A View From Glen Hill: A passion for making things work
Bearer of an illustrious Wilton name, Philip Schenck has been town manager for over three decades for multiple Connecticut towns, is past president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, and teaches at the University of New Haven. Thus, he speaks with authority on town governance, as he did recently before Wilton’s League of Women Voters.
He described how in the 1950s the Connecticut legislature made home rule generally available without requiring separate legislative chartering action for each municipality seeking it. That change gave flexibility to each municipality to choose the form of governance that works best for it.
Schenck reported that the trend in recent years has been towards having town managers as opposed to elected officials administratively running municipalities. Some towns have chosen to have both town managers and (paid or unpaid) first selectmen. Wilton Charter Revision Commission member Louise Herot, who moderated the meeting, noted that our present town charter includes a provision, without the need for charter revision, for Wilton to adopt a town manager position if voters so decide.
But in fact there hasn’t been impetus here for a town manager. Much of the reason for that over the last 10 years has been the quality and accomplishments of our retiring first selectman, Bill Brennan, and I expect that will continue to be the case with our new first selectman, Lynne Vanderslice.
Examples of Bill’s accomplishments abound. Whether through public- private partnerships or by state grants to cover such things as the costs of the sidewalk work in Wilton Center and the pedestrian bridge to link Wilton Commons, Trackside and the train station with the Center, carefully shepherding of town resources to get maximum bang for our town buck — leveraged off state, federal and private funding sources — has been a hallmark of Bill’s time in office. From the Comstock renovation serving everyone from our children and youth to our seniors, to public-private partnerships like Wilton Commons to assist seniors to stay in Wilton, to conservation easements to preserve open spaces in town, to the development of the outstanding Norwalk River Valley Trail (that a half-dozen members of our family joined many others in enjoying walking along this Thanksgiving weekend), his vision has been farsighted. His farsightedness in more mundane but very necessary projects is evident also, such as in the long-term planning that has led to the rebuilding of many of our roads. Likewise, the extension of natural- gas lines offers major fuel cost savings both to our town (including its schools) and to private property owners along the route that are similar in beneficial effect to earlier sewer-line extensions.
Working through the many moving parts of these projects has taken patience, perseverance, ingenuity, and resilience. And Bill would be the first to acknowledge that he was not the sole, or even prime, mover by any means on many of them. But for each, the sine qua non of their accomplishment was first-selectman support. That support often required standing up to those who loudly proclaimed, “It’s never been done before” or “it won’t work” and seeing the project through nonetheless to an excellent result.
In fact, Bill has a passion for making things work. He cares enormously and has sweated the details ranging from long-term financial planning that kept the town’s triple-A bond rating through the Great Recession to Town-Center sculpture, benches, and decorations. He also knows that in the effort to enhance business and vibrancy in town, how things look as well as how they work matters.
Bill has kept his graciousness and good humor notwithstanding the recent angst of the flotsam and jetsam of seemingly never- ending FOIA requests and litigation that waste town funds — $373,000 in legal expenses to date — and the time of town personnel in addressing them. In politics these days at all levels of government, it seems that criticism turns ad hominem and even litigious at the drop of a hat.
Wilton used to be free of that, and fortunately, the quality of the extensive yet very civil public comment at the Nov. 16 Board of Selectmen’s meeting suggests that we may be returning at long last locally to that happier state of discourse. Similarly, the movement among loud town critics to the political process rather than wasteful alternatives is a welcome change and a smart strategic move on their part.
We can be grateful that Bill has led us through turbulent times with courage, vision, and strong determination to see that our town be its best for the good of us all.
Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.