Roberta Willis Interview:
This is file #63, cycle 2. This is Jean McMillen. Today’s date is August 15, 2017. I am interviewing Roberta Willis who is the former democratic State Representative for the 64th District. She is going to talk about her volunteer activities, her procedure in the legislature, and legislation she has been particularly fond of, as well as other things that she wishes to talk about. But first we’ll start with the genealogical information.
JM:What is your name?
RW:Roberta Willis, I lived in Sharon growing up. My family is from Sharon. My mother was born in Sharon Hospital. My grandparents Mary and Alex Gallion came to Sharon in the early 1920’s.
JM:What is your birthdate?
RW:March 6, 1951
JM:Where were you born?
RW:In Flushing, Queens, New York
JM:Your parents’ names?
RW:My mother’s name was Clara Gallion and my father’s name was Harold Berk.
JM:Do you have siblings?
RW: I have one sister Cherie who still lives in the area. She lives in Sharon and works here in Lakeville.
JM:How did you come to the area?
RW:I came because my mother’s family was here. There was a rich history and love for the Northwest corner of Connecticut. I always like to say I may have been born in New York, but in actuality I feel like Connecticut has always been my home.
JM:You’re a Connecticut girl.
JM:Where did you go to college?
RW:I went to Northwest Community College for my associate degree. Shortly after that I transferred to Vassar College and graduated from there in 1979 with a degree in Political Science.
JM:One of the first things that you got involved in was pesticides?
RW:Yeah In the 1980’s I read a report on pesticides in children’s diets. It was a report done by the Natural Defense Council. At that time my 2 youngest children were very small. I was very concerned about children’s health. A group of us about 25 Salisbury women formed “Mothers and Others for a Renewable Planet” which was really about addressing the issue of toxins in food. The fact is the government regulated toxins by testing tolerances of adult males, never took into consideration child development or a body weight of a small child. That could possibly have a bad effect of them. That group of 25 women grew into a national organization of about 40,000 across the country. My neighbor here in Salisbury Meryl Streep joined me in that effort or I joined her, the two of us and these other women became quite active in this. We pretty much changed the way Americans eat. Organic became much more prevalent; you could not find it in the Northwest corner when we started. That really launched me, I was always concerned about the environment, but that really got me involved with environmental health issues. It shows how people can make a difference with what we do in our consuming patterns; what we buy, what we eat, what we chose to do does make a difference. It makes a difference for all of us. Although I went off into government and politics, it is interesting in that in the case of environmental health it was getting consumers to change their habits.
JM:You have been very successful on that.
RW:Right and we are very proud of that. One of the connections that I did have in the legislature is that I got very involved with those issues, not only environmental issues, but also farming issues. What could we do to increase agriculture in Connecticut? We have seen growing up in Connecticut is a promoting of local agriculture. We see it with all the farmer’s markets that have now popped up. That was new, when we started out there were no farmer’s markets like that. Quite frankly it was state programs and funding that promoted a lot of those farmer’s markets: such as the ability of people to use food stamps or senior to get special coupons or for farmers and activist groups to be able to fund the start of a farm market. When we started out and I was first in the legislature, there were probably about 25 farm markets in the entire state. Now there are hundreds; those are official ones. The little ones like the one we have on the front lawn of the Scoville Memorial Library are not state funded. Norfolk has a very active and large farm market. There you can purchase a lot of items and it has received state funding. You can use your food stamps there. That is the difference really.
JM:Before we get into the legislative part, tell me about the Housatonic Youth Service Bureau. How did you get involved with that one?
RW: The Housatonic Youth Service Bureau was around the same time in 1990 it started, so it has been over 25 years. It really started with a group of us including Rev. Taber (See file #64 Rev. Dick Taber) of the Congregational Church at the time, Dr. Richard O’Connor who was head of the Housatonic Mental Health Center, some school guidance counselors and psychologists and a group of concerned citizens. They sat down 27 years ago and said,” We need something for our young people.” There are issues here families in crisis, kids that are struggling with issues. There are families that are struggling with
substance abuse. There were not enough services available. Certainly dick O’Connor and Dick Taber saw that right up close and personal. They knew that there were not enough available services and we needed something else. Plus we were offering counseling and support services free of charge which the Youth Service still does. It has expanded its services. We have a beautiful new facility at Housatonic Valley Regional High School right next door with counselors and a staff of people ready to assist families and children.
JM:When the Housatonic Mental Health Center was open that was geared more to adults than children.
RW:Correct. This fills the need of the young people. A lot of times it wasn’t a mental health issue but a family in crisis that needed support services or a young person who was struggling with depression or was having trouble in school or even parents who did not know how to parent. We have parenting seminars too because kids are not born with instruction manuals.
JM:Oh I wish they were!
RW:But they are not therefore families need guidance. We would sometimes bring in guest speakers or professional counselors for them to speak to the community. Right now the staff has grown in size over the 27 years. Thus we can offer more services to more families.
JM:Are you still on the board?
RW:No I am not. I am trying to think when I got off. I was on it for a good 20 years. They are asking me to come back on, but I think I need a hiatus for a while. There are a lot of great people there: they do not need me anymore.
JM:But it is always nice to have the knowledge and the history.
JM:This you can provide because other people can’t because you were in at the beginning. Don’t sell yourself short.
What was the first local board that you went on from this town?
RW:I was on the P&Z probably in the mid 1980’s. There were a lot of redevelopment issues were going on at that time.
JM:How long were you on that?
RW:Not very long 3 to 4 years.
JM:Then you moved on…
RW:What happened then is my kids were really small and P&Z met a night so I could do that. I still had to work in the morning and take care of 4 kids. It was not unusual for our meetings to go to 11:00 PM. Those were busy times. You can’t keep up that pace.
JM:The meetings are still 2 to 3 hours long. I was just doing Jon Higgins. Three hour meetings are getting a little tough.
RW:Yeah, actually I was on when we changed the meeting time from 7:30 back to 5:30 because a three or four hour meeting meant that you were going right up to midnight.
JM:That makes it hard to get up the next morning. When did you become the state representative?
RW:In 2000 I was elected and served until January of 2017.
JM:Tell me about you interview with the Speaker of the House.
RW:When I was first elected, the Speaker of the House was Moira Lyons; she was the first woman Speaker of the House in history. There has never been any woman in that leadership role and hasn’t been since. She called me in to meet with me about what my committee assignments would be. Given what I gave her about education, schools system, service bureau, went to local community college, the next think I knew I was assigned to the Education Committee, the Environment Committee and the Children’s Committee which were a perfect fit for me. Later on in my next term she made me chair of the Higher Education committee. I served in that capacity for the rest of my tenure in the Legislature about 15 years.
JM:There are two legislature sessions, a long session and a short session. Would you describe them and how they are different?
RW:A legislator, both in the House and in the Senate, is elected in the same years as the US House of Representatives, so that means every 2 years. The first year term goes when you are in session from January to June. In the second year of your term, it is February to May. It has been like that for hundreds of years.
JM:What is some of the legislation that you have worked on? I am asking specifically about the STEAP funds.
RW:There are two major pieces of legislation that I worked on that have had an impact on our town. The first one is the Community Investment Act. This one is interesting because what we did was we brought together a coalition of groups. It started out mostly aimed at farmland preservation and open space investment fund. In order to gain enough support we had to reach out to other groups. In hind sight it made it easier to pass the legislation. It was very visionary. In some respects probably one of the most visionary pieces of legislation that we have passed in recent years. It sets up a permanent funding mechanism to fund open space preservation, farmland preservation, affordable housing, and historic
preservation. The funding comes through a fee on property transfers that take place in the community. From this money a small part goes to the town, but the rest of it goes into this Community Investment Fund. Tracts of land in the Northwest corner have been saved through that, and farms where the state has been able to help preserve them. I always like to say farmland, but you have to say farmers. The farm is not going to do you any good if you don’t have the farmer to work it. The Community Investment Act also has mechanisms in it that also fund incentive programs for farmers that directly help farmers. They need it as if they want to build a barn, or a greenhouse.
JM:Or a piece of equipment as that is expensive?
RW:Yes if it helps with the farm market that I mentioned previously. It also has a subsidy for dairy farms. We were losing dairy farms by the hundreds in Connecticut. When we passed the Community Investment Act and the dairy subsidy that stopped the hemorrhaging of farms. It is impressive that in the last 10 years we have increased the number of farms by 22% in Connecticut; the highest in New England. A lot of that is a result of all the innovative programs that we have been able to put forward that help farmers. I am very pleased with that.
The other bill that I worked on is the Small Town Economic Assistance Program. That I worked on in my first term in office. Many of us legislators who represent small towns felt that unlike the big cities we did not get economic assistance. We needed so see what we could do to level the playing field. We established the Small Town Economic Assistance Program, commonly referred to as STEAP. It is used by communities to fund initiatives that might not be in their local budget. It could be a town project; it could be the library needing help, or it could be a firehouse. I think the Lakeville Hose Company got some STEAP money. Daycare centers, Falls Village was one of the first in the state to take advantage of a STEAP grant. They got to start the Falls Village Day Care Center. Again that is $5,000 a year max per town that you are eligible for. That does not mean that you are going to get it but if there is not enough money to go around, but it is there for small towns.
JM:Would that cover gravestone preservation within the town?
RW:I am not sure.
JM:Because the LOCIP grant which we have not gotten yet because of the state budget, but looking down the road for other ways to get money to do stone restoration.
RW:I would think LOCIP makes more sense. But that does not mean you should not have that conversation. It is a possibility, but I have not seen that done. Part of the challenge might be that it is not town property.
JM:But it is 5 of the 12 cemeteries are owned by the town.
RW:The thing about LOCIP is that the town gets that money and they can decide what to do with it. When you do a STEAP grant you have to designate it. First the town has to vote that they are going to
apply for it for that project. You might have three projects. Some towns do not submit any in a year, but they can’t add up to more than $500,000.
JM:It is information which is what I need. You worked very hard on the Sharon Hospital issue. Tell us about that.
RW:Sharon Hospital has a special place in my heart. My mom was born there and all 4 of my children were born in Sharon Hospital and 2 of my grandchildren were born there. We have a connection to the Sharon Hospital. It is the most rural hospital in the state of Connecticut. Right before I was elected Sharon Hospital was grappling with some serious fiscal challenges: operating moneys, lack of capital to make needed improvements. You could not raise that much money from the community. Some tough decisions had to be made. The board at Sharon Hospital decided to opt for a hospital system that was a for-profit Essent health Care. That was challenging because it is to this day the only non-profit hospital to become a for- profit. There was no precedent, but fortunately there was a law on the books in Connecticut that governed the possible transfer or change from a not-for profit to a for—profit. Thank goodness for our community because that is where I came in. I worked with at that time Attorney-General Richard Blumenthal who is now our US Senator and the office of Health Care Access to develop a contract with Essent with all kinds of conditions that needed to be met. One of them was to establish a community health foundation so a foundation for community health was formed with the proceeds of the sale. That money would always be used to benefit the people in all of our communities, the 17 towns that make up the catchment area for Sharon Hospital. That was very important. It was a leap of faith for us to become a for-profit hospital. That was very difficult if we had not done that, we probably would have lost our hospital. Out here there isn’t anything else. What is wonderful is that just in the last few weeks the agreement was signed to transfer ownership from what was our for-profit Sharon Hospital to Health Quest which is Vassar Brothers in Poughkeepsie. Sharon Hospital will now return to as a not-for profit community based hospital with strong affiliation with a larger health care network which will increase the services and the number of providers that we have. It turned out in the end to be a win-win situation. I worked on helping to facilitate the conversation between the hospital, the foundation which helped make this happen and Health Quest. I applaud everyone who worked so hard to keep the doors of Sharon Hospital open as an incredible community resource. We feel very fortunate. It took a lot of hard work, not for the faint of heart!
JM:Having been for the first time ever in the hospital, everyone was very professional, they were caring; they knew what they were doing. I was incredibly impressed with the hospital.
RW:It is wonderful and that is what it is all about. I think the fact that all these small towns that are our neighbors and friends work there. It is quite a support system. When you get picked up by the ambulance squad that knows you, then you get driven to the hospital and doors open in the ER and you know half the people in the ER. It is very comforting to the patient and to the family.
JM:When the call came in for the ambulance to take me to the hospital, one of my former 6th graders, Brian Bartram, came specifically to make me feel comfortable. He and Mike Brenner were wonderful. I got to the ER and was chatting with one of the nurses and she remembered my husband when he was a volunteer there.
RW:I rest my case!
JMN:There was another area that you worked on locally, something to do with Litchfield County?
RW:Yes, that was another issue that I started when I was elected on Day One. It is coming to fruition next week. Litchfield County courthouse in Litchfield, a beautiful iconic structure right on the green was built in the 19th century. It‘s time had come and gone. It was not safe; it could not handle the volume. The court system was divided up all over: juvenile court was one place, GA court somewhere else, and then Bantam had another court. Everybody was split up and we needed a courthouse. Going back to an Ella Grasso era (She was Governor from January 6, 1975 to December 31, 19870. Ed.)this was not a new thing. What was the challenge was the conflict between Litchfield and Torrington. Who was going to get the new courthouse? This battle waged for years. I got elected. Obviously the court house was being ruled unsafe with a cease and desist order. People should not have been occupying it any more. That is what we were dealing with. We could not find a home. Half the people in Litchfield didn’t want it a great bid 100,00square foot building and rightfully so in Litchfield. The other half wanted it very much to stay in Litchfield. Torrington felt that since it was the regional center of Litchfield County that it made the most sense that it be there. Unfortunately what the problem was that there actually was a law that said the courthouse could only be built in Litchfield. My task was to change the law so it could be built in someplace other than Litchfield. Again going back to my environmental roots and concerns, I felt a structure of this size belonged in a more urban setting with access to transportation and dense population and needs. It made sense all around that a piece of open space should not be gobbled up to put this huge structure on it. That was in 2000. Fast forward to August, 2017, I am getting to go on Thursday for a tour in the new Litchfield county courthouse which has now been completed. Next week the judges and staff will be moving in their new $81,000,000 courthouse. It is beautiful. Ii is on field Street in Torrington. So it is relatively close to the downtown. It is wonderful. I am very excited about that. I have been kidding people that I am going to scratch my name in the foundation.
JM:Oh you should!
RW:Or Stick my foot in some cement!
JM:You’ve got to have a star!
JM:My timing was quite good on this one!
RW:Right I had two things Sharon Hospital and courthouse are all coming together.
JM:Now you were on the Higher Education Committee for 15 years. Something came out of that that pleased you very much that your colleagues named a scholarship for you.
JM:Tell me about that, please.
RW:This was a huge surprise to say the least. I had no idea. I had worked on legislation to change the way financial aid for public and private universities was structured in Connecticut. While I was on the floor of the House delivering and presenting the legislation and what it would do, I was describing it and the intent and purpose of the changes, one of my colleagues got up and said she had an amendment to my bill. I was not just taken back, but I was very irritated, because when you are going to do that, you usually come to the Chair of the committee to say, “I really would like to change something.” Plus this woman had worked on the bill with me. She was chair of the Appropriations Committee so she was very much involved in higher education funding, and how financial aid would be structured, how much money would be in the account. So she was very much aware of what I was trying to do which was to get more financial aid to the neediest students. That was the intent of my change to get financial aid dollars to make it possible for low-income students to get a degree. She got up and introduced that they were changing the name of the scholarship program to the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship Program. I still did not understand what was happening. Finally at some point it sunk in, but it was quite a moment.
JM:And quite an accolade for you from your colleagues to wish this for you.
RW:Well that was really very generous of them. I always thought that.
RW:It is kind of embarrassing.
JM:It shouldn’t be. You put a lot of work in and it is nicer to have that acknowledged because your colleagues are the ones that know how much work you put in. That means a great deal.
RW:That was the part that made them do that.
JM:I asked you before how government had changed over the 17 years you have been in the legislature and you gave me three excellent reasons.
RW:Let’s see if I can remember them. The first one is the changes and the impact of social media. It did not exist when I was first elected. In 2000 I don’t think I had a cell phone yet; I think my first term I may have gotten one because I thought I needed it. But it was not considered a necessary item. In fact you could not get reception up here.
JM:You still can’t.
RW:Well, you still can’t but back then it was really ridiculous. In fat we did not have much internet service. That was another issue; I am still working on that one. There was no internet to speak of; it was very limited. There was no cell or texting, so the way people communicated with their legislators was different. How information gets out is different. People have instant gratification, but if you send out a text to me or an e-mail, you think I want an answer now.
JM:It is not doable.
RW:Not when you are dealing with hundreds and hundreds of people in a single day. That has changed. Also I find that the tenor became less civil. When you sit down and write a letter which you would have done in 2000, or you call the person on the phone, or meet with them, those were the three options then, it is different. If you get really angry and write a letter, the next morning you look at it and say oh I don’t think I should send this; I’ve gotten it out of my system. Well, now you do an e-mail and you send it with a click. How many times have you thought, I should not have done that, but I did. Or maybe I should have changed it, so you don’t have time to reread it or edit it.
JM: Or have second thoughts about your choice of words.
RW:That control part of your brain that says maybe this is not the best thing to say. That has changed. I also think people have become, we are seeing it now on the national stage, angrier and frustrated. It is only being replicated.
JM:Every time you see in on the news, it is being replicated.
RW:It is giving people more license to speak to each other in ways that do not promote health dialogue.
JM:Engage brain before opening mouth.
RW:Yes that part to me is hard. That has changed. I think a lot of that has to do with people’s frustration, the economy. I do think that middle class workers, who work hard, play by the rules, send their kids to college, and they feel forgotten. I don’t know if it is forgotten as much as they are working so hard and they are in the same place, or not in the same place.
JM:Instead of going ahead, they are either stationary or falling back.
RW:Right that is very frustrating. I get that and I get why that would make people angry and frustrated. That is a huge problem that is global, national. There are so many things that are beyond your control.
JM:You know about them now; you did not used to.
RW:Right, that’s the thing about my job that I liked, is you had to learn a lot about a lot of different things. One minute I am meeting with somebody on energy and electric rates. The next minute thing I
could be dealing with is health care, health costs, and then talking about education issues, the public justice system. You can’t fake it; you have to learn about it. You have to learn about things that you would have absolutely no idea that you would have to learn. For instance with the environment committee I was asked, “Mrs. Willis what was the strangest thing I had to know?” I had to know how big a clam shell had to be before you could harvest it because that is regulated by state law.
JM:My word, we are so far away from the ocean it is not even funny.
RW:Right but I had to know if it was going to be 1 1/2 inches or 1 3/4 inches or 2 inches. I had to listen to all the testimony and listen to all. There are people who feel very strongly about how many inches it should be 1 ½ inches and there are other people who say no, you are taking too many young clams and it should be 1 ¾ inches.
JM:That is fascinating.
RW:Yeah so who knew? There are all kinds of things that you need to know like what should be the state song or the state insect, really heavy duty stuff. People are very passionate about these things. I was part of the bill about the state fish. Do you know what the state fish is?
JM:Oh because of the shadblow trees and the fish migration up the Connecticut River.
RW:Now you know. Those are the kinds of critical issues I have been working on.
JM:Before we close is there anything you would like to add to this interview that I have not covered?
RW: No I think we have done it.
JM:You have done a good job!
JM:Thank you so much.