Petition to elect Public Works director for Wilton will appear on ballot

WILTON – The Wilton Board of Selectmen has received a petition to make the office of director of Public Works an elected position, with the current director saying he believes the petition is in “retaliation for previous butting heads.”

The director is currently appointed. The town clerk has verified that at least 25 registered voters signed the petition and it will appear on the warrant for Town Meeting on March 13.

The petition was presented by Water Commissioner Thomas Schultz.

Current Public Works Director Steve Elliott met with the selectmen on Feb. 3 to discuss it. Schultz was also present but he did not comment, but later responded to an email from The Cabinet.

“I feel (the petition) is a retaliation for previous butting heads over issues,” Elliott said at the meeting.

For his part, Elliott said, “I would like to dismantle the Water Commission effective immediately. We’ve gone through 10 commissioners in the past three years and a lot of it is dysfunctional.”

Selectman Bill Condra said that was impossible since the Water Department was established by an act of the state Legislature in 1904 and “it would take an act of the Legislature to change it.”

Former Selectman Jerry Greene said previous boards had investigated the issue and “it can’t be a warrant article.”

In discussing the petition, Board Chairman Dan Donovan said, “I’m sensitive to the fact of the personality differences between you and Tom,” and said he was concerned because the petition did not include criteria or qualifications for the elected director. “This does need some investigation. We need to think through the implications.”

Condra added, “He needs to at least know how to operate a back hoe.”

Elliott agreed that some functions between his department and the Water Department “are intertwined.” The town provides the insurances, does the billing and the Highway Department does much of the work.

“It is very premature to just jump in,” Donovan said.

Schultz provided his reasons for submitting the petition in an email in which he noted, “I started the drive on my own on Jan. 25 and Mr. Elliott filed for my seat on the Sewer Commission on Jan. 30, after I started the petition.”

Schultz is not up for re-election to the Water Commission.

Schultz says in his letter that the position – then called road agent – was an elective one until 1979.

“This article was passed after much discussion concerning the town losing the privilege of choosing their road agent. Since then the position has been appointed by the Selectmen of the town,” he wrote.

“The current director of Public Works was appointed in November of 2003 and has been in the position for 10 years. In 2004, the actual expenses of the Wilton Public Works Department as reported in the 2005 Town Report were $468,900 with an additional capital expense of $571,100,” Schultz wrote. “The Public Works Department request for 2014 is $926,400 and $212,700 in capital expenses for a total of $1,139,100. This represents a 99.4 percent increase in the budget since the appointment of the current director.

“During this same period, the supervisor expense line in the actual expenses has gone from $45,300 in 2004 to $66,000 in 2013, with a requested increase for 2014 of $2,500 to increase it to $68,500,” Schultz continued. “The reason given for this year’s increase in expense was taking on the Recycling Center supervision two years ago. This represents a 51.2 increase in expense for this line item since the appointment of the current director.”

He notes that several communities still elect a road agent, including Brookline. Wilton elects many officials, such as town clerk, treasurer, trustees of Trust Funds, Planning Board and Budget Committee, some of which require special knowledge, skills, certificates or licenses, but the only qualification for election is to be a resident of the town.

“Our current director is a resident and as such would be eligible for the position,” Schultz wrote.

Condra, who is also a water commissioner, said the issue had been discussed in years past. And he had been concerned about “the adversarial atmosphere at meetings.”

Greene said, “I don’t think the people who are having problems are against the commission. The town owns all of the water. It might be a cleaner operation if it was run through the town.”

Donovan agreed there was a lot “of overlap between town and commission. For instance, the two dams. We provide the insurance. We, the town, have voted money to repair dams.” He noted that billing was done by the town to keep costs down. “Wilton has one of the lowest water rates in the state.”

The petition will be on the warrant, but the selectmen voted to not recommend it, based in part on the lack of criteria.

Elliott withdrew his suggestion to abolish the Water Commission.