Sensible Wilton withdraws its lawsuit

Sensible Wilton issued a press release Saturday night, Jan. 30, that it is withdrawing its lawsuit against the town, but it promises it “will not go away.”

Sensible Wilton founder Alex Ruskewich has said in the past the suit would be withdrawn if a settlement could be reached with town officials. The organization cites ongoing talks with elected town officials and “several recent and soon-to-be implemented changes by Town leaders” regarding the Miller-Driscoll school renovation project as the reason for its action

“We got a better feeling progress was made,” Ruskewich told The Bulletin on Sunday, Jan. 31. “It’s going in the right direction,” although he maintained it was still “not far enough.”

When asked to comment on the matter, First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice emailed The Bulletin saying, “The Board of Selectmen is pleased Sensible Wilton has withdrawn their lawsuit. We are focused on moving forward.” She added she had “no comment on the content of Sensible Wilton's press release.”

The changes cited by Sensible Wilton include the appointment of Chris Burney, Wilton’s director of facilities and management, as site safety manager, changes in the membership of the Miller-Driscoll Building Committee, availability by FOI request of project invoices and expense records, an improved project website, and assignment of Rita Garland, a former CPA, to assist town personnel in reviewing the state audit requirements for the project as well as project accounting procedures.

Of particular importance, Ruskewich noted, was the appointment of Patti Temple, who has been involved with Sensible Wilton as well as other organizations, as First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice’s representative on the committee to focus on communications.

“Patti will make sure the information flows,” Ruskewich said, beyond what can be seen on webcasts of the committee meetings.

In addition, the organization cited a request by Vanderslice to the Board of Education that it provide a detailed space utilization analysis, comparing the existing conditions in the Miller-Driscoll pre-school with those that will exist after completion of the project. “Whether the cost of the project justifies the benefits to be gained can now be discussed in a far more concrete context,” the press release said.

Sensible Wilton has been opposing the process that brought about the school renovation — originally budgeted at $50 million — since just before the Special Town Meeting where it was brought to the public in September 2014. Voters approved the project by a narrow margin.

Claiming irregularities by town officials in promoting the project to voters, Sensible Wilton filed with the town clerk a petition signed by 1,300 citizens in April 2015 demanding a special town meeting to reconsider the vote. When the Board of Selectmen refused to do so, the organization filed suit in superior court on June 1, 2015, seeking to compel the selectmen to call a special town meeting to vote on whether to repeal the $50-million bonding authorization. After a judge denied the town’s motion to dismiss the suit, a pre-trial conference was set for Aug. 9 with a trial start date of Sept. 20.

With a trial so far into the future and construction underway at Miller-Driscoll, Ruskewich said going forward then “would be a waste. We don’t want to just be an obstacle and lose money for everybody.”

Sensible Wilton pointed out two other terms of agreement it reached with town officials.

The bids for the renovation project came in at approximately $5 million under budget. Sensible Wilton said the Board of Selectmen agreed this “savings” may not be added to the contingency funds that already exist in the project budget and may only be spent with Board of Selectmen approval after allowing for public comment and debate.

The issue of declining enrollment, which has always been at the heart of Sensible Wilton’s objections to the project, will now be addressed. The organization said enrollment projections will be shared not only with the boards of selectmen, finance, and education, but also with project architects Tai Soo Kim, Turner Construction, and Burney “to determine whether cost savings can be realized by modifying the scope of the project.”

When asked about this, Ruskewich said such savings might come in reducing the number of classrooms or the amount of furnishings purchased.

Sensible Wilton also attributed resolution of this issue to a change in town leadership, which saw Vanderslice elected as first selectman and Michael Kaelin being named second selectman. It said it “appreciates the tone set by the current administration and looks forward to continuing a cooperative relationship” and will “strive to see” the renovation project “succeed on every level.”

The organization said its purpose extends beyond the now-withdrawn lawsuit to encourage a “a more fiscally responsible Town government, open governance and easier access to information, the restoration of public confidence that the Town is governed by the terms of the Town Charter and other applicable laws rather than by the desires of town officials, and to raise awareness of health and safety issues related to Town building projects.”

Sensible Wilton promised to be engaged in the current budget cycle and added, “Our greatest achievements have been increasing the number of residents involved in Town matters and providing a voice for residents whose concerns have routinely been discounted and dismissed.”

It said it will continue “zealously guarding our independent, non-partisan watchdog status and role in the Town’s affairs.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect a more accurate description of Rita Garland's involvement with the Miller-Driscoll renovation project. This updated information was supplied by Sensible Wilton. It also corrects a direct quote from Alex Ruskewich, which was disputed.