GOOD Morning Wilton editor Heather Borden Herve interviewed Michael Richard Powers, who’s running for first selectman as a petition candidate unendorsed by any party in the race for Wilton’s top official. This is part 3 of a four-part series.
After posing questions about why he is running, and what he would do as the chief elected official, today we pose questions about specific challenges and issues related to Wilton and running the town–managing staff, economic development, renovating Town Hall and Police HQ, 183 Ridgefield Rd., and more. We’re hoping to give voters more information on how Powers would approach the job he’s seeking.
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.
GMW: The first selectman job requires you to manage 150 town employees and 150 town board volunteers.Have you ever managed that many people?
MRP: 300 people? Absolutely not. But some boards are self-managed–there’s a chairman for each board, you speak with the chair, you don’t micromanage. They’re supposed to be cognizant of what they do. You rely on the committee chair [for] the information what the committee is actually doing.
Board of selectmen don’t have control of the Board of Finance or control of the Board of Education, but you can as first selectman, get information in regard to what’s going on, to understand the paths to go forward and if it’s a path that’s detrimental in your opinion, and the opinion of the Board of Selectmen, you can guide them and bring them to light.
I’ve managed dozens of people simultaneously, I ran the transition management group dealing with anything from a couple hundred million dollars going from a legacy manager to a target manager; to a couple of billion dollars being traded, making sure daily oversight is going on between the traders, my operations unit, the investment units, the target manager, the legacy manager, the custodial bank, and the multitude of trades that were done, and execution of the money going back and forth simultaneously.
At any point in time it could be several dozen people …and, it could last from a day to two weeks….
…My 30-60 day policy, when I first come into it–know who the people are.
Find out what their job responsibilities are. Are they hitting those responsibilities? And unfortunately, there’s sometimes where people get promoted to the level of incompetency. Is someone in a position where they don’t know what they’re doing? I find that in fraud examinations–you know, it’s not someone stealing money, but someone who just, can’t reconcile a book properly, can’t funnel acquisitions properly, they were put into a position where they weren’t trained properly. If it’s not getting done properly–is it a training issue, is it an understanding issue? And then you work from there. If it’s a training issue, you get them the proper training, and you go forward to make sure that they have the capabilities and tools to make sure they understand what they’re required doing that they’re doing.
There’s a clerk. There’s two assistant clerks and a secretary. It’s right down the hall from the first selectman. I doubt it’s the obligation–nor do I believe anybody who sits there and oversees the input of every land record–you have a clerk that’s required to do it. [Town clerk] Lori [Kaback] oversees her two assistants and the secretary and makes sure they are all taken care of. You just speak with Lori if things pop up–you have contact with supervisors whose job it is. You don’t micromanage, so when you say 300 people, yeah there’s 300 people involved.
The CEO of GE doesn’t manage a line worker, it’s impossible. But you do make sure that the people who are supposed to, are doing their job.
GMW: In terms of specific municipal management–you’d have issues with municipal employees, like police officers and firefighters, and unions; and other kinds of pension and human resource issues that are specific to municipalities. What’s your familiarity and experience with that?
MRP: Pension plans I can go forward and backward, A through Z, and go through all the statutes, I can tell you what’s defined obligations, defined benefits, or defined contribution, defined benefit, the two. I know the structure, I can tell you what the work path is, where it’s basically a marketing and employment tool. You know, police officers as you can see that are changing, instead of defined benefit, they’re turning into this pension, it’s defined contribution so it’s how much you gave it, this is what we invest it, and this is what you get. Whatever it is, it is.
And municipalities are changing. I can talk about that all day, backwards and forwards. I know that familiarity like the back of my hand. When it goes to negotiating public contracts, firing police. I’ve been involved with them for years. I’ve done that. I’ve seen the strengths, weaknesses, seen what’s going on.
GMW: You’ve talked about being in practice as a lawyer. The position of first selectman is a full-time job–more than 60 hours a week. Residents expect you to be available 24/7.
MRP: That would be my full-time job.
GMW: You’d give up the law practice?
MRP: Mm-hmm (affirmative), my law practice, my consulting practice. Yes.
GMW: What would your approach be to what’s going on with the plan to renovate police headquarters and town hall? What would you do?
MRP: I love that question. I was part of the citizens’… class, got affiliated, got to know the process, procedures of the police department. I went there every Tuesday or Thursday for like eight weeks. It’s a great program. When I first came into town, it was the first thing I saw in a news article and, said ‘This is great!’ I sent it to the chief and said, ‘I’m interested,’ and I didn’t hear back for almost two years.
Two years later, theysaid, ‘Hey, we have a class opening up, would you be interested?’ I jumped at the chance. My family is in law enforcement. My brother was a cop, my sister is a cop, my godfather, works for the government.
I jumped on this police thing. I got to see what was going on and how it was structured and how it was dated. Town Hall is horrific, where the employees now are putting plastic sheets over their desks and paperwork because things are leaking through and falling apart.
The clerk’s office, where they have paperwork, it’s not that you have to keep a clean desk policy for privacy issues–you have to keep a clean desk because you might not have the work available tomorrow if it’s there. What about the computer? the electronics? Are the backup systems in the same place that has the same issue? How are you protecting all this? It’s absolutely horrific. It needs to be changed.
When I first heard about it, the dollar amount was $11 million. That’s up to now $15 million.
[Editor’s note: There is no specific plan or project cost set as of yet; the Police Building/Town Hall Building Committee has had possible ‘scenarios’ with ballpark figures–both higher and lower than the figure Powers cites. But to date the committee has just closed the bid period for an RFQ for proposals for architecture and engineering services. In addition, the state is asking municipalities to explore concepts for regionalizing some services, including emergency dispatch–which could impact the final execution of this project.]
The problem with it, it has to be changed and there has to be oversight. One is that most contractors that work on commercial properties want to have lag times built into stuff. Your cement guy might not be there or available. Your electrician might not be there or available.
You can hire an electrician like they did with the development company for South Stanford, when they were building condominiums, they brought in outside laborers. They didn’t bring laborers in from the State of Connecticut. They built those apartment complexes quicker than any other place within the state because they were pulling in for certain jobs. Something like that has to be done.
GMW: Those were apartment buildings. Were those city owned apartment buildings?
MRP: No, no. They were privately owned, but they brought in …
GMW: Because you have to use state approved contractors on municipal projects.
MRP: You can get anything state approved. The thing is you have to pay state wages too. It’s just that it’s efficiency in building it. It’s not time … The state, when its highway was built over Stratford, $470-something million could have been done–
GMW: Bring it back to Wilton. What do you think …
MRP: It has to be done in a manner that limits it. First and foremost, you have to find the vital components of the police department. Having the police where they are right now is a great location. That building needs to be torn down and something needs to be rebuilt in its place. Something bigger and better. During that process of that building being torn down, you still have to conduct police business. For back office or operational components, you could have trailers.
When you actually have arrests, there are police cars that can still transport. You can have a contract with other local police forces where you would bring people in for processing and you can have minimal processing. When it’s obviously major crimes, you can also have your detective units put into a trailer system that is on the foundation. Then you would have to work out with associations who have your emergency management shifted during that time.
Instead of two, three, four year, five year project to try to build this building … The Empire State Building was built in a year. I think someone can build a police station within a year without all these drag outs. Knock it down, demolish it, remove it, and build it. Then move everyone back into it. It has to happen. I don’t disagree with anything that’s come around.
Their shooting range–I offered to pay to have it fixed and they said it was going to do no good because the range is too small [for anyone] to get qualified, so even if it worked, they couldn’t use it for practical means.
Town Hall is a different thing. The architecture needs to revert back to almost the very communal New England construction, not this ad hoc. Coming down School Street, the buildings and some of the schools that were built in the 70s have this modernistic construction style. I don’t think that mends well with the overall community with the residential housing.
A very classical, timeless structure makes people proud to go in there. When I created a website, I downloaded pictures of Town Hall. I saw the pictures–I didn’t know that that was our Town Hall.
They come in the parking lot and come in the back entrance, and you can literally see it deteriorating. Town Hall is not very friendly or user friendly. Relocating it? Possibly. The building that’s there right now is just way too small.
The single largest requirement for Town Hall is the town clerk’s office–You need those official land records for the entire town. That has to be moved to a place that’s secure and safe.
As first selectman, I can work anywhere. Give me a desk. Give me a computer. Most likely I’m going to be out doing something and speaking with somebody anyway. Registrar of Voters? Give them a floppy disk and a laptop, they can work from a diner if they chose to. There’s nothing that they have in that office that is specific that they couldn’t transport easily.
GMW: Registrar of Voters has to be someplace where people can go.
MRP: You can put them in any building–you can put them in the Annex; you can put them in Miller-Driscoll, in one of the empty classrooms.
GMW: But you have to have some sort of centralized place for town employees…
MRP: Absolutely. This is only for a time while you’re actually rebuilding it.
At the back, the Department of Public Works. There’s sand there. Why does it have to be there? That can be easily moved. There are several properties that the town owns near the train station, why don’t you move that [sand] there? Push it back to the left hand side, but use more of the space there.
If you move the police station back to the left, where the Department of Works keeps their sand pit; or you can modularize the construction of it. You can take Town Hall, move it to the Annex, the components that you need, the day-to-day business that has to happen. Just knock it down and rebuild something, but rebuild it bigger, better, and something that people are proud to walk into. I walk into this Town Hall and it’s an absolute embarrassment.
The town tri-board meeting[with the Bd. of Education, Bd. of Selectmen, and Bd. of Finance] was basically done in a conference room. People were squished in the chairs.
That room where people meet needs to be much bigger, triple, quadruple. If you don’t give the room for people to be into, how are you going to get people to be there?
Town Hall, because of its stature in the community, is a place that should have a community hall, where people come in and have meetings, have discussions, have people vote.
GMW: What’s your take on what happened on 183 Ridgefield Road, on that space? What should have happened? What should be happening? What do you think about that space?
MRP: I’m biased because I love classical construction. I love seeing historical houses. I love seeing historical sites, the architecture, design, workmanship, something that happened.
What happened with that house? It breaks my heart. I love the architecture. I love the style. Somebody built that. What happened in that house–decades, centuries ago, you can never get that back, ever. You can never get the workmanship back. I thought it was a horror, which should have never happened. I think we need to preserve the things we can and I think that could have been preserved.
GMW: What’s your approach to development?
MRP: Development is always good until it’s not, and a lot of things that are happening with development is looking at the short term. Unfortunately, we’re put into a position that if, in housing, if we don’t approve it, all they have to do is meet a threshold of number of units for low income housing and low income housing is based off what the average income is for the town.
It’s putting too much power in the developers to say, ‘Either you agree with me or I’m going to add an extra two or three units, make them small, put in the back, maybe come in with a different access road like they do in New York and that’s gonna be low income housing. I’m going to build whatever I want without your approval.’
The state put us in a horrible position as it relates to that. I think that needs to be changed on a state level.
We should have more housing available to people of different, varying economic capabilities, but I don’t believe we should outpace it to the point where our infrastructure can’t hold it.
I mentioned many times during this conversation, that enrollment for the school system have been depleted. People want condominiums here because families can move in at a cheaper price point and still get the same benefits as someone who bought a $5 million mansion. The schools are the same for both. Doing it just for that, so you can back-fill, so teachers can have a reason for a job, is inappropriate.
I want a generational community. I grew up in a community where I go to a friend’s grandparent’s house, down the street, two blocks over. I don’t hear anybody saying about that here in Wilton.
Maybe if you’re an empty-nester, you have a house about 3,000 square foot. It’s you, your husband, or just yourself, you can move down to a condo. Increasing more elderly or senior living to create that generation, so people could stay in the town that they’ve lived. Memories last forever. People can sit underneath the same tree that they raised their children under. Go to the same fields they watched people play, that they may have played themselves. Those memories need and foster a phenomenal community. I think that’s what we need to focus on.
Commercial side, I don’t think anything needs to be built in this town. The vacancy rates are way too high in commercial properties. Do you incentivize some people to come in? There was an uproar when people like Starbucks, Chipotle and some other businesses came in and they got some tax breaks for opening up.
You can’t give anyone a tax break. You’re just lowering the tax rate. If I get a Chipotle, someone else is probably going to want to be there. Someone’s going to create a traffic pattern.
Maybe I open up an ice cream store. Maybe you do something else. You generate a pattern of trying to intentionally picking types of products and stores that are good for the community. That other business types, more mom and pop type stores can piggy back off of.
Route Seven, you need a definitive answer on what’s happening there. You have an easement on a lot of the commercial property up and down that road in Wilton. How am I going to invest money into a piece of property and build something if I don’t know that’s going to be there? Instead of having new development on the commercial side, incentivize people to renovate existing commercial space.
They did a great job on the medical building. A medical center is a single purpose entity–youhaveto go there. You need to see a doctor for something? That’s where they are. You want to get ice cream, you think about it, okay, you have Scoops here, you have Carvel over there, you sort of, and then sometimes I’m like, “Eh, the traffic patterns.” People will go to different stores driven by what’s near them. I go down there because there’s a Peruvian restaurant right next door. I love the place.
GMW: Are you talking Norwalk?
MRP: Yeah right next to Carvel. They have Fiesta [Express].
GMW: That’s Norwalk. I’m talking Wilton.
MRP: Because it’s easier to get to. You literally go down to the DMV and make that right-hand turn, it’s about a quarter of a mile on your left. Do I go downtown [to Wilton Center]? I live close enough to downtown, but then you have Belden Hill Rd. that goes all the way to the back. Which place is it easier for me to get to? If I’m just going for ice cream, but hey, if I gotta go shopping for something and I’m already there, then you know what? I would shop more in local towns because I have other reasons to be here.
GMW: If you’re in the first selectman’s office, what are you doing to bring in development?
MRP: Commercial or residential? Residential speaks for itself. It’s already being requested. They’re trying to maximize the output of that. I don’t really think that needs to be actively drawn into it. It needs to be managed so you don’t have the overflow for the capacity so you’re not changing some of the infrastructure.
On a commercial basis, again, we’re the single largest economy based off services. You’re looking for services. What type of services could you possibly get into? You need to find out the dynamics here. People are transient. What offers transience? I would go for more in the town center, for larger restaurant-type products. People talk about that.
Yes, some people will only cook. I have a beautiful, redone kitchen, beautiful brand new pots and pans we use infrequently. My wife and I don’t cook, we just don’t have the time. A lot of our foods we have eaten out. We’re trying to minimize that, but that’s what drives people. People always 100% of the time need to eat, so if you can get people to eat there, it becomes a center, it becomes an attention, it becomes a draw.
Having stuff that people are forced to drive by, and the reason why those are nice, is because they have tens of thousands of people who drive by them, who drive to them more importantly, than any other institution.
We just opened up another toy store. I love toy stores, but those don’t drive people to them. More people will stop by that toy store as an ancillary. You need a main type of business, and national restaurant chains drive people to them. They attract.
GMW: McDonald’s? Like what?
MRP: Well, you can have McDonald’s… Chipotle… You can have different things.
Now we have an Outback, but Outback sort of deteriorated, but if you could structure into it different areas and incentivize them to come in to do it. You know the Texas? I love the Texas in West Haven. I would say you’re looking for breakfast chains, and then dinner chains, so you’re not overloading the traffic patterns.
The other thing is I would redesign some of this traffic pattern around town because finding the Library? It’s a left hand turn on the street. I don’t know which one it was. My wife–I’ve been here for three and a half years–she’s like, ‘The big white building! That big white building.’ Well, I don’t see it and I drive right by it.
Most of my knowledge comes from my wife. She does commercial real estate. That’s her line of work, sight of vision, ease of access. I’ve been hearing from her for 17 years.
GMW: Have you ever sat in a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting?
MRP: I have.
GMW: Here in Wilton.
MRP: Oh, Wilton, never. No, I haven’t been here in Wilton because I’ve dealt with them before.
GMW: What is your grand list building development idea? You talked about restaurant chains…whether or not they would consider Wilton, I have doubts about that. But what’s your grand list building development thought?
MRP: Town Hall. I talked about it before. I love the architecture. I love a building you could walk to, see, knowing you’re a part of that and be driven by that, have almost an emotional connection to it. I want it to be thought of something that belongs to the people.
I’ll give you a great example, when I see the White House; I see pictures of it, I’ve been in it, I’ve taken tours of it, I’ve seen inside. I love that place. I don’t care who’s in it. I couldn’t care less. I love that building. The pure sight of that picture gives me an emotional reaction.
I’m not talking something that big, but something in the town that represents the government that brings people pride. We don’t have that now, and this has nothing to do with anybody who’s sitting in that office today. It was done a long time ago, and that would be the number one thing, to get that done, have that and if you put–
GMW: But how does that make it different in Wilton’s grand list? How does it–
MRP: Because it draws people to it. Why did the Seattle Needle get built? Why did the St. Louis Arch get built? For no other purpose, but it gave the community sort of pride, lifted them up and they wanted to see it. People go to see, people hear about this and they sort of want to be part of that. So yes, the grand list comes down to it because, ‘Hey, we have a great place.’ It’s a wonderful place filled with a sense of pride and integrity.’ I went to Ridgefield’s Park and Recreation because the local water patio in the back that my wife and daughter are at right now. I was amazed by the community of that.
GMW: So, investing in amenities in Wilton, if you build it they will come? The businesses to invest in Wilton will come? The–
MRP: Field of Dreams. I love that.
GMW: That’s what I’m alluding to. So, redoing the Town Hall–
MRP: Well, redoing Town Hall has to be done. How it ultimately gets done I don’t know. Again, it comes down to dollars, we’re not going to be able to build a $100 million palace in the middle of somewhere we don’t have.
But yeah, when you build it, they will come because that’s the number one construct of all construction. How do you get people there? Condos, you can get a tennis court, a swimming pool, you know? Those amenities that bring people to those specific units. Why shouldn’t the town have the same overlap, that we have something, come and use it. Be part of this town. Be part of this.
There’s a discussion of a pool. I remember as a kid, when we would go there. It was right before school let out, I loved going there, loved diving. Here’s the downside: it’s the world’s first communal bathroom. It’s horrible when you think about it that way. That’s literally what it is.
GMW: Do you think we should build a pool here in Wilton?
MRP: I love the idea of a pool. I absolutely love it. I’m horrified when I hear about doctors talking about a pool. I think it brings the community together. A lot of people in the community love it. People who love pools love them. People who don’t care about pools hate them.
GMW: So, what’s the answer to the question? Do you think we should build a pool?
MRP: Yes. I would build a pool if we were able to find a location that a pool can be built into, which is accessible to anybody. Not in some corner part. I understand that the places people want a pool is non-accessible, pursuant to the current land use.
GMW: You moved here when? Three and a half years ago?
MRP: We moved here in November of 2015 right before Thanksgiving.
GMW: Have you voted in all four town budget votes [since moving here]?
MRP: [Pause] No, there was one we were not. We were on vacation. We voted this year on Saturday. First year when we moved in, I was at the town meeting just to see what it was like. I thought it was great. It was interesting. Every time somebody said something, my wife sat next to me grabbing my hand and said, “Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything.” Second year, we …
GMW: So that was 2016?
MRP: So ‘16 and ‘17. We didn’t vote in 2018 because we weren’t here for that. We were involved and I spoke–I didn’t speak at the first one. I spoke at the second. We didn’t make the meeting this year, but we voted on Saturday. Usually we want to be at the meetings. But, it happens.
[Ed. Note: Registrar of Voter records show that Powers voted in the 2017 and 2019 Annual Town Meetings votes, but did not vote in 2016 or 2018.]
One of the biggest things was Miller Driscoll and somebody asked the number of classrooms being used. In 2017, a gentleman walked up. We sat, 2017, we sat in the fourth row back on the aisles.
He was a little older, mid to late 70s, early 80s, he asked a very simple straightforward question, someone had asked previously, to reiterate or clarify the question that was answered about the usage at Miller Driscoll and the number of school rooms being used. The superintendent at the time said that the capacity was 85%. The gentleman, very straightforward, said, “How many of those classrooms are being used as classrooms, not storage, not teacher’s rooms, but used as classrooms?”They refused to answer. He asked three times, and they didn’t do it.I wanted to jump after him and say, “The gentleman asked a perfectly legitimate, very clear, very concise question, and you are refusing to answer.” My wife grabbed my belt, and then she said, “Don’t ruffle the waters.”
[Editor’s note: A review of the video from the town meeting shows one member of the public asked about the number of classrooms and it was answered directly by the Board of Education chairman.]
MRP: There were a couple other things, too that was the same year they gave away a piece of property in town, and then Lynne talked about and [was] asked about the procedure. She stated on the record, “We don’t know, nor can we answer this.” And they still put that to the vote and they gave away the land.
[Editor’s note: A review of the video shows that was not what happened. Both she and town counsel Ira Bloom answered questions asked about the vote to discontinue Two Rod Highway. In addition, the land was not given away–the town only discontinued its use as a ‘road.’]
GMW: Two Rod Highway? That year?
MRP: I, proper names–
GMW: Just to answer my question, out of four years, you were away one year–
MRP: We voted three years and attended two of [the Annual Town Meetings]. This past one we voted on Saturday.
[Ed. Note: Registrar of Voter records show that Powers voted in the 2017 and 2019 Annual Town Meetings votes, but did not vote in 2016 or 2018.]
GMW: What do you see as Wilton’s biggest need?
MRP: Transparency to government.
The last part of GMW’s interview with Powers will run on Monday.