Political committees value appointment process

As the selectmen looked for ways to better include unaffiliated voters in the pool of candidates to fill vacant seats on appointed boards and commissions, town committee nominators were fearful that a less thorough process will be implemented in place of their tested traditions.
That, and that selectmen are biting off more than they can chew.

“We think that we perform a valuable function,” Paul Burnham, chair of the Democratic Town Committee (DTC) Nominating Committee, told The Bulletin. “It’s a very intensive process,” said Al Alper, chair of the Republican Town Committee (RTC).

The way it’s worked for decades is that people who wish to fill vacancies on appointed boards and commissions, but do not affiliate with either major party, interview with the town committees anyway, and are vetted accordingly.

‘We certainly do not recommend only Democrats,” Burnham said. “We recommend the best of all who come to our attention.” There have even been cases of Republicans being endorsed by Democrats and vice versa.

But after people missed out on opportunities to serve back in January, selectmen said at a meeting in February that to apply to fill a vacancy, unaffiliated members of the public could either go through one of the party committees or approach any selectman or the first selectman directly and recommend themselves for nomination.

Since then, many candidates have come forward to the board, and selectmen have spent lots of time interviewing. They’ve already had to call two late meetings and an entire special meeting to address the influx.

The idea’s been shopped around now to a point where the likely outcome is that unaffiliated voters would need to petition for consideration. But as it stands, selectmen would still be wading through these potentially many names and the town committees are concerned  that allowing unaffiliated citizens to bypass them may ultimately invite a less-qualified local government into service.

When the Democrats learn of a vacancy, “we try to put the word out to the community, electronically and through the newspapers, that a vacancy exists and that those who might wish to be considered by us should be in touch with me, and in my advertisements I make it clear that membership in the Democratic Party is not a prerequisite,” Burnham said.

“We have a committee of 12 or so who will interview virtually anyone who expresses an interest in serving the town in some capacity and choose from those who come to us, and those people we know who have an interest in serving.

“We take a look at the résumé, take a look at demonstration of commitment to Wilton, a history of volunteer activities, whether the person personality-wise would appear to be a fit on the particular board or committee we’re talking about — whether they have the skill set that that board or committee seems to need at that particular time.

“We come up with a recommendation to make to the Democratic Town Committee. DTC will consider the recommendation and most often will approve that person to have his or her name recommended to selectmen as a DTC candidate,” he said.

Burnham said, depending on timing, “the whole process could take six or seven weeks.”

In addition, “with the nominating committee on the Democratic side, we’re dealing with quite a number of people who have served the town for 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years, and with a great deal of experience, and that wisdom is translated into coming up with the best candidate from several good candidates usually who come to our attention,” Burnham said.

“This is something that would be lost if a dramatic change were made such that the town committees no longer had a significant role in finding volunteers,” he said.

By the same token, the RTC’s process is more or less identical, and just as careful.

“When there is an opening on a board or commission — whether it’s elected or appointed doesn’t matter — we advertise for Republican and unaffiliated individuals interested in serving the town to submit to us, either by email or snail mail, a letter indicating their interest in the position, and we preferably like it to include a résumé, so it demonstrates some background that may or may not be relevant for the position, so we can make sure we’re selecting qualified people,” Alper said.

“Then, a subcommittee does the initial interview of them to make sure that their interests align with the role and responsibilities of the position, and the subcommittee makes a recommendation to the full RTC.

“Then, the full RTC will vote on an endorsement, and if they’re endorsed, then we send notice to the first selectman that they are the RTC endorsement for the vacancy,” he said.

The other of the two concerns, again, is that selectmen have enough to do already, without all of this.

“My perception is that the Board of Selectmen has many things to do other than to do the job that the nominating committees have been doing in the past,” Burnham said, and Alper agreed.

“It creates an extraordinary burden for the Board of Selectmen,” Alper said.

Alper pointed out that selectmen are volunteers who coordinate their volunteering in conjunction with full-time jobs. “These people work,” he said. “Now it’s no longer just a volunteer position. It becomes a major responsibility.

“Instead of meeting every other week, you’re meeting once a week, if not twice, because depending on the time of year, a lot of vacancies happen. This is no longer a two-day-a-month board. It becomes a part-time job. And these people are already professionals in their own right, some with families to raise,” Alper said.

“I’m not in favor of what they’re doing for a wealth of reasons,” he said. “The RTC’s not in favor, and I personally am not in favor, if you look at the time they’re putting into interviewing for some of the boards and commissions right now,” Alper said.