Is political minority representation misunderstood?

Controversies surrounding recent appointments made within Wilton’s municipal government have brought minority representation — and public relations — to the forefront of the local discussion.

Addressed at both the Jan. 19 meeting of the Board of Selectmen and the Feb. 12 special meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission, these “controversies” have to do with who can serve legally in the place of someone else, and why such information appears to have slipped through the cracks on its way to local citizens.

Back in November, Republican Ken Dartley, who had been appointed in September to finish out former Selectman Jim Saxe’s (R) resigned term, opted not to seek reappointment after the municipal election.

On Jan. 19, Lori Bufano (R) resigned her seat on the Planning and Zoning Commission so she could serve on the Board of Selectmen in Dartley’s place, and on Feb. 12, the commission voted in Andrea Preston (R), a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals, to fill the vacancy created by Bufano’s resignation.

Suggested by the Wilton Republican Town Committee, the nomination of Bufano to be considered for service on the Board of Selectmen was challenged at the Jan. 19 meeting with a recommendation made by the Democratic Town Committee. One Democrat also expressed interest in the vacancy to the board prior to the meeting.

As for the vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Commission, however, only Preston, a Republican, was considered. She was recommended for nomination by the Republican Town Committee.

Bufano’s seat could have been filled by a Democrat or even an Unaffiliated or Independent. It did not have to be filled by a member of the same party as she. That, however, seems to have been the false understanding.

On Feb. 12 at the special commission meeting, town counsel Pat Sullivan confirmed that with regard to replacing Bufano, there existed an “impression that it was not open to other nominations.”

In Connecticut, “members of any [governing body] of the state or any political subdivision thereof … elective or appointive, who may be members of the same political party, shall be as specified,” according to Sec. 9-167a of the general statutes.

The specifications are as follows.

  • For a total membership of three individuals, the maximum that can serve from one party is two individuals.

  • For a membership of four, the max is three.

  • For a membership of five, the max is four.

  • For a membership of six, the max is also four.

  • For a membership of seven, the max is five.

  • For a membership of eight, the max is also five.

  • For a membership of nine, the max is six.

  • For a membership that exceeds nine individuals, the max is two-thirds of the total membership.

Sec. 9-167a goes on to say that “at such time as the minority representation provisions of this section become applicable … any vacancy … to be filled by appointment shall be filled by the appointment of a member of the same political party as that of the vacating member.”

But these “minority representation provisions,” as defined by the state of Connecticut, were not applicable to the two vacancies mentioned above. Here’s why:

Sec. C-45 of the Wilton Town Charter stipulates that the “First Selectman ... shall be a member of the Board of Selectmen.” Sec. C-48 delineates, “In the case of the Board of Selectmen, the maximum number that may be of a single party shall be three.”

After Dartley resigned from the Board of Selectmen, there were two Republicans, one Democrat, and one Unaffiliated left in service, counting the first selectman as a member, which the charter says should be done.

Because the greatest number of active selectmen that can share the same affiliation is three, it didn’t matter what party Dartley’s replacement belonged to; no party was in danger of exceeding their maximum representation as allotted by the charter.

When Bufano resigned from Planning and Zoning, there were five Republican commissioners and three Democrats actively serving. The maximum party representation on a nine-person commission in Connecticut is six, so this vacancy also was open to any eligible citizen. Preston’s name, however, was the only one put forward.

Paul Burnham, chair of the DTC Nominating Committee told The Bulletin, “There’s no reason why we would not have put forward someone [to replace Bufano] if we’d known about it and had had the time.”

On Feb. 12, Planning and Zoning commissioners discussed the process by which notice of Bufano’s vacant seat was publicized, and kicked around the idea of codifying that process such that those outside of Wilton’s political circle don’t miss out on opportunities to serve.

Chair Sally Poundstone said, “The position has been well known to be vacant in the community. We know that there was a letter to the editor in local press and various media recognizing that there was a vacancy and encouraging individuals to apply.”

The Bulletin printed on Jan. 19 a letter to the editor from Don Drummond, chair of candidate research and recruitment for the RTC, entitled “GOP seeks P&Z candidate.” Also published that week was a front-page story covering Bufano’s appointment to the Board of Selectmen and her subsequent resignation from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“The special meeting had been properly noticed,” Sullivan confirmed. “It had been put up with the town clerk on Tuesday (Feb. 9) … far more than 24 hours before the date and time of this meeting.

“I understand the position that’s being taken,” Sullivan continued. “I don’t think you’ve done anything illegal. The process was followed. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t any other nominations, but that was an opportunity that was made available.”

“It’s been in all the local papers that Lori moved on. It’s not like people didn’t know,” said Rick Tomasetti via speakerphone.

“Forget about the public notice [for a moment]. Anybody on the commission has known this. Anybody [involved with] Wilton politics has known this. As soon as Lori stepped down, everybody had to say, ‘Well, who’s going to fill her spot?’ The first thing I thought was, ‘OK — so there’s a commissioner who’s not going to be here anymore.’”

While Scott Lawrence sided with Poundstone, Sullivan and Tomasetti on the legal matter in question, he argued that “We should task ourselves with discussing how we might want to formalize this process for the future.”

“It wouldn’t hurt to have an outline,” echoed Poundstone. “I think we need to find a way to make sure that the unaffiliated understand that they can step forward.”

Town Planner Bob Nerney suggested that such action might exist beyond the purview of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission, raising the question of who should be tasked with improving — if it needs to be improved — the process by which notice of vacancies in Wilton is made public.

“You might also consider that maybe that is something that should play out on a larger landscape,” Nerney said. “Is that the role of the Planning and Zoning Commission to try to set that policy? Or is that something that is more of a reflection of the town charter and the way that’s executed?”