Wilton’s governance relies on scores of residents who volunteer to serve the Town. The opportunities to serve on Wilton’s numerous boards and commissions have recently become a hot topic, for a variety of reasons:
- First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Board of Finance Chair Michael Kaelin both recently announced they will not seek reelection.
- The Board of Selectmen, which oversees appointments to most of the Town’s boards and commissions, is actively trying to fill several open positions and is anticipating more openings in the coming months.
- This year is a municipal election year, and several seats are in play on the elected boards and commissions in town.
- The Republican Town Committee and the Democratic Town Committee both have recruiting efforts underway to attract good candidates.
GOOD Morning Wilton is highlighting the need for residents to step up and serve in these critical roles, especially in light of the many new residents who may be unfamiliar with how the Town operates.
The long list of Wilton’s boards and commissions shows just how heavily the Town relies on residents to help the Town function.
While several are elected positions — notably the Board of Selectmen (BOS), Board of Education (BOE), Board of Finance (BOF) and Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) — the majority are appointed volunteers who help the Town manage everything from trees and wetlands to housing, conservation, economic development, and ethics, just to name a few.
Vanderslice emphasized the importance of resident volunteers in a letter included in Wilton’s Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission.
“Our Town government depends on the hard work and dedication of its Board and Commission volunteers. It is these very volunteers whose work and talents help make Wilton such a vibrant community,” she wrote.
Fast Facts About Serving On A Board/Commission
- Skill sets vary. Some boards and commissions (such as the Building Inspectors Board of Appeals) are looking for members with specific skills, but many are open to individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds.
- Residents with any (or no) political affiliation can apply. The process is outlined on the Town website under the “Residents>Volunteer” tab, along with a list of open positions and instructions on how to apply.
- Some boards and commissions have a regulatory function (such as the Planning & Zoning Commission or Inland Wetlands Commission). Most do not.
- The list of open positions is frequently updated on the Town website as terms expire or current members resign. In addition to boards that routinely operate without a full slate, several boards have immediate openings to fill (or expect to soon):
- Building Inspectors Board of Appeals
- Council on Ethics (one member)
- Conservation Commission (two members)
- Deer Committee (one member)
- Economic Development Commission (expected June 20, 2023)
- Inland Wetlands Commission (one member)
- Parks and Recreation Commission (several vacancies, interviews in progress)
- Zoning Board of Appeals (one alternate)
Has It Become Harder To Attract Candidates?
Anecdotally, it appears to have become more challenging than in the past to attract candidates and to retain them for their full terms.
Perhaps related, Wilton’s boards and commissions have come under increasing scrutiny, as the Town has strongly enforced the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements under the state law that governs all members’ communications and actions.
Explaining the issue in a June 2021 meeting, Vanderslice said, “I took office following a period when the Town had experienced a significant increase in FOIA violation claims and the Town spent significant resources [in time and attorneys’ fees] addressing those claims. I made FOIA compliance a priority. A number of initiatives were implemented in an attempt to achieve 100% compliance with the Freedom of Information Act by town board and commission members.”
To the uninitiated, FOIA rules can appear daunting. They mandate how members of a board or commission can communicate with one another, how meetings must be publicly noticed, and more. (The Guide to Serving on a Town Board/Commission includes a FOIA overview.)
All members receive a town email address (to be used for all board- and commission-related communications) and general FOIA training by the town’s legal counsel. They must sign an agreement to abide by FOIA rules, as well as a code of ethics.
Aside from the challenge of attracting a steady stream of new volunteers, retaining them has also been a challenge for several boards and commissions.
The Parks & Recreation Commission is one example. Between the commission’s September and October meetings, three members of the commission resigned, including Kevin Ring, Joe Guglielmo and the commission’s chair, Anna Marie Bilella. A fourth member, Jennifer Kendra, informed the commission she would not seek reappointment when her term ended at the end of the year. (Shortly after the resignations, GMW reached out to the commissioners asking the reasons for resigning. They either did not respond or were not willing to speak on the record about their reasons for leaving the commission.)
Since the commission was already operating at less than full capacity, that left John Macken as the sole member of the commission — which hasn’t met since its October meeting, despite all of the Town’s efforts to develop plans for a proposed new turf field and other ongoing initiatives.
Do Politics Come Into Play?
Yes and no.
Residents who wish to serve can apply through Wilton’s Republican Town Committee (WRTC) or Democratic Town Committee (WDTC) — but residents who don’t wish to apply through either party may do so by petition with 25 signatures, verified by the Registrar of Voters.
Various leaders of the more visible boards (BOS, BOF, BOE, P&Z) have publicly expressed a desire to keep politics out of board business. But perhaps inevitably, politics can creep in.
For example, the Board of Education typically reaches unanimous decisions on its annual budget proposals, striving to reach a consensus in order to present a budget in a single voice. However, when it comes to issues like mask policies during the pandemic or participation in the Open Choice program, the politics can become heated.
The Board of Finance has a mixed history when it comes to unanimous budget resolutions. In years when consensus was not reached, the division typically focused on the school budget. For example, while the BOF vote on the BOE budget was unanimous in 2020 and 2021, the board was split in the last two budget cycles, including the BOF’s vote for the FY2023 budget and their latest vote for the proposed FY2024 budget which were divided largely along party-affiliated lines.
AS BOF Chair Michael Kaelin told the public at the BOF’s April 3 budget deliberations, whoever fills the seat has a big impact.
“If you follow this [budget] process, you can see what a difference it makes who the six people are sitting in these [BOF] chairs. You have an opportunity in November to replace three of us, so if you’re really happy about what we did, or if you’re unhappy, I sincerely encourage you to contact the Republican Town Committee or Democratic Town Committee and talk about running.”
Both the WRTC and WDTC have mobilized to recruit candidates across boards and commissions. Not only are there appointed positions that need to be filled, but there are municipal elections this November and the committees need to find their candidates to run.
The WRTC has scheduled an informational meet and greet event on Tuesday, April 25 for residents interested in getting involved in town government through the local Republican party. (GMW provided details about the event in an earlier story.)
In a press release, the WRTC said it welcomed “new warriors” to serve and highlighted Wilton’s “proud New England tradition of self-government.”
Alluding to the Wilton sports mascot, the press release continued the “Warrior” theme.
“For those who have not had the opportunity to serve or spend time attending
meetings of town commissions or boards, you would be proud of the tremendous
dedication of those who serve locally. They proudly fight for Wilton and local
government; and are Warriors in true Wilton fashion.”
The Democratic Town Committee is also planning a candidate recruitment event, in late May. Details will be announced.
In a statement sent to GMW, DTC Vice Chair Jane Rinard emphasized the fundamental importance of serving the town.
“We consider this promotion of, and recruitment for, town service a primary mission of the DTC,” Rinard wrote. “We look for experience in appropriate fields, but also understand that some positions can be filled by individuals willing to put in the time and study to acquire that expertise. We encourage registered Dems and unaffiliated voters who are interested to reach out to us.”
In addition to the process of receiving nominations from the Town Committees, Vanderslice has suggested the BOS might consider formalizing an alternative appointment mechanism, at least for some circumstances.
In May 2021, when the Inland Wetlands Commission was critically short on members, the BOS made two fast-track appointments without going through the political parties (or petition process). Two Democratic selectmen — current BOS member Ross Tartell and former member Deb McFadden — expressed strong concerns about what they felt could be seen as a side-door entry to an appointment.
Vanderslice believes the process for making appointments is less important than the BOS’s mandate to ensure Wilton’s boards and commissions are fully functional. (In the case of Inland Wetlands, the candidate in question was well known to the BOS, having previously been nominated by the WRTC and served on another commission.)
“It’s our responsibility under the Charter to make sure that these commissions are able to operate properly because they have qualified individuals. It is our job to appoint [them]. If we have somebody who’s qualified, I see absolutely no reason why we would go back to the [WRTC] to tell us if we can do what is our job with a very qualified person,” Vanderslice said at the time.
Changing With The Times
Over time, the work of various boards and commissions has changed with the discretion, skills, or interests of the commissioners, and with the evolving needs of the Town.
For example, the Social Services Commission was initially established at a time when the Town did not employ a full-time department staff. In recent years, some conflict developed between the commission and the department’s director over differing views on what the commission’s role and purview should be.
At that time, several commission members, including the chair, resigned. Since then, the commission has struggled to find ways to support the Social Services Department and has not held regular meetings in months.
Similarly, the Economic Development Commission has also undergone changes. Last fall, after many months of wrestling with strategic questions about its role, the EDC began operating under more direct guidance of the First Selectwoman, rather than setting its own initiatives.
More Information on Current Openings
GMW reached out to Vanderslice for more details about the current openings. She offered comments on two commissions, in particular.
“The Inland Wetlands Commission is a regulatory commission. As such we are interested in filling that vacancy. Preferred candidates would have knowledge of wetlands, have regulatory experience, not expect a large number of conflicts and be without bias,” she wrote in an email.
“The Conservation Commission has two vacancies and as of Dec 16, the current chair will have served on the Commission for 10 years and thus must leave the Commission. The Commission receives referrals from the Planning and Zoning Commission regarding certain applications before P&Z, therefore these Commission members must also be without bias,” Vanderslice wrote.
“The [Conservation] Commission organizes town-wide cleanup day and programming held within town-owned open spaces. Commissioners must be willing to be hands-on for the planning and the execution of the events. Candidates should be interested in assuming a leadership role with the Commission over time,” Vanderslice added.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct a characterization of the BOF as having a “mixed history” (not a “long history”) of unanimous budget decisions and to clarify the comparisons since 2020.
Kathy, great article, but I do not agree that the BOF has had a long history of unanimous decisions on the budget. Instead over the last 15 years, I believe it was the opposite. I just looked at the deliberation minutes back to 2014 and served for the 5 years prior.
That’s a fair point. We changed the story to reflect a “mixed history” and focused on the last four years of BOF budget votes.
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