The three-way race for Wilton’s first select person is critical–the winner 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. We published our interview with Democratic candidate Deb McFadden yesterday, and today, we’re featuring our talk with Republican incumbent Lynne Vanderslice in the last of the series. (GMW is publishing only one-part interviews with the last two candidates–both are 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.)
Vanderslice won her first term to the position in 2015, when she also ran against McFadden. Prior to that she served on the Board of Finance for many years. She’s lived in Wilton for 32 years and has volunteered with A Better Chance (ABC) of Wilton (as president), the Wilton Library, and Wilton Playshop.
GOOD Morning Wilton: To be fair, I’m asking this question of all candidates running for first selectwoman/man: Have you ever been arrested?
Lynne Vanderslice: No. Not even a speeding ticket.
GMW: Property values, property values, property values…that and taxes are the biggest things people are talking about. Part of the campaign talk is people say it’s under your watch, and that’s what everyone is going to vote on. What do you say to Wilton about it?
LV: I ran four years ago because I understood what the impact on Wilton would be, of the state’s financial situation, and I had a vision of what I could do to try to insulate Wilton to the extent possible from that state impact. That vision was: reducing costs, growing the Grand List, and making sure we maintain the things that make Wilton attractive to people–our excellent schools, our natural environment, our quality of life and our infrastructure.
So what’s happened? Town government is smaller, we’ve reduced costs. The work we’ve done with the Board of Education to share services, and the renewable energy sources we brought to them, that’s saved the BOE about $400,000 a year. The Grand List has gone up each year. It’s going to have a much larger increase this Oct. 1.
What can I do as first selectwoman to help growth? First thing is tell people, “We’re interested in hearing from you,” which is what we did–a different message than was coming from Wilton before. Then help those developers come up with something that will be acceptable to the community. So I meet with everybody. I tell them, ‘You should speak with the neighbors.’ I tell them what works in Wilton and what doesn’t work, what we’re looking for in Wilton. My door has been very open–that hasn’t been the case before.
We’ve improved our infrastructure. We abandoned crumb rubber, we went with the coconut husk-infill on our two turf fields. We replaced the tennis courts with much better product than what we had before. The roads are the biggest issue for residents–it’s a quality of life issue, but it’s also a property value issue. You can’t sell your house on a road that’s filled with potholes.
So we accelerated the road paving to 15 miles a year, we’re very aggressive on that. There was a Letter to the Editor from somebody who doesn’t live in Wilton, who complimented DPW for the condition of the roads. They drive all over Wilton, Westport, New Canaan, other towns, and they’ve noticed the difference in the last two years–they say our roads are in better shape than neighboring towns.
Despite what’s happening statewide, those are the things we can do as a town government and as a community to make Wilton more attractive to people looking to buy.
But there’s no magic wand.
Why am I running again? Those same things I ran on before, I know we can make more progress.
Everybody said, “You cannot ever get the Board of Ed to share a CFO.” I heard that from every single first selectman that I meet with in the COG (Council of Governments). When I told them at our monthly lunches it was happening, they said, “I don’t believe you until it happens.” And it did. Now they’re all looking to do the same thing. It’s breaking down those silos, we’ve broken them down. I have a great relationship with [school superintendent] Kevin Smith–you have to trust each other, this is collaborative. As those opportunities come up, we’ll do them again.
We’ve also broken down silos within town government. A good example is with Chris Burney as Facilities Director taking over DPW, that makes a lot of sense–it eliminates a position and you have a better service. We brought Sarah Heath, the director of Social Services into the blight team. She wasn’t part of that before. It makes sense because lots of times blight is related to mental health. So, we’re providing better service by breaking down all the silos, we’re also reducing costs.
GMW: One of the criticisms that people have of your administration is that you are overly involved, that you control everything. Have you heard that before, and what do you think about that?
LV: No, I haven’t heard it before. But I came in knowing that one of the ways to save costs was to do things differently. I’m very hands-on. If you’re going to change the way things are done, if you’re going to consolidate positions with the BOE, if you’re going to consolidate within, then you better understand all of those functions and what they’re doing. So yes, I am very hands-on and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
We’ve made significant progress in a lot of different areas. You probably saw the work just done clearing along River Road. I listen to residents, I talk to residents and then I work with Mike Conklin in Environmental Affairs to address those things. That was one of our priorities, to open up that river, to have people realize the potential of Schenck’s Island. We started with the Chess Park and now we’re doing that clearing.
I don’t know why that would be a bad thing, that I would get involved. People called up, they complained about the roads, I got in my car and I drove the roads and I saw how bad they were, which led to the initiative to do 15 miles per year. That’s a good thing. Me sitting in my office not talking to people, not getting involved–that’s not a good thing.
GMW: Another criticism you hear: “Transparency, transparency, transparency. We need more. There isn’t transparency.” What do you say to that?
LV: Our town government is more transparent than it has ever been. I hear that, but nobody defines what they’re missing. We have more meetings on videotape available and running on Channel 79 than we have ever had. We have a new website that is more user-friendly and has more information on it than ever. We have SeeClickFix–you can’t get much more transparent about DPW because you can actually track if you put in an issue and it doesn’t get resolved in what you think is a timely manner, you can write a comment and it’s there for everyone to see.
We put the information out there. We don’t do meetings behind the scenes. We discuss things only in a public meeting as it’s supposed to be. Quite frankly, that was not the case before I came into office. There were conversations that Board of Selectmen members who were not of the same party had amongst themselves . That’s not allowed. That’s not transparent. That changed with me. Some people weren’t happy about it, but we follow the law and we’re transparent, everything’s done in public. People of the same party can caucus if they want. I don’t caucus, but they have a legal right to do it. But you cannot have meetings between people of two different parties outside of the public meeting.
GMW: And the accusation of ‘backroom politics’ or ‘the way it’s always been done’?
LV: It’s obviously not the way it’s always been done because, like I just said, before me there were conversations going on that weren’t allowed under the Freedom of Information (FOIA) rules. Now, everything is upfront.
When I came in we had had a lot of FOIA complaints. That’s one thing I immediately addressed because one, you should follow the rules. Two, if you break the rules, it costs you money, whether or not you get fined, it’s still expensive.
A lot of people didn’t know what the rules were, so I did a couple of things.
- One is everybody got a wiltonct.org email. It was something I had asked for as a Board of Finance member and didn’t get until right near the end of the term. That means everything is now done on a town email. You want to find out something? We have it. It used to be done on personal email, which is not easy for the town to retrieve.
- The other thing we did is, when we changed Town Counsel we began educating the Board and Commission members. I don’t believe Board and Commission members want to do it the wrong way–they want to do it the right way, but you have to educate them on what’s the right way. So we did that. We videotaped all of those. So when a new member comes in, and they haven’t had training yet, they can watch the video. We’ve done multiple training sessions. We gave everybody Freedom of Information laws. Town counsel Ira Bloom put together a packet everybody gets when they become a Board or Commission member. And Sarah Gioffre from my office–she used to be chairman of the Park and Rec Commission, so she understood what members or a chairman needs–she put a guide together. So we worked hard to make sure Board and Commission members are educated on all this so they do their part in transparency of government also.
GMW: Have FOIA requests have gone down? Stayed the same?
LV: They’re down significantly. FOIA requests are down, but also FOIA complaints to the [State] Commission are down significantly. It’s been well over a year since we’ve had one. We haven’t had many.
GMW: Do seniors have enough of a voice in government here in Wilton? And are their needs being met?
LV: It feels to me like you have more younger people on Boards and Commissions than [in previous years]. Certainly if you’re retired it’s easier to have the time to be on Boards and Commissions. But we have a pretty good mix of people, I don’t really feel seniors are underrepresented on Boards and Commissions. If we looked at the demographics, they’re probably slightly overrepresented.
As far as what seniors need, first of all if you look at the IRS data–which I do–there’s a wide range of incomes in Wilton. Unfortunately the data only breaks it out by segment, it’s $200,000 and above. The average that makes $200,000 and above is significantly, significantly higher than the people at less than $200,000. So it’s hard to know exactly how many Wilton seniors fall in that less than $200,000 group. I analyze this–you can see how many people are receiving a pension, how many people are having IRA payouts, how many are getting social security, so you kind of get a sense. There’s no question when you look at that data, there is a need for the Senior Tax Relief program. We have a good number of Wilton seniors who participate in that program, and we’ve increased the funding for that program. We just made some changes to the ordinance.
- One, there’s an appeal process. Some residents were in the hospital at the time of the deadline and didn’t get their paperwork in, and there was nothing we could legally do. So we changed the ordinance so those people who, this year were in the hospital, they’re going to be able to get their credit.
- We also put in the minimum credit because some people were getting a very small amount.
- But also we haven’t used all that money every year because when that program was developed, there was an expectation that a certain amount would be used for credits and a certain amount for deferrals. And people use less of the deferrals. So we wanted to provide more assistance to people that really need it.
- The fourth thing we’ve done is because the state no longer funds its Senior Tax Relief program, we stepped up as a Board of Selectmen and are funding that also. So we’ve expanded that program.
Of course, we did the Senior Discount program, and the Prescription Discount program, which we thought would be used by a lot of seniors. We hired Stephanie Belcher who’s doing a great job in Social Services with senior programming.
We try to be responsive to what seniors are looking for. What I’ve heard from people directly is we’ve addressed all their issues.
GMW: You had a checklist when you came into office, you’ve talked about it every time I interview you. What’s left on your checklist if you get elected again, that you’re going to look to do?
LV: The last time we met, which was quite some time ago, the one area where I felt I needed to focus on was that area of Senior Tax Relief. So I think I can check that off.
For the next term, it’s really a continuation of what we’ve been doing. More opportunities will come up within town government.
- Sharing services with other towns and maybe some consolidation of administrative positions with other towns, is going to be a big focus in my next term. We already started working with Weston on the shared solar field and we’re talking with Weston about our transfer stations.
- Wilton really pushed for a study on shared public safety facilities that we’re doing out of WestCOG. We’re doing a couple of other West-COG studies–one of the reasons I decided to get as involved as I am with West-COG and be on the executive committee as treasurer, was to better understand what funding is available for these studies, and then push studies where we think it makes sense.
- Also continuing with Commercial Grand List growth.
- We still have infrastructure that needs to be addressed. We’ve got a couple years left on that paving 15 miles a year.
- There’s a group of people that would like to further address playing fields. That was a big issue when I came in. It was articulated that we have a problem with access to fields. One of the ways we responded was the temporary lighting regulation. That allowed us to extend playing time, open up some fields. There’s a group that’s looking at maybe a third turf field. Maybe a bubble on one of the turf fields, to extend the use of the field. Those are conversations some groups are having. It’s an interesting question. We know enrollment has declined. There were fewer children who came into the schools than they had budgeted, particularly in kindergarten. As those kids age, will we get that student population back? That’s part of what goes into the decision making.
- I also want to address the condition of the high school track.
- Of course, we have issues to address with the police station, and the other Town Hall buildings. That’s why we had a comprehensive approach. I’m big on planning, because you don’t want to do these things in piecemeal. That’s why we’re addressing that on a comprehensive basis.
- We accelerated the Plan of Conservation and Development, because there was so much interest in Wilton. So let’s do the 10 year roadmap, so Planning and Zoning isn’t operating in the dark. And Schenck’s Island and Merwin Meadows.
- Next is the master plan for Wilton Center and the surrounding area around Rte. 7. We began with integrating the Norwalk River into the center. We’ve done all that clearing. We’re looking to make Schenck’s Island something that draws people into the center. The river draws people into the center. So we’ve done that. I’m willing to extend into the area around the train station. That is going to start in early 2020 after the new Planning and Zoning Commission is elected. We already have that money set aside for that.
- Next is to build the pedestrian bridge. We applied for a second grant, we’ve had the verbal award, we’ve had the award through email. We’re just waiting till the final letter. Then we can build that bridge. And that bridge is important because it will incentivize development around the train station. We have an office building there that’s more than 50% vacant and developers have come in here and talked about it, but they want that connection. So we have that as potential development and then the 3.5 acres that the town owns on the corner of Station Rd. and Rte. 7. So that and the other development that’s going to happen around that area gets you the density that you need to help with the vitality of the center.
Because I go out to dinner a lot on weekends and during the week, and those restaurants are not full and everybody says they want a more vital downtown. But it’s been that way for as long as I can remember in Wilton, that those restaurants are not filled during the week. And if you talk to restaurateurs as I have, or you talk to people who own a commercial space as I have, we need the density so that those places can be busy because you can’t have a restaurant that’s only frequented a couple of days a week. Higher density is going to help with keeping the center more vital, being able to support more businesses to fill up the vacant space.
Again, we’re planning, “What are we going to do there?” It’s a long term plan. Even the plan for the renewable energy–we have a plan for 70% renewable by 2021.
GMW: Count the number of times you said, ‘plan,’ or ‘planning’ or ‘I’m big on planning.’ Your opponents have said that Wilton needs a vision. There’s a negative tone to that, ‘Wilton needs a better image,’ as if you haven’t done that. What do you say to that?
LV: When I got elected in 2015 I presented a clear vision. Voters understood the direction, and those same steps I laid out to you, how you do this. We’ve executed against that vision. I’ve read the same thing–they say there is no vision, there is no plan. Well, a lot of us just participated in the Plan of Conservation and Development.
Now if somebody isn’t as active, and maybe didn’t participate, maybe isn’t aware… We do a lot more messaging than was done in the past. Through GMW, I’m using Facebook. We have E-Alerts on the website. But I understand, people are very busy in their lives. They’re not always paying attention to what’s happening in town government.
But if you’re paying attention to what is happening, it’s very clear what the vision is. My office works with P&Z. My office works with all the other departments. We are all clear on what the vision is. So for the next term, it’s the same vision. We’re still in the same state, with the same economic issues. We have to be focused on the things that can make Wilton stay competitive, be a good choice for people, be affordable, and be attractive, in the context of the state that we’re in.
So we really do, we have a plan for the center. I keep hearing there’s no plan for the center. There is a plan for the center. Again, we’ve talked about it, but if you don’t watch our meetings, maybe you don’t know about it. I guess by saying that, if you’re not paying attention to what’s happening at P&Z.
GMW: One place there’s been criticism about not having a plan is affordable housing and 8-30g.
LV: Wilton was ahead of the curve. Before there was even a statute, Wilton was doing affordable units. The 30 units up on Station Road has come on in the last couple of years. There’s nine affordable units up there. The Sunrise assisted living facility will have affordable units.
But, being realistic, we’re never going to get to 10%, which is the state requirement. Currently, the way the state counts them, we have more than 6,000 housing units. The state says under 8-30g the developer has to have 30% affordable units. Assuming that developers do that, for us to get to the 10% number, we have to add almost 2,000 new units. That’s equivalent to 18 Avalon Apartments developments. It’s never going to happen. We don’t have the place to put it. It’s completely unrealistic.
When people say we don’t have a plan to get to 10%, I don’t think anybody would want that plan that would get us to 10%. Then I also hear, “The town should build 100% affordable buildings.”
You need to understand what that means and what that involves. Do they want the town to now be the landlord and to own these buildings? We own that land on the corner of Station Rd. and Rte. 7, but I would encourage anybody who thinks that way to go and take a look at Wilton Commons. There’s a management company, there’s a whole board. That’s a massive undertaking for the town.
If Wilton’s never going to get to to 10%, then maybe we ought to change the statute. Maybe we ought to change the statute so that there’s something more reasonable that does encourage affordable housing in Wilton but in a more realistic way. Something that’s more achievable.
The problem isn’t that Wilton isn’t at 10%; the problem is that, like most things in state government, it’s one size fits all. They need to do a better job of … You define the problem, and then, what are the right solutions to get there?
We’d like to have more mid-market-rate projects. What we have now is high-rent and affordable, but we don’t have that mid-market price. You would want more police officers, teachers, firefighters to live here. You want recent graduates. Jill Warren talked about this in her OP-ED. You have two young professionals, but they can’t afford to live in Wilton.
If there were different kinds of incentives to incentivize that mid-market … But that’s not what the statute is. The statute only incentivizes one type of housing. It needs to be revised to be more realistic.
GMW: As part of development in Wilton, there’s an open-ended situation with 183 Ridgefield Rd. [The Wilton Land Trust has applied for a state grant to put toward the purchase of the property.] I guess we’ll find out about the grant at the end of the year?
LV: I don’t know. They were supposed to find out before the end of the year. But quite honestly, that money is bonded, and there’s a hold on bonded monies [by the Governor]. I don’t know whether they’re going to hear at that point in time.
GMW: Or if the private money they need to raise [as the remainder of the purchase price] can be raised.
GMW: They’re trying, but now that’s sort of in limbo. Supporters of preserving that as open space were very loud, in the months the discussion went on. People who were more supportive of allowing that land to be developed and be part of the Grand List, to generate tax revenue, their voices weren’t as loud but still some people felt that way.
I’ve asked the other candidates this: If the Land Trust’s plan doesn’t come to fruition, what’s your preference for what happens with that land?
LV: I don’t necessarily have a preference at this point. If the Land Trust isn’t able to pay off the loan on that property–actually it’s a foundation of a member of the Land Trust–it’s my understanding that it reverts back to the Fieber family.
I don’t know where the Fieber family’s head is at right now. We’ll have to see as we get closer. I’m sure there’ll be some conversations to get a sense of where they are.
This–183, the house–that was all going on when I first came into office. What I said then still applies now: It’s very important, if you want to preserve land, you need to organize yourselves. You need to fundraise, so that when these opportunities come up, you have the money. That was really more directed toward this house, because that’s really what the Wilton Land Trust does–they raise money to do additional acquisitions, and also to maintain land they have.
It’s much more difficult to do that in this environment. When I raised money for A Better Chance’s (ABC) Cannondale house, it was pretty easy. A few phone calls and a $250,000 fundraising event, and we were done. The idea of having a $250,000 fundraising event in Wilton isn’t realistic anymore. So it’s a major challenge for the Land Trust to have the money to acquire this. They have one big donor and some other donations. But they’re looking for a lot of money from the state.
I’m not hearing from people that they want the town to buy it.
GMW: Would the town even be in a position to buy it?
LV: Well, that’s it. What are the priorities for the town? Most people are concerned about their property values. They’re concerned about their taxes. Somebody’s going to have to come forward and make a case for that investment, and nobody’s come forward to do it yet.
We’re going to have to address it as we get closer to it. You have to be realistic. I’m a pretty pragmatic person. You have to live within the reality of where we are right now.
GMW: Since you’ve lived in town, have you voted in all of Wilton’s Annual Town Meetings?
LV: I moved to Wilton in 1987. I certainly remember one of the early meetings, where there were a couple of thousand people at the high school gym. Can I say with certainty that I voted in every single one since 1987? I don’t know. But there’s certainly no question, in the last 10-plus years I’ve voted in every one of them.
GMW: Do you see any need to open up the Town Charter? If so, what’s something that the town should consider changing in the charter?
LV: I do think that there is a need to open up the charter. I think we have to take a look at the number of people who are on boards and commissions, some of which is stated in the charter. We constantly have vacancies. That’s something I tried to address immediately when I came in. We had a lot of vacancies. We filled them up, but it’s constant.
Part of that might be because of the hurdles for people to come onto a board or commission. In 2015, a number of us ran on the idea that we were going to make it easier for people to serve on boards and commissions. We allowed unaffiliated voters to come to us directly. The Republican and Democratic Town Committees opposed that. [Republican] Al Alper and [Democrat] Deb McFadden came in as the chairmen, in opposition to that. They wanted what, certainly [unaffiliated second selectman] Dave Clune and I thought was a completely unreasonable demand–that an unaffiliated voter would have to get something like 150 signatures.
Eventually three of the five board of selectmen approved the 100 signatures. Then Dan Berg went out and did it. The number of hours that was required to get 100 signatures was significantly more than the number of hours you need to spend to go to a town committee. So we did change that. I had to break that tie.
Maybe the vacancy situation would be better if we did allow people to, especially unaffiliated voters. It’s okay now–you do a petition of 25 people, so that’s a little bit more reasonable. But some people don’t want to go to the town committees, and they’re forced to. That’s not in the charter, but I do think with so many vacancies, maybe we should reconsider the positions. When I look at some of the other towns, we have a lot more people on our boards and commissions than other towns. I’m not saying we don’t want people to participate. We want people to participate, but if we’re having trouble finding people and you can’t have a quorum because people don’t have the time, then maybe something needs to be looked at.
GMW: What do you think about the 15% rule for town votes?
LV: I’m in favor of changing that. If you show up to vote, your vote should count. Though you don’t want five people deciding. In Weston, if people don’t come, they stand in the parking lot and wait to see if they’re going to have a quorum at a town meeting. I don’t want ever to have that kind of a government. I definitely think the 15% is a little bit high, and maybe we could encourage more participation if they knew that for sure their vote was going to count.
GMW: I feel like politics has entered back into Wilton government a little bit more. There’s political tension on boards. A sense of political drama has entered Wilton. Maybe that’s a factor of the national stage or just there are more candidates from both parties now, but it just seems like there’s more political drama. And not just between the two major parties. In general, you feel politics.
LV: There’s a political divide that I don’t ever remember. From the standpoint of boards and commissions, there’s a division that wasn’t there before.
Now, if you want to be appointed and you’re a Republican, you have to go to the Republican Town Committee; if you’re a Democrat, you have to go to the Democratic Town Committee. You don’t have any other choice.
When I think back to when I joined the Board of Finance, in 2008 when the Republicans were looking for someone to fill a vacancy on the Board of Finance, Jim Meinhold, a Democrat on the Board of Finance, recommended me–[at the time, I was] a Democrat. The Republicans interviewed me, and they chose me. I think there were four candidates they were considering. They did say, “Would you be willing to be unaffiliated?” At the time I had always voted based on who I thought was the best person. Party affiliation didn’t mean that much to me.
That’s the kind of collaboration that we had in 2008. All the years that I was on the Board of Finance, I never felt a division by party. Sometimes I sided with Democrats in our votes, sometimes I sided with Republicans. It wasn’t always unanimous, and that was okay, but no one lined up by party. There’s more lining up by party happening now. That’s political as opposed to what the issue is before the boards.
I grew up in Massachusetts–which, by the way, I grew up with the Kennedys, being a big influence, and they were the Democrats. But my other senator was Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate. That was such a source of pride in Massachusetts and in my family. I don’t even think I knew growing up, and I was well into my adulthood when I learned that Edward Brooke was a Republican. I really liked it better the way it was when I was growing up.
It’s too bad. I’d like to get back to where we were. I have my own issues with political parties, and the laws in this state are designed to ensure those political parties stay in place. That’s a conversation for another day.
I was fine to change to unaffiliated. I don’t know that you would see that happen today, especially the gatekeeping that was forced on the BOS back in 2016. That’s unfortunate, and that’s why you see more and more people as unaffiliated, because they’re unhappy with what they’re seeing, that nothing is happening on a national level because the parties just fight. We saw the fighting on a state level, and we can’t afford that on a local level. You have to just work with everybody. Who cares what their party is?
That’s why I’m thrilled Dave Clune is the second selectman, besides the fact that Dave Clune deserved that position. I’m just really happy and proud for this town that we have an unaffiliated second selectman.
GMW: What’s Wilton’s biggest need for the next four years?
LV: Not sure it’s our biggest, but one of our critical needs is better cell service. I hear about it from realtors. I see it on Facebook, I experience it myself. It certainly impacts the ability to sell a home because it’s so critical right now. So we’re looking at it. We’ve all been frustrated. This is a subject that we need to address on a regional basis. The cellular companies are limited in their interest of what they’re willing to do in town. They don’t want to invest unless there’s high density, so we’re hoping if we take a more regional approach that involves the higher, more higher-density towns and the low-density towns, that we might be more successful.
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?
LV: I just want to ask people to take a look at the work that I’ve done. If you are happy with the work that’s been done and this is the kind of work that you would like to continue to see done, then I’d just ask that they support me in this election.