THE GMW INTERVIEW: Deb McFadden, Candidate for First Selectwoman
The three-way race for Wilton’s first select person is critical–the person will guide the town through the next four years.
GOOD Morning Wilton interviewed all three candidates seeking the position. Our four-part interview introducing petition candidate Michael Powers to Wilton voters ran early October. The interview with Democratic candidate Deb McFadden runs below, and our talk with Republican incumbent Lynne Vanderslice will appear tomorrow. (GMW is publishing only one-part interviews with these last two candidates because they are both more well-known to voters and finished their interviews in about an hour apiece; both McFadden and Vanderslice were fine with only one story each.)
McFadden ran unsuccessfully for first selectwoman in 2015 against Vanderslice, and has been a member of the Board of Selectmen for the last two years. She’s been involved very in Democratic politics, as a member of the 2008 Electoral College, at the state level, and as a former chair of the Wilton Democratic Town Committee. During her more than two decades living in Wilton, McFadden has worked on behalf of the Wilton Security Task Force, Norwalk River Valley Trail, STAR Lighting the Way, Trackside Teen Center, and Sustainable CT.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity, but no substantial topic was omitted or meaning changed.
GOOD Morning Wilton: To be fair, I’m asking this question of all candidates running for first selectwoman/man: Have you ever been arrested?
Deb McFadden: No.
GMW: You’ve been canvassing and knocking on doors. Did you do that four years ago?
DM: Every race I’ve run, I’ve walked and knocked doors.
GMW: What are people telling you, and do you knock on doors of both Democrats and Republicans or just Democrats or Democrat/unaffiliated voters?
DM: It’s primarily Democrats with some unaffiliated that lean Democratic–but they could be in households that also have Republicans. Murphy’s Law says it’s usually the Republican who answers the door. [Laughs] I’m speaking to everyone.
A lot of people talk about taxes. They’re concerned about taxes. They’re concerned about the reassessment, if their assessment went up. They’re concerned about their property value, they’d like to sell their property, but aren’t able to because of the current market and get the value they think their house is worth.
But also things like schools. They also talk about things a first selectwoman would have no control over–the federal government and craziness in Washington; train schedules; stuff in Hartford and tolls. They bring up whatever’s on their mind–when they have an opportunity to vent, it’s like, “You wouldn’t believe what they’re doing in Washington.” I redirect the conversation to, “What can we do in Wilton? What’s important here?”
GMW: If property values and taxes are the main concerns, what would you do differently that hasn’t been done to address it?
DM: You can’t cut your way to prosperity. Fiscal responsibility looks at two things–you need to keep expenses down, but you also need to grow your revenues. We can do a much better job on that side of the equation, looking at how can we do some economic development.
The Board of Finance taxpayer survey last year, it was interesting to see how many residents were really excited and interested in Wilton doing more economic development, it was a very clear message that came out of that survey. We can do a better job of economic development and–
GMW: In terms of what? Different than is being done now? In the last four years, there’s been much more development happening on the Route 7 corridor.
GMW: What specific things should be done in addition to what’s been done already?
DM: The Plan of Conservation and Development was just barely finalized, so we need to now work on implementation. The back section of that talks about implementation. The last time the POCD was done there was some done, but not a lot–and I realize the economy did shift after the last one was adopted. So that’s part one.
Part two is we’ve talked about doing a master plan. That’s going to be really key. What do we as Wilton really want to have and where, and how do we want to do that? Once we develop the master plan, we can use that as the basis to roll forward and be proactive.
We’ve tended to be very responsive as opposed to proactive. That needs to change. We need to be much more proactive in going out and marketing Wilton–who we are, what we have to offer, how great we are. We need to take a closer look at what’s possible.
We also need to be more inclusive. We need to do is build a vision of who Wilton is and what we are and what we can do, and I don’t think we’ve done the best job we can. We can do a better job of building our vision and including more people in the conversation about who we are to broaden it. A lot of what’s been accomplished in the past, it’s been with a pretty narrow group of citizens. We appreciate all those who have contributed, but we need to open the gates a little wider and include more input on what’s possible.
GMW: Who has been left out?
DM: I’ve heard from seniors that feel their interests are not always addressed by the town.
I’ve also spoken to a few millennials saying that all the conversation about schools all the time doesn’t really meet their needs because they aren’t yet at the stage of life where that’s relevant to them. What is there about Wilton that’s relevant to a millennial who isn’t interested in what the schools have to offer right now? There are more segments of our population that we could be including in the conversation about who we are and what we want to be.
GMW: The master plan–what are your ideas for what Wilton might think about doing?
DM: I have ideas I’m happy to share, but the important thing is it’s not top-down decreeing, “This is what I want. This is what we’re going to do.” I could throw out some ideas to stimulate the conversation, but any time you’re building a plan, the broader you can get the input–although the process sometimes is more difficult when you have more and differing viewpoints–the end result is always a better product.
We need to take advantage of the fact that we have the Norwalk River running right through town center. We really don’t emphasize it very much, and that’s an asset a lot of communities don’t have that we could capitalize on. We have a lot of green space that other communities don’t have. Tying it into walk-ability, we could emphasize that in a lot of different ways–not only in town center, but we also have our trail system that we’re building. There’s a variety of different things we can talk about that are unique to us.
GMW: Someone’s in the voting booth, looking at the candidates, and let’s say they’re undecided. What do you want them to know about you to make them fill in the circle next to your name over someone else?
DM: Thank you for asking that. I am passionate about Wilton. I have experience not only serving on the BOS, but I’ve worked in a major municipality elsewhere under two different mayors. My job was to be basically a troubleshooter and a problem-solver for a major municipality. So I interacted with all the department heads resolving major issues. I worked in both directions, taking things out from city hall to the public, and then from the public back into city hall.
I have extensive municipal experience in a community large enough to have both a sewer system and a sewer processing plant and a major international airport.
I’ve also lived in Wilton 22 years, so I understand the community. All four McFadden kids went through the public schools, and we had one child who went through the special ed program, so I have a deep understanding of what that looks like.
I’m going to share a very personal story. In fifth grade, my teacher asked the students to read little booklets that were available. We could read any booklet on any career we wanted. If we wanted to be a nurse or a teacher or a fireman or whatever it was, we had to read the booklets and then write an essay on what do you want to be when you grow up? My essay was, “I Want to Grow up to be a City Manager,”–in 5th grade that was my life goal. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but I have genuinely been interested in municipal issues since 5th grade. Even when I go on vacation, I look at how other communities handle infrastructure and issues because it’s fascinating to me.
GMW: School regionalization was very motivating for people in the Wilton community. What’s your thought on regionalization and what happened last winter?
DM: The state handled the whole thing very poorly–we can all agree on that. Wilton led the charge very valiantly on going to Hartford and communicating that we were not happy with how that was being presented.
That’s not going to come up for this next cycle of the legislature, but I think the state is thinking about ways to have different regionalization, and so it may be coming again in a different format down the road.
It’s important for us to stay on top of that issue. Schools are Wilton’s biggest asset–that’s something we really need to protect and look at how we have that conversation about what makes sense for Wilton, from Wilton’s point of view. I realize the state’s trying to save money, but there are better ways to have that conversation.
I’ve got relationships in Hartford, some of them over 20 years old. I know some of our elected officials that have constitutional offices–I have not only professional relationships with them, but personal relationships.
If we can have a conversation with folks in Hartford about what makes sense, hopefully we can head off some of these things before they get to that stage where they’re actual proposed legislation. That we can work in a more united way to be problem-solving that’s productive instead of spending all of this energy battling each other. Let’s work together to find solutions because this whole thing was a disaster of the state’s making that we can work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again in Wilton.
GMW: Over the last four years since you ran for this position and the last two years that you’ve been on the Board of Selectmen, is there anything that Town Hall has done or the Board of Selectmen has decided on that you disagreed with and you would’ve done differently? If so, how would you have handled it?
DM: How we’ve handled some of our blight issues. Blight is an important issue to address, but when a property owner is making proactive steps, I’d probably go down the road a little differently than we have on some specific cases (and it’s not appropriate for me to comment on a particular property).
[Editor’s note: McFadden refers to town policy that permits officials to undertake foreclosure actions on properties whose owners don’t comply with blight issues after a certain period of time.]
We need to continue to work with property owners. Oftentimes when there’s a blight issue, there’s an underlying cause, and those could vary widely from one situation to the next. We need to work with social services and other appropriate organizations to see how we can be supportive in figuring out how to resolve that, and also use some of our wonderful nonprofits that are willing to come in and step in where appropriate in a situation where it’s beyond the capacity of perhaps a property owner. That’s one area.
It’s frustrating to see some of the turnover that’s occurred on [the] Economic Development [Commission]. Three meetings they didn’t make quorum last year and didn’t hold a meeting. I’d love to reenergize economic development. That’s going to be a key player in moving forward, and more attention can be paid to economic development, giving them the resources they need to move forward in a positive way.
Same thing with the Energy Commission, which used to have more authority in actually executing some of the plans they developed, that’s been removed from them. We, recently on the BOS, took a vote about not renewing the ZREC (Zero Emission Renewable Energy Credit), and the Energy Commission wasn’t even asked about it! I mean, come on! They’re the ones that initiated creating the ZREC. How come we didn’t even ask what they thought about that?
Transparency and inclusion are important issues that too many times there’s decisions made where not all the appropriate players are invited to contribute to the conversation.
GMW: How would you make things more transparent?
DM: One thing we could do within town hall is have a conversation with all the boards, committees, commissions, all the department heads and everybody representing the town. To do just a little education about inclusion, equity and diversity–how when you broaden the conversation, whatever the topic is, whether you’re talking about conservation or DPW’s programs, we need to have more community engagement. When I worked in that other municipality, that was my primary responsibility–how to include citizens in the governing process. When you do that, you have better outcomes.
We’ve had the recent experience where we were in the process of changing guardrails (that we now call ‘guide rails’) in the community. Residents woke up one day, and things had changed, sometimes on their property, and they weren’t aware [a guide rail] was coming. It just showed up, and they weren’t happy. If we had a process where we communicated to people before and invited participation, I think we could have had a better situation. We’re addressing it now after the fact, but how wonderful it would’ve been if we’d done it before.
There are so many examples where you can start the conversation before, because it results in better outcomes for everybody, because they can be part of the process. Even if decisions being made maybe aren’t what an individual wants, they at least know what’s happening, why it’s happening and have an opportunity to voice their opinion. When people feel they were listened to, it goes a long way in building trust about what’s happening inside town hall.
GMW: Over the last several years, and more recently there’ve been a lot of FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests. What’s your take on that?
DM: It’s important that Wilton be compliant. First step, let’s make sure we educate those who are subject to FOIA in how to properly be compliant. We can improve in that area.
A small number of people have generated a lot of FOIA requests. No matter what community you’re in, you’re always going to have a small minority of people who generate a lot of of those complaints. But it’s important that we be compliant and do everything we can to do our part in doing the right job.
Whether we’re found at fault or not, every opportunity is a learning experience. Could we have done something better? Sometimes there are just misunderstandings. If we have better communication and transparency, some of those situations could be resolved in an informal manner as opposed to a formal complaint. Because when you have a better dialogue and communication and more transparency and established methods to communicate a concern, then I think that we might be able to improve that situation.
GMW: Is there any reason you see or idea you have that would require opening the Charter? Any major changes?
DM: Some of the ideas that have been brought forward right now–it requires at least 15% of the electorate to turn out for a budget vote in order for the budget to be voted down. In the last 10 years, I think maybe six times we didn’t hit that threshold, so the budget automatically passed regardless of what the voters said. That’s come up.
So has whether we need a town manager, a professional person running the town as opposed to an elected official, so you’d still have a First Selectman’s office, but the responsibilities would be altered to some degree. That would be determined by the charter. Those are some possible things.
All kinds of other things could come up, because once you form a charter commission, they can do anything they want. I’d be open to having a conversation about whether that would be appropriate in the next four years. I’m not actively saying I’m for or against. I am open to it.
GMW: The Police HQ/Town Hall Building project–what are your thoughts?
DM: We’ve had delayed maintenance on a variety of things in Wilton, and that’s a high, high priority for us to move forward. You can see all kinds of overcrowding and leaks, and we’re noncompliant in a whole laundry list of different areas. That building was designed for half the number of people currently working in it and it’s in desperate need of attention, so that will be a big priority. Ideally it could come before the citizens for the upcoming Annual Town Meeting.
It’s come before the town before and was voted down, but it’s become much more urgent. In the recession, a lot of how we balanced the budget and were able to move forward without huge spikes in the mill rate was to delay infrastructure [improvements].
We’ve been playing catch up on roads, doing patch and repair and pushing things (like the police station) down the road, but it’s really time to pay attention to our infrastructure. The track at the high school, the leaking roof at town hall is being addressed. A number of things are really important.
GMW: Where did you stand on development of 183 Ridgefield Rd.?
DM: I was really sad when we lost that beautiful historic building. We could’ve had conversations about how to protect that building and it was really sad to see that loss to our community, that structure was truly unique in Wilton.
There are limitations on that property, based on access of sewer and water, and right now there’s an application for a state grant by the Wilton Land Trust to preserve that property as open space. I was part of the BOS who supported their application. The state doesn’t have a lot of money in their different programs, but that’s a significant piece of property.
We’re going to have other significant pieces of property coming available and it’s important for the community as a whole to have a conversation about what we want to see, and how we want to move forward with these properties.
We can have historic preservation, open green spaces, and economic development all at the same time, but it’s important to have a conversation with all the viewpoints and come together on what’s appropriate.
If we’re able to keep it as open space, that’s wonderful, but if that money isn’t forthcoming and something does have to be developed on it because the Land Trust doesn’t have the resources, then we need to have the conversation about what that looks like, and what the community is comfortable with.
I don’t know the answer to that. That’s something we’d have to develop as a community, but maybe we won’t get to that stage. Maybe it’ll be open space.
GMW: Supporters of preserving that as open space, their voices were very clearly heard. People who supported development on that space weren’t as outwardly vocal but many felt there could be significant tax gain the town could have gotten from that property–that it’s a missed opportunity to have 183 Ridgefield Rd. as something that could benefit the grand list.
DM: We don’t know if that opportunity is fully missed yet. It’s still being decided so that may still be in the future. We don’t know the final outcome.
GMW: Any preference?
DM: If it could be open space since that’s what the community has said, I’d be supportive of it being open space. If that’s not a reality, I am okay with it being developed for residential properties in a number and configuration that are appropriate to the nature of the property, which does have limitations.
We have different types of housing needs and that’s important to talk about–we don’t have a lot of diversity in our housing stock. For people on either end of the spectrum, millennials or seniors, who want something different than a four bedroom colonial on two acres, where do they go? There’s limited opportunities and we need to really explore more diversity in our housing options and what’s possible.
There’s limited locations on where they’d fit in Wilton along our major corridors, and through town center, but one of the difficulties with our town center is that we don’t have a lot of traffic through our town center. How do we enhance the traffic to be supportive of our local businesses?
Having mixed use and more residential in our town center could be a positive thing for local businesses. But these are conversations that we need to have and that’s where the master plan comes in.
GMW: Have you voted in all of Wilton’s Annual Town Meetings?
DM: I have. I always vote and in fact, not only do I vote in the Annual Town Meetings, but I vote in the primaries. I vote in general elections and when our son went away to college, I said, “You want your tuition paid? You’re going to register for an absentee ballot before you go to school.” When he walked into the registrar’s office, they said, “Wow, you’re the first college student to come in.” Then they looked at his last name and said, “Oh, we know why.” [Laughs]
GMW: What do you see as Wilton’s biggest need?
DM: We need vision of who we are and what we want to do. Once we’ve established the vision, then we need to actively take that vision and our brand of Wilton, and look at how we promote, how we market, and do so much more than we can. We’ve been functioning in a world of just looking at cost savings and operational management. That’s one component of leadership.
Leadership is so much more than that one little component. When you sit in the chair of the first selectwoman’s position, you are the lead cheerleader for the town. That’s a simple way of saying it. You need to be proactive in so many different arenas to talk about what’s possible and to promote the vision internally and externally.
We’ve not done a good job in either of those internal or external. We can do better. We can be a better community in a lot of different ways.