderslice: It varies every day. Typically, I try to answer all my emails in the morning because I get a lot of emails every day. Then, it can vary completely. I have a lot of meetings, with staff or with different organizations. I’m the Chief Elected Officer, which means I’m the highest-level person in town government that’s elected, but I’m also the Chief Executive Officer. We don’t have a town administrator like a lot of other towns and cities have, that handle the day-to-day, so I handle the day-to-day also.
We just had a meeting to talk about what roads we’re going to pave, how are we going to evaluate the roads; this week I had a meeting with a group working to bring an initiative forward on a third turf field. I had a call with somebody representing a developer that’s interested in doing a project in town. It’s varied.
Reed O’Brien: What’s the most talked about subject during these meetings?
LV: The thing I hear the most from residents is about [the condition of] their road, or a road that’s a regular part of their commute. Fortunately, we’re paving a lot of those roads, so we’re hearing less from people, but that’s generally people’s number one priority.
The next thing I hear from people about the most is taxes. We just did a property revaluation and half of the homes in Wilton went down in value and the other half went up–so some people are actually going to see a tax decrease this year, where others are going to see a bigger tax increase than normal.
I’m really interested to see what I’m going to hear then because as much as we told people that’s happening, I’m worried that they won’t really realize this is happening until they get their tax bill, which they’ll get at the end of this month.
Then when I’m talking to people of a certain age, definitely sports. The state of our athletic facilities is [a] huge [topic]. I was really excited to be part of that coconut husk infield turf and concussion padding underneath it. The turf fields have been great and that just made them even better. We had a committee that studied it and we do need more, so I’m working with that group to make that happen.
Lily: What has your experience been overseeing the different departments at town hall and can you speak about how our local government functions differently from others and your role in that?
LV: The big difference between having a town meeting form of government or, say, like Westport, where they have a representative town meeting, or maybe in Norwalk where they have the city council, is that the residents, the voters, actually have a direct say. If you have a representative town meeting, then you have maybe 50 people who are elected to do all that. And I just think it’s better to have the people who are impacted have a vote.
As I said earlier, we don’t have a town administrator like other towns, who would really do the day-to-day–for example, Darien has one. The first selectwoman of Darien is up in Hartford a lot; she has an opportunity to do a lot more communicating and maybe testifying on bills in Hartford, because she doesn’t have to be in Darien every day.
This year I did that on school regionalization and some other things. I had meetings with the governor. Quite honestly, I met Gov. Malloy only once when he came for something at ASML, whereas I’ve met with Gov. Lamont three times. Regionalization was such a critical issue, I needed to go up to Hartford, but I can’t be up there on a regular basis.
I’m 90% CEO and 10% politician. There’s not a lot of politicking I do–I like it that way. What I’m about is getting things done, that’s why I ran. Even [when I was] on the Board of Finance, I realized things that I thought could be done, I just wanted to get them done. I like to problem solve. I’m a doer, so let’s just get it done.
Grace Bracken: You’ve talked about voter participation–there was 11% turnout at the last budget vote. Do you have plans to help boost that?
LV: I don’t know what to do. The only thing I didn’t do this year that I’ve done in the past was a phone call out to people. We put up more signage this year–we had a sign on Town Hall, we had electronic signs up, we had small signs. We have a new website and now there’s an e-alert where you can sign up for email messaging, so next year we’ll send the email alert. But I do think it certainly was messaged–on Facebook, everybody knew about it. So, I’m not sure what else I could do. When I ask people what else I can do, people say, “I was good with it,” or “I was really busy.”
At the Tuesday night Annual Town Meeting, people that are there can vote to reduce the budget. They can’t vote to increase it. So, I think people come if they’re concerned and they don’t want the budget to be cut. If they want the budget cut, they come. But this year, where both the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen budgets were flat, maybe people felt like, ‘Okay, I don’t think anything’s going to happen.’ And then it automatically passes if turnout’s less than 15%. So, sometimes that goes into the psychology of people, too.
I’m just going to continue to encourage people to come, but I really don’t know what else I can do. When we put alcohol on the ballot, we get a lot of people.
Lily: Ever since the national presidential election, many more young people have gotten involved in politics and want their voices heard. When you get those young voices, how does that factor into your decision-making, and how do you weigh those voices? And how can you encourage more of those voices to come out?
LV: I was one of those young voices. I did those kind of things when I was growing up and my son did. I very much encourage it–somebody that’s engaged in their youth is going to be engaged as an adult.
Last night we had a meeting with parents of young children in Cider Mill and Miller-Driscoll, who are in need of afterschool care. There’s a rising demand in Wilton and we’re seeing a shift. When my son was young, it was primarily one-income families with stay-at-home moms. That has shifted. We don’t have any statistics on it, but my guess is if we looked at first grade or kindergarten at Miller-Driscoll, we’d see more than half of the families are two-income families.
You have to listen to younger people, because trends are changing and they’re going to be the ones that are creating the changing trend.
It’s important to listen to that next generation, to all generations. Years from now, if you come back with your family, those decisions we make now are all going to impact you and your family then.
Lily: How do you specifically take in those issues and emails? My friend emailed you about plastic bags in Wilton, so do you bring that up at a Town Hall meeting? What’s your process for dealing with that on a local level?
LV: Well, every time I hear from someone, I keep it in mind. Then if I’m hearing a similar message from [multiple] people, I will bring it to the board. Sometimes it makes me aware of something that I wasn’t aware of before.
Plastic bags are on people’s mind. I went and observed at the Village Market, because Village Market actually does a number of things. When you first walk in, they have the container where you can recycle your bags, they don’t have to be Village Market bags. They now have paper boxes at the salad bar. And they ask, ‘Do you want paper or plastic?’ They have an awareness.
I literally go there almost every day for lunch or dinner. I decided to watch, what do people take? The significant majority of people are asking for plastic–hardly anybody’s asking for paper bags. I spoke with Tim Dolnier, the owner and he said, absolutely he is very open to whatever’s going to happen. But he said, ‘I’m in the business of having customers and this is the messaging that comes from my customers.’
Tim, the vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and I met, along with some people from Wilton Go Green, and we all agreed that based on the behavior patterns we’re seeing, you would need a lot of education in Wilton, or just a lot of communication about why you would want to do a plastic bag ban before you brought it to the Annual Town Meeting. Because if it came to [this past] May’s meeting, I don’t know that it would’ve passed.
The worst thing is if you bring something and it doesn’t pass. The same thing happened with the stadium track. We thought that was going to be a $100,000 replacement of just the upper surface. Then we priced it out in January–it was $900,000.
LV: Yes, that’s how everybody’s going to react.
Reed: I run track, too. So that’s why it hasn’t been put in yet?
LV: We got that number in January and I had to present preliminary numbers to the Board of Selectmen and I’m going to go in and [ask for] $900,000? There’s a whole public relations effort that goes behind trying to get a bonding resolution like that passed.
So that’s why we did the repairs. Are the repairs good?
Reed: I feel like they’re getting better. At some points, we had to make room for the people working there, and this season we had more meets at other schools.
LV: We did the initial repairs and then we did some more. If [total replacement] goes on the bonding resolution next May, it wouldn’t get done until after May. [For now] we’ll go in and do the repairs.
The worst thing is, if you go to a proposal and it doesn’t pass, the community is saying no. So if you go in for $900,000 and they say no, well, how are we going to do it right and make it less expensive? We can’t. So we have to spend this year letting the community know what the cost is going to be and understand why it’s going to cost that much money.
Reed: You’ve been talking about issues that are important to the town. Right now, what is the most important issue to you? That you want to let them know about and get excited about or that you want to get done?
LV: I don’t know if I can say there’s one issue. I’m very detail oriented and I like to plan. When I ran for office, I put together a very detailed list of what I was going to do. I keep that in my desk and cross it off as we go. One of the areas is definitely costs–how can we provide the same services at a lower cost, so we slow down the growth. That continues to be a focus.
My first budget actually was lower than the budget the year before. I’m always looking at ways to do things less expensive, better. What can we share with the schools? Which we’ve done–we’ve shared some personnel.
Now I’m working with other towns–what can we do that we can share, related to cost savings, but also environmental initiatives? We are doing a shared solar field with the town of Weston. I have a plan actually to get us to 70% of the electricity for all our buildings to be generated from solar.
Lily: Wow, that’s amazing.
Reed: That’s incredible.
LV: It is.
So cost is a big thing. Environmental issues are a big thing. And one of the biggest things is the town infrastructure. I’d love you to take a tour of the police station.
Reed: We did that.
LV: You did… Good, good.
Reed: Everything felt very cramped.
LV: I hope you’re going to write an article about that. We are working on that project now. This building, there’s insulation issues. It’s completely inefficient use of space. And the Annex Building is a mess. Meanwhile, if you’ve been to Comstock Community Center, you know that one whole wing is unoccupied.
We have a group working on a plan where a lot of the administrative people that are here permanently move up to Comstock. Take the people in the annex, put them in here. Tear down that annex so we don’t have to spend the money to repair it. And expand the police station. That’s a massive project–it’s going to be a big project to sell the community on–especially in the economic conditions of the state.
If I am reelected, that is something I’ve been working on, we really need to push that forward and get that done. The stadium track next year. Another turf field is another big initiative.
I’m writing up my big detailed plan again. It’s really continuing to do what we’ve done and try to just make Wilton more affordable. Doing some marketing, some economic development.
We have the assisted living facility that’s going up just south of here. I worked with that developer, that’s going to be a good project. We have the one at the corner of 33 and Rte. 7, that’s going to be apartments, that’s going forward. Then we have somebody just south of here that’s looking to do something mixed use, some more apartments. And then we have another project further up by Pimpewaug Rd. where they want to do senior living.
Wilton is aging, Fairfield County is aging, the whole state is aging. Not many communities have the land on a major road like this to build these facilities for seniors, so I’m happy to do that. We need to have alternatives for people who want to downsize. Or if you’re younger, you’re working at ASML, you’re looking for a one-bedroom apartment, you don’t want to deal with the traffic on 95. Like, have your nightlife in South Norwalk and Stamford. You can Uber there, but live here and have an easy commute to work.
GMW Editor, Heather Borden Herve: I’m going to interject a question about that. One thing I hear from some Wilton residents anytime senior living comes up is, ‘We have too many senior living facilities already, why do we need more?’ Or when you talk about developing alternative housing, some people say, ‘That’s not Wilton, we like the way it is now.” What do you say to that?
LV: I‘ve got to be honest, I don’t hear that very much anymore. I think people recognize that if we don’t grow our tax base, then their property taxes are just going to get higher and higher and higher.
Part of that affordability equation is not just what your house is selling for, but it’s also the ongoing cost associated with your property taxes, and we’re hearing even more, just the house itself.
My generation wanted two acres and nice, big, sprawling house. But this younger generation seems to be less interested in having lots of space–so we always have to be willing to transform.
As for seniors, it looks like we have a lot of senior housing, but look at the senior population, and how it’s going to age out. I’m the end of the baby boomers and I’m 61. I’ve got another 20 years before I need to go into one of these facilities and I’m at the end of that population that’s all just starting to come through now. It’s a rising demand.
These facilities pay a lot of property taxes and don’t demand much in services. The four potential projects that we have are going to bring in over $2 million in property taxes a year–$2 million is a lot of money every year. The Board of Education budget is $80 million, so every 1% increase in the BOE budget is $800,000. So, $2 million dollars goes a long way to cover the increases or to help reduce our tax burden.
Companies need housing for employees. ASML is growing, it’s hiring more people. They live and work here. If they get married and they want to buy a house, they’re already here, so they’ll buy a house in Wilton hopefully.
Lily: So apartments will allow people to live and work in Wilton more easily?
Grace: Okay, this question, I don’t want it to be offensive but…
LV: That’s okay.
Grace: You’re human and I’m sure you’ve made mistakes in your job. What’s been your biggest mistake in these four years? Do you have any regrets?
LV: I recognize my mistakes. I’ll own my mistakes and then I try to change. No one is a worse critic of me than me. And I beat myself up constantly on something. I’m going to think for days about [mis-speaking at today’s proclamation]. Believe me, I’m going to think about that for weeks, so I don’t do it again, hopefully.
But as you get older, you get less sensitive. I just try to do a good job. Like you say, I’m not perfect, I’m going to make mistakes. The question is, do I learn from them or do I get defensive and try to defend a dumb decision? I try not to.
Lily: Now the flip side of that: What is something that you fought for? In national politics today, there’s so much sticking to party lines but in local politics we have such a great opportunity to stick to what we actually believe in and not think about our parties and just think about our town.
What is an example of when you stood by your convictions and fought for something you believed in for this town?
LV: First of all, I don’t like what’s increasingly happening in our country and in our state. I don’t remember this when I was younger, or where we’ve been for the last number of years.
This has always been a town where I had never known party to be that big. I’ve been a Democrat, I’ve been unaffiliated, I’ve been a Republican. At the recommendation of a Democrat, the Republicans reached out to me for an appointment onto the Board of Finance. That Democrat thought I was a registered Republican; I was actually a registered Democrat.
I always vote for the person who I think is the best person. I think at least 60% or more are like me, we’re in the middle. Especially in Wilton, I think people make decisions based on what makes the most sense. And our boards are non-partisan.
When the anti-Semitic incidents happened at the middle school, I partnered with the clergy and with Superintendent Kevin Smith and we took a stand. We said, ‘We need to make a statement.’ We had meetings with families who had students in Middlebrook to address it right there with them, but then we continued to meet. There were a group of people that we pulled together–clergy, representatives from different non-profit organizations, who we saw would be town leaders in this effort. Colleen Fawcett in Wilton Social Services was part of that, Wilton Youth Council, Wilton Library. We met, we talked about changing the climate. And I think we have–I hope we have, somewhat. It’s always out there, but I think that was a situation where myself, along with others, stood up and took a stand.
[Also,] the school regionalization issue. I was in a meeting with the governor and maybe 10 other first selectman and I told him, “I think your bill is wrong.” Not the concept–he said he wasn’t forcing regionalization. And I said, “Here it is, section B, because I did my homework. I read the section.”
Sometimes I’m not as filtered as some other more polished politicians. At the press conference after that meeting with the governor, I referred to that as an error [in his bill]. But I have to give him his chops because he said to his staff, “Work with her.” So, we worked on it and then they came back and said, “You know, you’re right, it’s an error.” And they changed the bill. Because it would have forced Wilton to have a shared superintendent. Maybe someday that makes sense, but let uswork it out. Don’t tell us we have to do it.
Grace: Going off of that, what are you most proud of?
LV: I might not use the word proud. I might say what I’m happy about having accomplished. Those seven bad virtues and one of them is pride. [Laughs] But I am really happy about the fact that I’ve been able to successfully work with the town departments, because none of this happens without the town department heads and the employees that work here. And working with the schools to reduce costs. That’s my professional background, so that’s a big focus.
But I also feel when I came into office, there was a lot of dissatisfaction. People were very upset. The controversy around the Miller-Driscoll School–that was one of my very first focuses when I came into office. We had a lawsuit related to Miller-Driscoll; I wanted to settle that and was quickly able to–not through money, but through sitting down, talking about it, getting those people comfortable.
I made a conscious effort to try to take that tension out of the community. That tension is gone, and I feel good about that. I grew up in a small town, it’s a wonderful experience to be able to grow up in a small town. We are all in this together. So, I like going to the Village Market and having people stop me. Almost four years later, I want to be as approachable as I was when I started. I’ve been an active member of this community for 32 years, and at this point, I feel even more an active member of this community. That’s probably the thing I’m most happy about.
It’s great to accomplish things but it’s also great to know that people feel we’re moving in the right direction.
Lily: So, what is your platform for your next campaign? What do you believe you offer the town?
LV: People have seen me in office for three and a half years, so I bring all of what you’ve seen–critical thinking skills, problem-solving, commitment, that commitment will not fail. It’s a lot of hours, I know that. If there’s a problem, we’ll get it fixed, and I’m happy to put the hours into it. That’s me, that’s the way I’m going to live my life. That’s my choice.
I offer the experience, the knowledge. I put a plan forward, people know what direction I’m looking to go to for infrastructure, for energy, and for the environment, for costs. What you’ll just see is more of what you’ve already seen.
There are always surprises that come up. We had no idea that Aquarion, which owns a well in Cannondale, put in an application to withdraw a million gallons a day. That just came out of nowhere. We had to fight that–at the same time we were fighting regionalization. Stuff like that just comes up.
People certainly saw how I’d be in an emergency. We had that big storm in March 2018, and a significant percentage of the town lost power. I think I’ll be running on the same thing–my experience, you’ve seen it; I’ve been transparent; I try to build consensus. We’ll see more of the same.
The themes are reducing the growth in taxes through reducing costs and growing the grand list with reasonable economic development. We are going to be doing a master plan for Wilton Center. We’ve got vacant retail space, just like Westport and other communities do. Can we do some things through zoning and other incentives to help? We’re going to start now and continue to work on it if I’m reelected.
Lily: People in this town have a lot of personal beliefs and personal passions that aren’t always necessarily realistic. In your job, how do you balance the realistic outcome with aspirational goals? In other words, do you see your job as first selectwoman more to make the town a better place based on your personal visions and the aspirational visions of the town? Or to make the most constituents happy?
LV: That’s a really good question. It’s something I think about too. You have to have consensus. There is our town government’s role, and then there is the residents’ role. So, people might come to me and I’m willing to help anybody with an idea that makes sense. I’ll use the dog park idea as an example, because all the time people tell me that the town should have a dog park. Okay, put a group together, come together with a plan, and we’ll work with you.
Lots of people want a dog park. But nobody’s formed a committee. Government doesn’t just happen–we have functions that we do, and we’ll help facilitate new initiatives, but we need residents to be involved. They want this new initiative, then they need to participate in it.
It makes it harder [to get involved] when you have two-income families. I’ll take the example of the Merwin Meadows playground. There’s a plaque about the committee that got that going. Those are all my contemporaries–they fundraised, they got a bunch of people, my husband went down there, and he helped build and install it. That’s on town property, but that was an initiative done by residents. I recognize it’s harder, when you don’t have as many people at home to get these going. But government can’t do everything for people. People have to do some of it themselves.
We just don’t have the staff here, and I don’t see anybody asking to increase staff. I try to give guidance.
Grace: If GOOD Morning Wilton listeners could only remember one thing you said to us today what would it be?
LV: You ask the hardest questions! [Laughs] I think the one thing I would leave with people is that we have a very good team at Town Hall. A lot of very dedicated employees. And we want to hear from people. Everybody here, myself included, we just want to make Wilton a better place. And we’re genuine in that interest. So, whether you contact me at email@example.com or with our new website, it’s very easy to directly contact me. If you have an issue, put it on SeeClickFix; if you have an idea, bring it. Because if we don’t hear, we don’t know. That’s what we’re all about–trying to provide the services but provide them in the best way possible for residents.
And government does facilitate things. So, I would say that’s it.
Lily: Thank you!
Grace: Thank you so much.
Reed: Thank you so much for meeting with us. This is great.