There’s been an issue brewing at Town Hall for the last 9-10 months, and it’s about to come to a head at the Board of Selectman‘s next meeting this coming Tuesday, Oct. 4.

The issue concerns how vacant positions on town boards and commissions are filled.

It’s been a frequent–and much debated–topic at selectmen meetings over those last ten months. The issue is somewhat detailed and policy-wonkish, about how state statutes are interpreted accompanied by a bit of politics and “how things have always been done” thrown in.

Per the Town Charter, the BoS has the authority to appoint members of unelected commissions, as well as to fill vacant seats (including on many elected boards) that become open before a term is completed. In recent years, when an opening appeared on a town board or commission, the BoS would turn to the Wilton Republican Town Committee (RTC) or Democratic Town Committee (DTC) and ask them to submit names of candidates; the BoS would interview those candidates and almost always appoint the candidate(s) put forth by the political town committees.

When the leadership changed at Town Hall last December, an effort was started to promote transparency and encourage volunteer involvement from a wider percentage of residents, as well as to fill a substantial number of vacancies that existed. Newly elected first selectman Lynne Vanderslice said that she wanted to make good on a campaign promise to encourage more involvement by residents in town government.

She announced at several BoS meetings that residents could approach her directly if they were interested in serving and volunteering in some capacity–that she would welcome speaking with them and arrange for them to be interviewed by the BoS. She stated that it would open up one more avenue for residents to get involved, in addition to the existing practice of the RTC and DTC submitting names for consideration–especially given that there was such a high number of unaffiliated voters in town who might prefer a route other than applying through a political committee. It might, she suggested, increase the numbers of people interested in filling the many open spots. She also started posting open positions on the town website’s front page. Soon, several residents began contacting her directly and it resulted in many open spots getting filled quickly.

However, not everyone was happy about the change in procedure. Some members of the political town committees objected to the “apply directly to the BoS” option, which would allow some residents to effectively bypass them, even though the town charter and state law didn’t specify the BoS had to go through the town committees–only that the BoS had the authority to fill those vacancies. Some members believed that if a spot was vacated by someone affiliated with one of the two major political parties, it should automatically be filled by someone from that same party affiliation and that the BoS had to go through the town committees no matter what.

However, state law doesn’t specify that. Instead, it only mandates a “minority representation rule,” making sure that a board’s composition caps the number of majority party-affiliated members to ensure that minority party members will be assured of having seats on a board. For example, if there are five members on a board or commission, no more than three members can be seated from any one party, ensuring that the other two seats will be open to members of other parties or to unaffiliated representatives.

In other words, state statutes don’t mandate which parties have to be seated, only which ones can’t be seated in particular situations.

Some town committee members were concerned that if unaffiliated voters were seated, they wouldn’t represent anyone else from the town other than their own interests, if they weren’t connected to a political party. Others felt that the town committees were more practiced and experienced with vetting potential candidates to submit to the BoS, and would spend more time choosing more qualified candidates. They pointed out that rather than going directly to the selectmen, unaffiliated voters could apply through the town committees first for vetting in order to be considered for submission to the BoS–and had done so in the past.

RTC chair Al Alper said the following at the last BoS meeting:

“With respect to party other than from the RTC or the DTC, personally and from the Republican Committee, I would encourage you to follow the signatory process. It’s important for those that are not endorsed by a party who seeks elected position to that party by caucus of their members in the community then I don’t think they should follow any different process than those who come forward, otherwise it’s just a gathering of people who say, ‘I like you, why don’t you go do that.’

“RTC and DTC members every two years go before their entire body politic to seek election to that position. At least for the last three caucuses I’ve participated in, you’ve had many more candidates wanting to be on the RTC than were elected. So it’s a very robust election process that we go through. So again I would encourage that that follow the 100 signatures.”

It was suggested that if residents were to go directly to the BoS, they should have to collect signatures from registered voters, as a way to get endorsement from a portion of the town. Doing so, it was suggested, would somewhat approximate the extensive vetting process the political parties gave when they vetted potential candidates to submit. The BoS was asked to require candidates who didn’t go through the political parties get 100 signatures in order to be considered–even though neither the RTC or the DTC has 100 voting members on their committees.

Selectman Michael Kaelin suggested that a procedure review happen, and that specific procedures be written out to make the process standard. Those procedures have been posted on the town website for the last several weeks and the BoS has asked at its meetings that residents review them and give feedback. This week, Vanderslice issued a statement asking again. (We’ve printed her statement at the end of this article.)

Delays, Open Spots and Unhappiness about 100 Signatures

However, during the last several months, while the procedure review was happening, the BoS put a moratorium on filling any open spots, until the issue was resolved. An example of where that delay had an impact was on the Economic Development Commission, which had to operate with only five members for several months while the board determined what to do. Its five open seats stayed open, even as the EDC moved ahead with a heavy workload of implementing several time-intensive surveys and meetings. Keep in mind, those five members–like all town board and commission members–are volunteers, with busy work and home lives. Such a delay adds additional burden on them. The spots were finally filled at the last BoS meeting on Sept. 19.

We asked Vanderslice for a timeline.

“On May 9, I announced current and upcoming vacancies due to resignations and terms ending on June 30. The last of the [political] town committee endorsements were received in late July. We interviewed candidates in late August because of vacation schedules. It was a total of 17 weeks from the time I announced [the openings] until the appointments were made.
Far longer than I think any of us anticipated. As we finalize our procedures we need to focus on options to reduce the time to appoint.”

Some applicants who were seated before the 100 signature rule told GOOD Morning Wilton that if they had been asked to get that many signatures in order to be considered, they would have reconsidered applying.

Take current chair of the EDC, Vivian Lee-Shiue, who was appointed to fill a vacancy before the current procedures. She told GMW, ” I do think the 100 signatures is prohibitive if you’re not affiliated. If I had to do 100 signatures, I probably would not have bothered to do it.”

One candidate who did follow through and get the 100 signatures was Dan Berg, a long-time resident who has spent the last several years serving as chair of the Conservation Commission. An unaffiliated voter, he applied to sit on the EDC and even though he had already been a long-time town volunteer official, he had to get the 100 signatures in order to be considered for the new spot. We asked him for his take:

I’m honored to have served the town as a member of the Conservation Commission and I’m looking forward to continuing to contribute as a member of the EDC. It’s a privilege and–I believe–a civic responsibility to serve the town, and I thank the BoS for approving my application to join the EDC.

That said, the 100-signature petition process took significantly more time and effort than my previous application process when I joined the Conservation Commission a few years ago. At that time, I applied through one of the town political committees, and I spent no more than an hour in an interview process with the committee and then with the BoS. By contrast, the petition process took a number of hours over a few weeks, visiting friends, neighbors, and hanging around the markets and other busy locations on nights and weekends.

“More important than the time it took, I question the fairness and logic of the process. In a town where, until the recent primaries, there were more unaffiliated voters than there were Republicans or Democrats (2015 Secretary of State enrollment stats), it makes no sense that what has typically been the largest contingent of voters in the town should be subject to a more onerous process just because they choose not to affiliate as a Republican or Democrat. In my view, one of the reasons that town government works–as opposed to the dysfunction and partisan warfare that we see at the state and national level–is that most of us can put town above party and work for the common good. There is no logic which supports the idea that Republicans and Democrats should enjoy a more streamlined process just because they are Republicans or Democrats. The town should be striving for a simple and uniform vetting process for all interested candidates for appointed town boards and commissions, independent of political party affiliation.

“My final concern with the process, having collected 100 signatures, is that there is nothing about the process of collecting 100 signatures which magically makes me qualified to assume a position on a town commission. The only thing it proves is that I’m able to repeat the “elevator pitch” 100 times as to why I need to collect 100 signatures. The response from many of the signers was something along of the lines of “that seems unfair–what a hassle.” Again, it’s doable–I did it–but when the need for engaged civic volunteerism is as important as it’s ever been, a process that creates a higher bar for more than a third of the town’s registered voters seems like something to be avoided and fixed.

Berg was appointed along with six other new EDC members at the last BoS meeting–John Clasby, John Kelly, Tracy Serpa, Phil Lauria, James Jarvie and Brad Unger. In addition to Berg, only one other new member came to the commission as a candidate independent of the political town committees–Unger, who is a Libertarian.

“We were very fortunate to have so many talented candidates. We selected appointees based on their specific skills versus skills needed by the Commission. Changes in our appointment practices did result in a more politically diverse Commission than the town usually experiences. I am confident the members will roll up their sleeves and put the best interests of the town before politics,” Vanderslice told GMW.

Kelly, an unaffiliated resident who held a key role in helping with the EDC’s recent surveys, was endorsed by the RTC.

At the Sept. 19 meeting, selectman Lori Bufano said, “We have a great amount of talent in our town and we’re pleased to see the diversity, and I hope people continue to want to be involved.”

Statement from Lynne Vanderslice

Over the past 10 months, the Board of Selectmen has made a priority of adding transparency and options to the pathway for service on town boards and commissions. Initiatives have included creating a petitioning option for residents not affiliated with one of the two major political parties, clarifying the path for those affiliated with the two parties, posting open positions on the town website and announcing openings at Board of Selectmen meetings and to the press.

The Board of Selectmen expects to finalize a new set of procedures at our October 4th meeting. To assist us in doing so, in August we invited the public to weigh in by sharing comments and recommendations. We hope to hear from more of you during this final week of the comment period. Current procedures are viewable through a link on the Town’s homepage or by obtaining a copy at Town Hall.  Please email your thoughts to the Board of Selectmen or mail or bring your letter to us at Town Hall at 238 Danbury Road.

We look forward to hearing from you.

UPDATE Oct. 5:  We neglected to get an opinion from any member of the Democratic Town Committee regarding filling vacancies and appointments. The following is a statement from Paul Burnham, the nominating chair of the DTC, on behalf of the DTC’s nominating committee.

“The first point is that the town is a whole lot less Republican than is commonly thought. Out of a total voter roll of a bit more than 11,000, there are more than 3,300 Democrats (and only about 875 more Republicans than Democrats). Further, you will not find too many Wilton Democrats whose views are widely divergent as to local issues from those of what used to be categorized as those of the Rockefeller Republicans. As I noted in my remarks to the BOS on September 4, Wilton would still be a great place to live if the majority of the town were Democrats, should they be of the current ilk, that this may well happen in the next five to ten years, and if it did, Wilton really would not be that much different than it is today. Aside from the major boards, and certainly not on the major boards most of the time, the party affiliation of the members is (1) unknowable from the actions that are taken or the deliberations in respect thereto, and (2) largely irrelevant. At least five of the “minor” commissions have Democrats as their chairs (Energy, Ethics, Social Services, Economic Development and Inland Wetlands (and possibly Historic District), and another has, at least until recently, been led by an unaffiliated voter (Conservation). So we cannot speak of Republican seats and non-Republican seats any longer. (There is one commission – Social Services – which has the maximum number of Democrats serving – it has special rules limiting the number who can serve belonging to one party to 5.)

But having said that our take on the Nominating Committee is that the candidates we put up for appointed office are the best people we can find from the perspective of what is good for the Town, not what is necessarily best for promoting the ideology of the Democratic party. We feel we are in partnership with the BOS by finding the best people for these positions. (Parenthetically, we have noticed a very substantial uptick in the number of willing volunteers over the last 2-3 years – something everyone should feel very pleased about.)

Further, we have never been shy about recommending unaffiliated voters to the DTC, and the DTC in my experience over the last eight or nine years, has never rejected anyone for an appointed position on the basis of party affiliation. We have, over the course of the years, nominated at least one Republican, as well as several former Republicans, to open positions.

Unlike our Republican friends, we do not try to defend the system that was in place prior to the current administration’s ascendency on any grounds except that it seemed to work. Further we do not defend the 100 signature requirement on any basis other than that it dovetails with the requirement that those affiliated with a party need to receive their party’s endorsement to be considered, and that the number of signatures required reduces the BOS’ workload. Whatever the BOS chooses to do in these regards we will support so long as Democrats are treated fairly through the process. We do not find fault with the current procedures in that regard.

As far as particulars are concerned, I am surprised and saddened that Dan Berg decided to go to the trouble of obtaining 100 signatures rather than come to one of the parties. I am sure we would have nominated him, as we and the DTC did for the position on the Conservation Commission where he is currently seated (unless he has resigned due to his appointment to the EDC), had he come to us. Vivian Lee-Shuie would clearly have been one of our nominees to the EDC – her skillsets are mind-boggingly extraordinary. Dan and Vivian’s criticisms of the current procedures should be viewed in that light. (Dan’s estimate of the amount of his time it took to secure his nomination by the DTC to the Conservation Commission is probably accurate.)

Frankly we have been confused by the criticism of the former procedures – but at least I have come to realize I was probably too close to the process to have understood that there are some residents who would not want to apply for a position on a town volunteer job through the DTC even if they believed our every assurance that their candidacies would be judged entirely on their merits, with party affiliation irrelevant. I now realize that some people simply want nothing to do with any political party. Also, some people may think that their candidacies when under review by the Board of Selectmen are treated differently, and perhaps unfairly, because of the party which endorsed them. I am quite certain that that is not the case, but I have to leave it up to the Board of Selectmen to prove, over the course of time, that I am correct.

Unfortunately or not, none of this applies to elected boards. State law all but requires heavy participation by the political parties in the election process. So those who aspire to a place on the ballot for a seat on one of the elected boards will almost have to get there through one of the nominating committees of the major political parties.