The GMW Interview, Pt. 2: Michael Richard Powers
in August GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve interviewed Michael Richard Powers, who’s making waves in just his third year as a Wilton resident. As a new member of the Wilton Republican Town Committee (RTC), he took on the party’s leadership by challenging RTC officials and running to unseat fellow GOPer Lynne Vanderslice, the current first selectwoman. He’s now a petition candidate unendorsed by any party in the race for Wilton’s top official.
Yesterday we detailed why Powers decided to run, going to lengths to get onto the ballot. He told GMW what he doesn’t like about current town and party practices and why that motivates him to run.
Today we look to get Powers to turn from what he sees as problems with current leadership, to tell us what he would bring to the job of first selectman.
GMW’s unedited interview with Powers, a self-described talker, runs over 50,000 words. There are some statements he made that we are not publishing–opinions about several members of the RTC we feel are not in keeping with GMW policies, as well as times in the conversation he asked to go ‘off the record’. 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, without changing the substance and meaning of the interview.
GOOD Morning Wilton: We just spent an hour talking about what you’re running against. So, question two: What are you running for? What is it that you want to achieve? Not in reaction to, but what fresh ideas do you bring to the town?
Michael Richard Powers: I want people to be excited to be in this town. I want this to be a generational town. I don’t want this to be a sad town where you see a senior in high school, and then three weeks after graduation a ‘for sale’ sign. That’s what happens.
Taxes are exorbitant, they’re not trying to get rid of big taxes for some of the elderly, for some people who aren’t in the school system, like in Westchester County–
GMW: They’ve been doing [senior tax relief] for a while here…[Ed. note–including very recently]
MRP: I’m completely for that, but it should be when people live here, they want to live here, not just because of the school system. The ratio is now 60/40–40% of families at least one child is of school age. Whether they actually attend the public school, I didn’t see that broken out.
It’s a phenomenal school system and I want to maintain that. Things are happening where it’s starting to become questionable and once it’s on a downward slide, how do you stop it?
I don’t think we’re coming to a downward slide–we’re already in it. Property values have dropped. My house–even with the tax assessment–is now worth less than what I paid for it. To some people, this is the single largest investment they ever have. It’s irrelevant to me because I’m going to die while living in that house, so I don’t care what it’s worth. I just want to come to where I feel comfortable. A lot of people in this town don’t feel comfortable.
Power references a radio interview he listened to with GMW’s Herve talking about low voter turnout at Wilton Annual Town Meetings–as low as 10-11%.
MRP: On the radio show, the woman [interviewing you] said 10% or 11% [turnout] means people are doing good, that people don’t have a problem. No, people are just disenfranchised. When you ask people, [they say], ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m never going to change it.’
In the past five years, there was one time where the budget was actually voted down, but it didn’t meet the 15% threshold of total voters, so the budget reduction didn’t go through. The people don’t realize or understand that they are the single largest legislative body in this town.
I want people to know they have the ultimate power. I want to stop this backroom, Chicago politics from occurring and continuing. I want people to be heard. I want the people to drive what this town is doing and not having these specific, small groups of people deciding what they’re going to do, whether [people] like it or not.
Here, we’re a direct representative. We’re not a representative. We have the right to vote on it–people don’t know it, and they don’t take charge of it and they don’t put the people they do elect to get them the information so they can decide what’s going on. They just basically said, ‘Agree with me and I’ll make sure it’s okay,’ and they were like, ‘Eh, it doesn’t matter. Nothing happens.’
There are groups that have brought the town to court previously on multiple occasions, for multiple different things.
The Miller-Driscoll School, the issue that was going on there, there was $50 million… Before I moved to Wilton, because I’m a forensic accountant and a fraud examiner, I was approached by a group of doctors who live in town, to review the process because the dollar-per-sq. ft. for renovation is more than a dollar-per-sq. ft. for new construction of a hospital, which is the highest, most expensive dollar-per-sq. ft., and they couldn’t figure out why it was happening. They approached me and I said, “No, I don’t get involved usually with towns.”
But now living here and seeing what’s going on and then seeing how people are disenfranchised. If you don’t have a child in this school, what goes on, how are you informed on what’s going on?
I don’t want 11% turnout. Now, the 11% is the electors. The electors are actually changed differently on who they are. It’s not people registered to vote. You don’t have to be a resident of the town of Wilton to be able to vote. You can own property over $1,000 or more in the town to vote.
It’s a very strange rule in the way [the percentage] is calculated. I think it’s artificially wrong–if you do it for people who are registered to vote in the town maybe [turnout] would be higher. The other bit too is just basically being an elector as a resident 18 years old or older and own property, so the overall list is much greater of people who have the ability to vote in those meetings.
There are some people say, ‘It’s fine for now. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ It’s already on the downward slide and then it’s going to be much harder to fix. Then things are not going to have to be moved, they’re going to have to be severely cut. At this point in time, you can modify, you can review things, and I think we can move it back into that direction.
One of the things is that the equation shouldn’t be, ‘Here’s how much we’re spending, so we’re going to back into the equation from that way.’ [It shouldn’t be,] ‘This is what the grand list is, so the mill rate must change, because this is what we’re spending.’
Turn it around: ‘Here’s what the grand list is, here’s what a reasonable moderate mill rate is compared to our contemporaries, and then, here’s how much we have to spend.’ And that’s the money we spend–not the money we want to spend, but the money we have to spend.
[Editor’s note: In part one of the interview, Herve pointed out that Powers seemed to focus more on topics more closely related to the Board of Education and the Board of Finance–and less on things under the purview of the first selectman, which is the position he’s seeking.]
GMW: Again, that’s a Board of Finance thing.
MRP: No, that’s Board of Finance. But, here’s what comes along with that. As first selectman, yes, you don’t have any control of the Board of Education. [But] the first selectman has the ability to request from people, ‘Why is this happening?’
They can’t fire anybody in the Board of Education, or anybody the Board of Education would hire, or to the school system. The Board of Education only oversees [school superintendent] Kevin Smith, but you can put his feet to the fire and say, ‘Why is this happening?’ and demand reports, demand information, and he hasto give it. He can’t say, ‘No, not unless it’s FOIA.’ They are directly responsible to any information that the first selectman requires.
I don’t see that happening. And if it is happening, it’s happening outside of the sight of the people in the town, and it’s these backroom conversations that are going on.
Doing that will give you greater strength going forward because your grand lists will go up. Where we’re going now, the mill rate goes up, property values are coming down.
If you turn around and minimize expenses, the property values to start to go up because you’re not charging a mill rate greater than your direct competitors for location.
That’s great. Our school’s great. But here’s the problem: Redding’s schools are great too. Ridgefield’s schools are great too.
GMW: Yes, but you’re not considering other factors–commutability, proximity to the water, or proximity to New York City. There’s a difference between living in Wilton over Redding with a half-hour longer commute.
MRP: Well, here’s the problem, Westport’s closer, Norwalk’s closer. Darien’s closer. Stamford’s closer. Greenwich is closer. And then you’ve Port Chester, Rye …
The timeframe from Wilton to the City is increasing. The train, MTA, is breaking down. The tracks, the time, the delays on these commutes, it’s longer and longer. People moving into Wilton is dropping, greatly. The commute is getting longer. There are more people.
The location is sort of deteriorating as a factor on why people would move here because of its accessibility to New York.
GMW: What is it that you’re going to bring to the town that’s going to attract people here? What are your solutions? Don’t just give the problem, what’s your solution? What are you bringing?
MRP: You’re absolutely correct. The ability to put people to the test, and if something’s not being done correctly, to change it. That it is supposed to be done.
[Editor’s note: Powers refers to emails he provided to GMW, regarding his challenge to RTC leadership over rules he thought were being unfairly introduced to the party’s nominating process–specifically, he says, to thwart him. He discussed this in Part 1 of the interview with GMW.]
As you can see through the emails, what I did with my own Republican Town Committee, when they tried to enact something, I didn’t ask someone else to do it. At the end of the day, I want people to know that I do it.
If there’s an issue, I will fix it head on. I will take care of it. I will listen to what people are doing and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. A lot of it doesn’t happen to this day.
I’m going to make sure people are involved and know what’s going on in this town. The other reason why people are disenfranchised is because [Town] boards have meetings that they have handouts to, that the public are not privy to. A simple thing, they’re given notices, the notices are put online, it’s emailed out now. We have an electronic system that will give you the agenda of a meeting. It’ll give you the time, the date, the place.
What they won’t give you is the handouts they already have. They get to review them, but at the meeting they don’t even give them to you when you walk in the door. So, a board meeting could go on and they discuss what’s going on handout on page 34 line six, which you can’t refer to.
Town boards are required to have public comment. How are you supposed to have public comment on something that you have no handout to? That you can’t reference the same information they’ve just been discussing for probably a half an hour. That’s restricting information to people. I’m not going to allow that to happen. I’m going to give them any handouts. I’m going to give them the information.
As [Town Counsel] Ira Bloomsaid at the June [18, 2019] Board of Finance meeting, ‘People are going to sit home and look at what these agendas are and want to know why. That’s why the agendas cannot be a catch-all, “any other topic that may need to be discussed.” You have to tell them.’
You need to go further than that. Instead of just not telling them what’s going to be discussed, give them the information that’s being discussed. Not only from the beginning, ‘Here’s what we’re discussing,’ but ‘Here’s why we’re discussing something.’
There’s been proposals the town laid out as it belongs to Merwin Meadows. If you go to Town Hall, you can see the pictures. Why isn’t it sent to an email to every single person, or available to be sent to every single person? Why do you have to go to Comstock to actually see the boards?
GMW: Actually, all those Merwin Meadows pictures and schematics are available to anyone already, online.
MRP: Okay. Well, a lot of people keep asking for them and don’t know where they are.
GMW: By law, I don’t think that those agendas or minutes are required to be online. Our town puts them online.
MRP: You’re absolutely correct.
GMW: I get an email every time there’s an agenda or minutes–
MRP: That’s fine.
GMW: –that’s put online.
MRP: Yes, okay, if we want to go line by line what we have to do by law–
GMW: But our town [officials are] doing more than what they have to do–
MRP: We should as a town, to get people involved, to let people know what’s happening… It’s a disconnect with the people… It’s not that they’re excited about what’s going on so they don’t need to show up because they believe that it’s in hand. They believe they’re disenfranchised, that they’re not being heard. My thing is to get them heard, to get the information out, have people informed.
Today with the computer technology that exists, I am hard pressed to find anybody who doesn’t have a cell phone. In case of emergency, I get a phone call. I also have houses in different towns. I get phone calls saying, ‘There’s an emergency. Please be advised, if you need anything call this, call that. We’re expecting this or these roads are going to be shut down.’ Even on the state level they send that.
GMW: Are you saying that doesn’t happen here?
MRP: No, I’m not saying it only happens in those certain cases of emergencies when we’re basically overwhelmed. But for the Town Meeting? Yes, if we’re only getting 11% turnout, yes, it has to be more. And it’s not that we have to force them to come out, but I think we have to give them the information.
GMW: Do you have concrete evidence that backs up that people feel they are not provided that information, that there’s a clamoring that, ‘I need more information, otherwise I would show up to these meetings, or otherwise I would provide comments.’ Where are you hearing from people? Where is your evidence that the town is missing what it should be doing?
MRP: FOIA requests. The FOIA requests are skyrocketing through this town. Now, there are certain specific groups that have it. The FOIA requests in this town to try to get information from the town should be openly and readily available. If you open up your laptop, you should be able to get 95%. Yes, I believe it’s FOIA requests. I haven’t seen any, but just large volume or large numbers–theory dictates that there has to be some 7th-, 8th standard deviation. FOIA requests are requiring information which is not being provided–which should beprovided.
GMW: A significant percentage of the FOIA requests against the town come from the same, few number of people.
GMW: Look at the numbers of FOIA requests compared to the number of people who are filing them.
MRP: 100%. You are correct. Connecticut disincentivizes people from filing FOIAs, because if you’re not an attorney, if you’ve never seen a FOIA, you’re not accustomed to [what’s required].
Unfortunately, as you’re stating, people filing FOIA requests are sometimes filing …just to harass, and the state has actually turned around a law and you can register somebody… where they can actually restrict your FOIA request.
These multiple FOIA requests are because the town didn’t provide information in the first place. So, they’re filing multiple requests on the same information because they were never given it originally.
I will absolutely say, yes, there are people who put up FOIA requests for nothing more than to harass and annoy people, period. Anything that’s used for a shield and used to protect, somebody can take advantage of.
GMW: Again, I feel like we’ve gone back to the negatives. I want to talk about you, Michael Powers, about your specific plans. Let’s talk about some ideas you have, what you in the job of first selectman, would bring.
MRP: One is a greater transparency at the meetings. To give out any handouts, so that people know what’s going on. Possibly see what the click rate is, if people are opening them. I can give you all the information. I can mail you the information, but if I don’t even know if you’re accessing it… But I can put it in a program that I can definitely know what the click rate is. I would implement that to know that the people are there.
I would go out and have people sign up and provide their emails. I would put a restriction on never giving away that information list. I know people are worried about that, but I would actively seek participation from people. Those who cannot find another means to source people out. Like right now, my mother included, cannot have an email address because she doesn’t use it…
GMW: How would you actively seek those people? You’d go door to door?
MRP: You can send people out door to door, absolutely. First off, you obviously have the grand list for residents within the town. Second thing, you reach out to those who are already on the email list as marked–you have those. The other thing too you can have access to is not only the house but also the residents in the house. My wife gets it. I get it. We’re [both] in that house.
If people who live in a house–parents, their children–aren’t on the title, so you don’t know how many people it is, we’re having a census coming now. We’re going to get more of a knowledge base of who lives in the houses–get their information. Just not to one person in the house, but everybody.
So, you can start to check off, first off, who needs the information? Second of all, are we getting them the information? The other thing too is to have instead of a proactive [effort], have a reactive [effort], where someone could come up and sign their name and put it into a post.
A lot of postings for things just happen on the [town] clerk’s board, which is no more than 3 ft. by 4 ft., in a small hallway. Things are posted on top of each other. You physically have to pull things off. But have this in several places across town. The town is broken into three sub-districts. Have a place where someone can just put it into. Have a form, an electronic email or some other systems that people can do.
The most important thing is to find those people in the community who don’t have the ability to even come or get involved in something because of maybe disability or age and have them go out to it. They need to be heard.
Now, not to say that there’s not services and programs out there, but these are the type of people who are still most enclosed from the rest of life and rely on other people. So these people–
GMW: There are [already] structures in town to help people like that. The Department of Social Services. Visiting Nurse and Hospice… that are incorporated already into the town infrastructure to help residents that way.
MRP: Those services need to understand that those people need to be put on the list of being notified. So now if you’re not being notified, to turn it on and make sure that they’re reasonably notified about what’s going on if they so choose.
That’s one thing, to first of all make people know what’s going on.
The second thing, to make sure that the few don’t rule the many on a financial basis, is to require a vote on bond issues. The town’s overall bond spending is less than 10% of the overall expense to the town. But ask any resident what bonds are out there? The only one bond that anybody knows, that’s for Miller-Driscoll–they don’t know any other bonds that do or do not exist.
Nobody knows what the budgets are. What are they adding to? What’s the long-range impact? So for the passage of any additional bonding issue, [I believe] there has to be at least 15% voting, and of that 15% voting electors has to be this simple majority of those people to pass any additional [bond].
GMW: For any bond?
MRP: For any bond. You realize the foolishness of this Town Charter, that if you don’t get 15% of electors, and that out of the 15% electors, you need a simple majority vote to decrease the budget–well, on the reverse side, how can you put a bond forward if people don’t have it? If you put that same ridiculous threshold of 15% of the electors have to vote on, and out of those people who vote on it, you need a simple majority. Well, two things. It’s artificially manipulated because if you’re against it and you know that the average turnout rate is only 10-11%, don’t turn out. Then we’ll never hit the 15% on a bond. I mean, why if somebody goes to the town meeting to actually vote–
GMW: What are you trying to accomplish?
MRP: To restrict it. So, if you want to put a bond forward, you are forced to require that the town as a whole wants it. You are not letting a couple people who talked about it, went through it and then just decided to push it through. That everybody in this town is involved in it. That they know about it and that they have to come out and vote for it instead of it just being pushed on them.
Before I was in this town, it happened. I heard about it. The court files. I read the court filings when I was in court and I didn’t–
GMW: You’re referring to Miller-Driscoll?
MRP: Miller-Driscoll. How they tried to do it. If you’re going to burden people, then it should be a majority of the people who decide to do that and not a small minority requiring and putting on the backs of these people a financial burden. There are things that have to happen. There are roadways that have to happen.
GMW: What about road paving? That gets bonded.
MRP: Road paving does get bonded. I think road paving turns around every once in … Like if the mill rate is too high, we’ve accelerated road paving.
[Editor’s note: Here, Powers refers to a radio talk show recorded a few days prior, on which GMW editor Heather Borden Herve appeared as a guest. Her segment followed an interview the host conducted with the editor of the news website ‘Weston Today,’ in which the topic of Weston’s road paving was discussed.]
It came up in your conversation, there’s different grades of paving materials that can be used.
GMW: That wasn’t my conversation, that was ‘Weston Today.’
MRP: Oh, okay. But it was during that. There are different requirements for how it’s being paved. What’s the cost per mile? I think it was indicated it was $200,000 per mile. I can tell you right now that I have numbers from the Boards of Education for the entire city of New York, state of New York. Their numbers per mile are a percentage of that, and their lanes sometimes are four lane streets, not two lanes. $200,000 per mile. You know what? When that does need to get bonded, it needs to be put out there and the people are going to ask, well, what other bonds did you get? Yes.
Then it’s going to ask people to require, well, why $200,000? It’s going to have to explain to the person who’s charging $200,000 to explain why we’re at the nation’s highest average cost per mile to repave roads.
GMW: Do you know what the number one complaint is in the town?
MRP: No, I do not.
GMW: The condition of the roads. It’s the number one thing that people want to have done. They want their road paved.
GMW: The $200,000 per mile. That’s public-
MRP: That’s public information. That was given by the gentleman from Weston. That was on the state’s public information. That’s all public.
GMW: The state’s information is about Wilton or Weston?
MRP: The state’s information is about the state in general. It literally talks about the state roadways, which are state roads.
GMW: But what we’re paying in Wilton, do you know what that is per mile?
MRP: I don’t know off the top of my head.
[Editor’s Note: Wilton voters passed a bonding question in May 2019 approving $3,398,150 for Road Restoration and Repaving of the Cider Mill Parking Lot–for the lot and 15 miles of roads, that’s in the range of $200,000 per mile, as Powers suggests.]
GMW: Okay. Back to the bonding question. So what you want is to require 15% of the people to turn out or it won’t pass?
MRP: I want the same requirements as for the budget.
GMW: So you’re calling for a reopening of the charter, because that would involve a reopening of the charter.
MRP: Sure. It can happen at any town meeting called by any percentage of the people at any time in the year. It doesn’t have to be a singular annual meeting. Going back, I haven’t been able to find an additional town meeting. The town charter actually goes through several incarnations of different versions, but not everything has to be conducted on that one night in May.
GMW: Right. Special meetings can be called to vote on certain things.
MPR: But that [Annual Town] Meeting can be adjourned, not just once but multiple times, until all things are discussed. But everything tries to get put into that one meeting. People don’t know it can happen over multiple nights.
Second thing is that again, the town meeting hasto happen at least once a year, but under certain procedures can happen multipletimes throughout the year. You don’t need to wait for that one time. You can change things as they go. The BOS have the ability to call, under certain provisions; the general public has the ability to, they have to garnish signatures to be able to bring one and they can do it. They can tell the town what the agenda is going to be. They can tell the town what’s going to be discussed, and the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance, the Board of Education have absolutely zero authority to change that. Since it’s never happened, people don’t even know that exists.
GMW: General observation: Some things you suggest introduce less efficiency, more complication and take away personal responsibility. If you have to go door to door [to get people’s contact information], that’s a layer of inefficiency.
MRP: No, because that door to door in the original thing is an initial creation of a list. Once you have the list, you’re fine with the list because you can look literally through, whether it’s probate court, people who’ve passed away, moved away, you have those records, you can modify them accordingly.Once you create a general list at the beginning, all you have to do is update it and maintain it. So yes, the initial