Three members of Wilton social services commission resign

Several members of the Commission on Social Services have resigned.

Several members of the Commission on Social Services have resigned.

Jeannette Ross / Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — After a heated discussion at a recent meeting of the Commission on Social Services, three members of the nine-person board have resigned.

Commission Chairwoman Dr. Deborah List and Vice Chairman Paul Nisco announced their resignations on Friday. Their terms were set to expire Nov. 30.

A third member, Genevieve Eason, executive director of the Wilton Youth Council, announced her resignation from the commission two weeks earlier, and has since been replaced by Peg Koellmer.

“I am frustrated with the change and focus of the Social Services Department,” said List, a public health expert and professor at Fairfield University. “I don’t feel I am able to serve the residents of Wilton in my role and there is no point of being a commissioner anymore,” she said.

“A level of frustration had been building up for a while between commission members and Social Services Director Sara Heath,” said Nisco, a human resources professional.

Heath declined to comment when reached on Monday.

List and Nisco also expressed concerns that First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice was proposing to take away the commission’s oversight duties of the Social Services Department and make the commission advisory only.

Vanderslice has said at various selectmen’s meetings that she, as first selectwoman, has sole oversight over the social services director.

“For the commission to not have any influence on the department, and be just advisory does not make sense. Why as a volunteer should I do that, for what purpose?” Nisco said.

List, who became the commission’s chairwoman earlier this year, said she agreed to take the leadership role, despite having a 16-year old son who was diagnosed with cancer this summer.

“I stayed on the commission because social services is a vital need to our town. But if I can’t make a difference, I’m not taking time away from my family,” she said.

The Social Services Department helps residents of all ages with information and referrals to local, state and federal social service programs, financial assistance, short-term counseling and programming.

The department also provides Medicare advice, assistance with heating payments, operation of the town’s food pantry and senior center operations.

Oversight

According to its charge, ratified by the Board of Selectmen in 2015, the Commission on Social Services has oversight over the department. The charge states, the commission, “in concert with the director of social services, may develop written policies to guide the administration and operation of the Department of Social Services ... and upon request provide the first selectman with an evaluation of staff personnel and candidates for open positions.”

Things came to a head with the commission and Heath at the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 8, when List and Eason criticized Heath for the department not taking an active role as a town crisis resource following the deaths of two students and a longtime school employee, which occurred in a span of two weeks in late September.

Heath maintained she had reached out to the schools and made herself and her staff available to them.

List and Eason also criticized Heath for not filling a vacancy for the department’s youth services coordinator position, which provides counseling and crisis intervention services for Wilton’s youth. The position has been vacant since August.

Heath said her department had been working efficiently with less staff since the pandemic struck, and she intended on filling the vacancy at the end of the year.

Noting List and Eason’s expressed frustration, at the end of the Oct. 8 meeting, Nisco suggested putting together a “plan of action” at the commission’s meeting on Nov. 12. “Let’s take a look at what broke, what didn’t work, what we could have done better and put a plan in place to move forward,” Nisco said.

He also asked Heath to start delivering written monthly reports to the commission, a practice she had recently stopped doing, choosing to give oral reports instead.

Final straw

Heath did not attend the commission’s meeting on Nov. 12, issuing an email just minutes before the start of the meeting saying she wasn’t attending.

This was the final straw for Nisco.

“At this point, based on the last meeting, I found it insulting and highly unprofessional that she didn’t appear at a meeting at the last minute, with no excuse offered. I didn’t want to be part of the mess anymore,” he said.

A question about the future of the Social Services Department was also raised at the Oct. 8 meeting after Heath reviewed services provided by the Social Services Department, and said Parks and Recreation was part of the town’s social services network.

Nisco called it a stretch to classify Parks & Recreation under social services, saying the two departments had different missions.

Heath said the social services aspect relates to mental health and physical well-being and that the senior center, which falls under social services, provides recreational activities.

“Since so many departments in town have merged when someone has retired or left, is there a possibility that Parks and Rec and social services is being thought of as merging in the future when Steve Pierce [Parks and Recreation director] retires?” Commissioner Bettye Ragonetti asked.

Heath left the issue of merging open-ended, responding, “I don’t think that’s something I would reply to at this moment.”

Ross Tartell, the Board of Selectmen’s liaison to the Social Services Commission, said he was sorry to see List and Nisco leave.

“Both of them are major contributors and have been deeply involved with the town. I am sorry to see them step off the commission, he said.

Vanderslice responded by email saying, “We thank all of those who are ending their term of service to the town,” noting the selectmen had reappointed 13 other board and commission members who were interested in reappointment.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com