First Selectmen Candidates Lay Out Campaign Platforms in Fairfield

Town Hall, Town of Fairfield (Image courtesy of Town of Fairfield)


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FAIRFIELD – As campaign season kicks off, Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and Democratic challenger Bill Gerber have both affirmed their commitments to transparency in local government in the wake of a town-wide environmental scandal involving former town employees who have been convicted or are awaiting sentencing. 

Where the two candidates disagree is on key local issues like fill pile remediation, unaddressed racial imbalance in town schools and affordable housing. 

In separate interviews with CT Examiner, Kupchick, a former Representative Town Meeting member, school board member and state representative, and Gerber, a 10-year member of the Representative Town Meeting, spoke about how to rebuild trust in town officials, solutions to achieve racial balance in the elementary schools, and approaches to the state’s affordable housing law. 

Town government

“Even over just these last four years, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned,” said Kupchick. “Once we started peeling back the onion around here, [it] was very obvious to me and my team that I brought in that there literally was zero management of the town.”

Elected as first selectwoman in 2019, Kupchick came into office just months after police arrested two former town employees – Public Works Director Joe Michelangelo and Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett – for illegally dumping hazardous waste from a fill pile at almost 40 sites across Fairfield.

After removing the contaminated material from most of the affected parks and sports fields, Kupchick said she will continue to keep residents informed about the upcoming remediation at Penfield Pavilion – a 27,500 square foot structure sitting atop contaminants like PCBs and asbestos – through biweekly emails and monthly updates at the Board of Selectmen meetings.

“The policies that I put in place, the oversight, the talent that I brought in to oversee things are really ensuring that there’s a different level of assistance,” Kupchick said. “I feel like we’ve changed the culture around here in a big, big way.”

In addition to environmental remediation, Kupchick said her implementation of strong leadership practices and training for department heads helped to restore trust in town government. 

Kupchick said she sat down with department heads, and asked if they needed more staff, updated job descriptions and improved budgets, and said the town employees were “shocked.”

“It was really, clearly obvious that the first selectman job was more about getting reelected than it was managing the town, and that’s not why I ran for this job,” Kupchick said. “I ran for it because I wanted to protect and serve my community in the wake of the worst public corruption scandal in the history of the town.”

Gerber, a certified public accountant by trade, told CT Examiner that he initially supported Kupchick in 2019 because she was committed to cleaning up town government, but said he now doubts her progress.

“In my position on the RTM, I can kind of see whether it’s cleaned up or not, and I don’t believe we’ve made any progress – any material progress,” Gerber said.

Gerber said he believes it’s time for Fairfield to have a “professional government.” Rather than allowing only the first selectman to appoint some officials like the town attorney, treasurer and human resources director, he said Fairfield should implement a nonpartisan hiring process based solely on prospective officials’ work experience.

“When there’s been a leader, then all of a sudden you have a new town attorney, and you’ve got a new administrator, you’ve got a new CFO, and I just don’t think a town like Fairfield should be run that way,” Gerber said.

If elected as first selectman, Gerber said he would institute changes to the town charter and forgo his own hiring powers and foster best practices.

By taking some hiring power from the first selectman, Gerber explained, officials could more openly discuss important town issues like the continued environmental remediation of fill pile contaminants at public meetings.

“I would be really focused early on in getting professional people in management and actually taking some of this power away from the first selectman’s office that allows some things to be pushed under the rug,” Gerber said. “And I think part of that is that people beholden to others for their jobs are less likely to be completely forthcoming in public meetings.”

Racial imbalance at McKinley

Gerber also touched on another outstanding issue in Fairfield – a looming redistricting of town elementary schools mandated by a 1969 state law.

According to the state law, a school’s minority population cannot exceed 25 percent of the district’s average minority population. McKinley Elementary School was first identified as racially imbalanced 16 years ago, and still is today as 56 percent of its student body are students of color compared to the 26 percent district average.

Given a deadline of Oct. 30 to submit a plan to the state, the school board has been exploring potential fixes such as redrawing district lines. But some McKinley parents have pleaded with the board to instead push back against the state and call for the removal of the “antiquated” law.

Gerber said he understands the state’s perspective as the town is still not compliant with state law, but also understands parents who want their children to attend neighborhood schools. He pointed to magnet schools and affordable housing as potential solutions.

At a recent school boarding meeting, Superintendent Michael Testani suggested turning McKinley into a magnet school for science, engineering and the arts and automatically enter students living in the “magnet zone” into a lottery to attend the school. 

Gerber told CT Examiner that the magnet school model could potentially be a net benefit for town elementary students.

“This is a model that’d actually bring more resources into the school, and I’d be really interested to see if there’d be a net benefit for the kids there to have more resources,” Gerber said.

Gerber said the issue ultimately comes down to the town’s distribution of affordable housing, as most is concentrated in “one area of town” due to restrictive zoning regulations.

“I think eventually if we fix our zoning issues – our very restrictive zoning issues – we might be able to do that, and this will hopefully, eventually not be so pronounced,” he said.

But Kupchick told CT Examiner the issue is the state law itself – not Fairfield Public Schools.

Kupchick explained that as a state representative, she tried to create a working group within the state legislature to review 1969 law, but made little headway.

“I just feel like it’s an antiquated law that needs to be updated and frankly, I think the legislature should be embarrassed that they haven’t even looked at this thing objectively,” Kupchick said. “I mean, any law that was written in 1969 – don’t you think [it] needs another look?”

Prior to serving as a state representative from 2011 until 2019, Kupchick said her first vote as a school board member in 2003 was to reverse another plan to address the racial imbalance – swapping McKinley students with Stratfield Elementary School students. 

Rather than forcibly moving students, she said, the board opened up elementary enrollment, allowing McKinley students to transfer to other schools, and other students to transfer to McKinley. Still, she said the open choice method was unsuccessful.

“What happened was not a whole lot of kids were opting out, but minority kids from other parts of town were opting in,” Kupchick said. “And even one or two kids that would opt in to McKinley would literally change the percentage that the state uses.”

‘Affordable’ housing?

Kupchick also denounced a different state law – 8-30g.

Under 8-30g, developers can override local zoning laws to construct state-designated affordable housing if less than 10 percent of a municipality’s housing stock is deemed affordable. According to March 2023 data by the state Department of Housing, less than three percent of Fairfield’s housing stock is considered affordable.

Kupchick said she has long denounced the housing law because it assists “predatory developers” and creates little affordable housing.

“Every time you build 100 market-rate units and only 10 percent of those are affordable, the number of your total units just keeps rising,” Kupchick said. “Which means it’s like the tail wagging the dog. You can never meet it.”

Kupchick said town officials are trying their best to comply with 8-30g, but there is little land left in town to construct affordable housing developments. Still, she said, she’s passionate about using the town Affordable Housing Trust Fund to create housing where possible.

Kupchick said the town recently purchased a small property on Greenfield Street abutting Tunix Hill Park using the fund, and partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build four affordable housing units for those earning 60 percent of the area median income – $49,872 for a two-person household.

“They’re not these giant, overdeveloped things,” Kupchick said. “They’re all affordable. They’re not 8-30g.”

Kupchick said she has spoken to Governor Ned Lamont about her gripes 8-30g and alternative approaches that Fairfield has taken like the property on Greenfield Street.

“I’m like, ‘I’m telling you, we could do better. You could help each of the towns build true, affordable housing. Get rid of this 8-30g that’s really just a gift to predatory developers,’” Kupchick said.

Asked for his stance on 8-30g, Gerber said his personal feelings on the law are irrelevant. Rather, he said the law itself and the town’s compliance is relevant.

Gerber said protesting 8-30g and encouraging others to do the same is not proper leadership, and said there is only one way to get zoning control back in the hands of the town – meeting the state requirement.

“You’re essentially working for developers who don’t want to follow the zoning laws because just yelling and screaming gets you nowhere,” Gerber said. “Except, it gives them an entry to build wherever they want.”

He said that if the town wants control over affordable housing developers, officials need to be more proactive than they have been. 

Gerber said the four affordable housing units on Greenfield Street will be “nice for the people that live there,” but the town needs to partner with more nonprofit housing developers and acquire land.

“Doing a few units here and a few units there, that’s not going to work. And we just need to handle it,” Gerber said. “And I feel like I’m really fired up to like work with the housing authority here and to work with private investors and developers to figure out a way to make this happen.”