A View From Glen Hill: If we want our say, we need to participate

Now that Sensible Wilton has wisely, at last, withdrawn its lawsuit, what’s the key take-home from the controversy over the Miller-Driscoll rebuild project?

Second Selectman Mike Kaelin lays the high degree of controversy very much on a town communications issue, and First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice has already taken excellent, very significant steps to expand our town’s communications about the work.  But communications are a two-way street, and I confess to being one of those who for a long time was not communicating.  

Thus, I didn’t go to the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee’s years of regularly scheduled public meetings when demanding work was done very diligently by that committee’s skilled and devoted volunteers, though I did go up a steep learning curve on the Miller-Driscoll rebuild before the town meeting on the project as I prepared my first full column about the project. I wasn’t alone in not attending: most building committee meetings took place with nary a rank-and-file Wilton resident present. (And sadly, that non-attendance issue was repeated yet again barely two weeks ago at our school superintendent’s major meeting to review the proposed school budget where the general public’s attendance did not even reach the double digits!)

Some say there should have been more effort made at having community discussions aimed at getting residents’ “buy-in” to the Miller-Driscoll rebuild. However, it’s hard to have discussions when well-publicized meetings are held, including ones where plans are presented, but almost no one shows up. So that’s why the problem is very much a two-way street, and in my view much more than half of the answer to the problem lies with us rank-and-file citizens. “Show up from the outset or shut up” perhaps should be our new — utterly blunt — town motto, but it can be phrased more positively in one word that has long appeared on the selectmen’s meeting-room wall: “Participate!” In fact, the newly elected vice-chair of the building committee, Glenn Hemmerle, pointed to that very sign in his remarks at a Selectmen’s meeting several months ago.

I relied (no good excuse) on the quality of the building committee’s outstanding membership and firmly believe that reliance was, and is, very well-placed. I was also aware of how well the building committee’s co-chairs, Karen Birck and Bruce Hampson, had run the high school rebuild, bringing it in pursuant to an outstanding plan and under budget. I also knew how, even after the high school project won voter approval and construction began, Bruce Hampson continued his engagement with it, riding tight herd on the contractors but doing so fairly even in the contractors’ own estimation, with his skills as a professional in the field of construction management offered pro bono to our town.

That enabled Bruce to be an important part of the high school rebuild process start to finish, along with the town’s hired construction-management firm (Turner Construction, the same as for the Miller-Driscoll rebuild), in seeing that the project moved through to its excellent result. Bruce’s and Karen’s recent resignation from the building committee for compelling personal reasons is a definite disappointment, though very understandable. The good news is that Wilton’s new Facilities Manager Chris Burney, who is also very accomplished in this field, is fully able to step into that “herd-riding” function. And, of course, the actual winning bids coming in more than $5 million under budget was a huge shot-in-the-arm for the project.    

In short, the overriding take-home from the Miller-Driscoll rebuild experience is that ignoring the work of a building committee until after planning is complete is wrong, and that same principle extends more generally to all significant town work.

Will we engage better in the future? I certainly hope so. How do we do that with busy professional and family lives? That’s hard to answer, but the very troublesome controversy now apparently largely laid to rest over the Miller-Driscoll project points to the need for things to change with a greatly heightened degree of resident participation and engagement throughout the process. If that happens, building committee and other significant town meetings will need to be held in the Clune to accommodate all of the attendees!

I’ll try to heed my own advice going forward, and I hope you will hold me accountable if I don’t, just as I should similarly strive to hold you accountable. Call it mutual support….  The ancient Greeks would be proud of us if we do, for in their view, citizens who failed to engage with their polis’ decision-making were utterly derelict in the most compelling and sacred of their civic duties. And we all recognize that those ancient Greeks really knew their stuff when it comes to democracy!