More agreement than opposition at Board of Selectmen debate

Wilton’s four Board of Selectmen candidates — Democrats Brian Lilly and Gilmore Bray,Republican Michael Kaelin and unaffiliated petitioning candidate David Clune — seemed to have more in common than not, as shown during Monday night’s debate.
During the Wilton League of Women Voters-sponsored debate in Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room, the candidates took questions posed by members of the approximately 40-personaudience, which ranged from the Miller-Driscoll Building Project and economic development to public discourse and town meetings.


The first question of the night was whether the candidates believe authorization of contracts for the $50-million Miller-Driscoll renovation project should be postponed until the new selectmen are in office.
“I don’t think that question can be answered yes or no tonight because we haven’t seen what proposal the building committee is going to present to the Board of Selectmen,” said Kaelin. “Generally speaking, with respect to whatever proposal the building committee presents to the Board of Selectmen, my view is that it should be a collaborative effort between the current board and the incoming board.”
The other three candidates agreed with Kaelin, with Clune adding that he doesn’t “think it would be worth delaying just to allow the new Board of Selectmen to come in.”
Because the current board has the most experience with the matter, Clune said, “even if it were to be delayed, we would still need their input and support to move forward and make a decision that’s best for the town.”

Economic development

The candidates were next asked how they envision economic development progressing in Wilton.
“Certainly, this is one of the areas where I think has the most potential to begin to modify the tax burden in town,” said Bray. “I think we do need to spend a good amount of time focusing on economic development.”
Bray said the economic development plan submitted to the Board of Selectmen in May 2014 had a number of recommendations that he believes should be looked into.
“One being sort of a quick-reaction task force — I think that makes a lot of sense,” he said.
“I also think it makes sense to at least have the discussion about hiring an economic development coordinator, officer or whatever — I think it’s certainly worth the discussion.”
Bray said he believes the town also really needs to look at the vision for Wilton — in other words, he said, “how we want it to be positioned.”
“Class A space maybe along Route 7, the retail space downtown — there are any number of ideas that have come out to stimulate economic development,” he said, “but the first thing we really need to understand is what the town needs to be.”
Clune, a current member of the Economic Development Commission, said he also supports the development of a collaborative reaction team — as it’s phrased in the 2014 economic development report — that “allows both existing businesses and prospective businesses coming into town to have a one-stop place to go and learn the permitting questions that we ask and what they need to be aware of as a business.”
“I think one of the things that businesses have found difficult now is that there’s not a fully mapped-out process for that,” said Clune.
The town has “not yet fully embraced all the short- and long-term recommendations” that were made in the report, said Clune, who believes that “there is a lot of room there for the town to follow up on those ideas and develop them more fully.”
“A lot has been done, but there’s a lot more and that’s a big opportunity for Wilton as we go forward,” said Clune, noting that the Board of Selectmen “has the ability to empower the Economic Development Commission much more.”
Lilly said economic development “has been the main focus of why [he] wanted to become a selectman” after discovering that there is no list of the businesses that exist in town.
“There needs to be a list made that tells us how many restaurants we have, how many contractors we have, how many office buildings we have so we can look at each one of those sections,” he said.
Lilly said the town can’t “move forward to try to get businesses to Wilton” and see how healthy its businesses are unless that list exists.
Kaelin said opportunities for economic development are evident in “all the empty space in town.”
“There’s really no question that we have a need for economic development and that we have opportunity for economic development,” he said.
“The question is how do you exploit and take advantage of opportunity? The answer is you need a plan.”
Kaelin said this requires a small group of responsible people with expertise in the matter to come up with a “long-range plan for conservation and development that identifies what kind of economic development we want and how we get that economic development in town.”

Public discourse

The candidates were asked what they could do to change the negative tone that public discourse in town has taken on and to encourage citizens to become actively involved in town.
“The answer is simple,” said Kaelin. “We on the Board of Selectmen set the tone. We set the example.”
Because of this, he said, members of the Board of Selectmen should have civil discussions not only with their fellow selectmen but with the public and other town boards and commissions as well.
“Wilton is really set up by charter to involve all of us. We’re literally supposed to govern ourselves, starting with the boards and commissions, of which there are over 100 volunteers in town,” said Kaelin.
“People like each one of you serving on boards and commissions in town come up with the proposals that are ultimately presented to the town meeting, after which every registered voter and every property owner can vote and … talk to each other [through] public comment.”
Kaelin said the Board of Selectmen should “invite and encourage public comment [and] set the example for how we should do things.”
Clune said if the Board of Selectmen were more proactively communicative with the public, it could draw more citizen involvement, get more people to vote and “essentially make it easier for people to find information and find out what’s going on.”
Bray said he believes “a lot of frustration and divisiveness” that the town has seen in recent years is “probably, to a great extent, the result of frustration of not getting information they feel they’re entitled to as voters.”
With technology, Bray said, “we now have the ability of getting that information an awful lot easier [and] posting more of the information that is available.”
“As far as the Board of Selectmen, I think Mike [Kaelin] is exactly right — we have to set the tone; we have to be civil in our discourse,” said Bray, “but we also need to look at the website to see how we can improve it.”
In other words, Bray said, look for ways to provide more information on the town’s website and be more open with the public.
“I think there’s a sense that we’re denying information — that information is being done behind someone’s back. I don’t believe that’s the case,” said Bray. “I think it’s an issue of transparency and using technology wisely.”
As for getting citizens more involved, particularly in voting, Bray said he believes the answer lies in contested races.
“There is a malaise that the town has in terms of voting — there’s always something more important than going down and voting, and we need to change that,” he said.
“We’re not going to be able to force people to vote … but giving them choices [and] giving them a reason to go to the polls, I think, is the way that we can start to get more people out than we have in the past.”

Town meetings

The candidates were asked whether Wilton should consider ending town meetings and have the Board of Selectmen decide the budgets, to which all four candidates answered no.
Lilly said the town should “absolutely keep town meetings” because “it’s important to have input and the vote of the townspeople.
Bray said even though they’re not as packed as they once were, town meetings need to stay.
“There were times when we used to have a full house and I think it’s dependent on more than one candidate running for seats,” he said.
Kaelin said the town meeting form of government is what makes Wilton unique.
“I think one of the true treasures of this town and what does make us unique is the town meeting form of government. We’re actually one of the few towns of our size in the state of Connecticut that has preserved the town meeting form of government, where every registered voter and taxpayer gets to vote,” said Kaelin.
“If you were to change that, you’d change Wilton in a way that wouldn’t be attractive to hopefully any one of us who live there.”
Kaelin pointed out that the people on the town’s charter commission didn’t enact or approve Wilton’s charter. “It was the town meeting; it was all of you [the taxpayers],” he said.
“We all have a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on,” said Kaelin, “and if we don’t like it, we have the ability to do something about it.”