FAIRFIELD — Along party lines, the Representative Town Meeting recently passed an ordinance aimed at making town streets safer, but opponents argue the new law is redundant and will only slow down existing processes.
Under the Safe and Livable Streets policy, spearheaded by first selectman candidate and Democratic RTM member Bill Gerber, Fairfield must appoint a coordinator to help town departments plan, budget and implement street improvement projects such as new stop signs, sidewalks and traffic signals.
Gerber has maintained that the ordinance would open up new avenues for securing federal funding for street enhancement projects. This is particularly significant, he said, considering four pedestrians have been struck and killed by cars in Fairfield since 2020.
After a month of debate, the Democratic-led RTM voted to approve the proposal at its Monday meeting, but faced staunch opposition from Republicans and pleas to delay the decision.
Though they said they support improving Fairfield’s streets, many Republicans argued that RTM members and town department heads were not given ample time to review Gerber’s proposal.
When Gerber first presented his ordinance at a RTM meeting last month, he explained he began working on it in September 2022 after meeting with a group of local safe streets advocates. Gerber then submitted the first draft to the RTM 10 months later.
Ken Astarita, a Republican member running for reelection in November, said he is “extremely disappointed” that Republicans and town employees were not involved in drafting the ordinance, a claim that Gerber has rejected.
“The ordinance was drafted behind closed doors by one person, without the involvement or the input from any of the relevant town bodies,” Astarita said. “And you’re certainly hearing the results of that tonight.”
Town employees weigh in
Three town employees also expressed reservations about the new ordinance during the Monday meeting.
Under the law, interim Public Works Director John Marsilio must work with the “complete streets coordinator” to develop an annual budget for street improvements and a manual outlining its implementation process.
But Marsillio said Gerber never reached out to him for input on the proposal. Additionally, he said, public works already processes in place to improve sidewalks.
“I’ve read this ordinance — and I read it with my DPW hat on — and I’m not sure how this gets implemented,” Marsillo said.
Marsillo explained that the Public Works Department currently has a five-year, $10 million sidewalk rehabilitation program, and has already assessed town sidewalks. Additionally, the department is reviewing petitions from neighborhood groups to create their own improvement priority list.
Marsillio said he worries the safe streets ordinance is “problematic,” as it doesn’t outline which improvement projects the town should prioritize and could cause rifts between neighbors seeking new sidewalks.
“If you survey people on a road and you want to install the sidewalk, I don’t know what we have to do if 80 percent of the people on that road want the sidewalk and 20 [percent] don’t. Do we go forward?” Marsillio questioned.
Asked how the ordinance could impact Fairfield police, Capt. Hector Irizarry also pointed to redundancies with existing policies.
“In fairness, it seems a little bit redundant for us, from a police department perspective,” Irizarry said. “We currently do have a process for traffic improvement.”
Unlike Marsillio, Irizarry said he met with Gerber to discuss the ordinance and told the candidate that his plan would slow down the traffic improvement process.
According to police, the Traffic Safety Unit already implements the Fairfield’s Complete Streets Policy, a policy that Gerber claimed the town has not sufficiently enforced since approving it in 2018.
Under the policy, the town Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee works alongside the Police, Engineering and Public Works departments to review traffic enforcement requests and advise the Town Plan and Zoning Commission on site plan applications.
“Our concern that we expressed with Representative Gerber was that we were just adding another layer of bureaucracy,” Irizarry added.
From a legal perspective, town attorney Jim Baldwin told the RTM that the ordinance may not be ready for approval.
Though he worked amicably with Gerber to amend the first draft of the ordinance, Balwin said he has outstanding questions about new amendments he received about three hours before Gerber presented them at the Monday meeting.
“I have gone through it, and I do have several questions which, I think, should be addressed,” Baldwin said.
According to Gerber, the latest changes were meant to remove redundancies, but Baldwin said he wanted additional time to review the amendments and again meet with Gerber to offer changes.
Given the three town employees’ outstanding concerns, Republican RTM member Edward Bateson called to delay the vote.
“There’s three stakeholders in this room that I really think have swayed me tonight that this really isn’t ready for primetime,” Bateson said. “Attorney Baldwin, I mean he basically said it’s not ready. And I agree with that.”
But Gerber denied all claims of a rushed, secretive process.
Before submitting the ordinance to the RTM, Gerber said he asked several Republican members to co-sponsor the idea but received no response. And those who weren’t contacted had three months to review the ordinance and reach out to him with concerns, he added.
“This was a lot of time. And like I said, when this was available to people and we asked for feedback, there was silence,” Gerber said.
Gerber also denied claims of redundancy and lack of communication with town employees.
Regarding Marsillio’s concerns, Gerber said he emailed the public works director numerous times with no response. As a result, he said, he worked alongside town engineer Bill Hurley instead.
“I think we’re splitting hairs here a little bit,” Gerber said.
Gerber added that he met with members of the police department and Police Commission, and made “major changes” to his ordinance to reduce the redundancies Irizarry mentioned.
Gerber said he finds accusations that he purposefully crafted the ordinance with little input to be “really offensive,” and emphasized the importance of the legislation.
“Things have to work in real time. We have people getting hit, we have people dying in our town, and this is important,” Gerber said.
RTM Democrats and residents in attendance on Monday offered their full support to Gerber.
Tom Lambert, a Democratic member not seeking reelection, said he was proud to vote in favor of an ordinance that will “literally save lives,” and called on his fellow members to do the same.
“When you hear opposition to an ordinance like this, you’ll hear, oftentimes, that we should delay,” Lambert said. “… They say that they’re going to support a cause right before they vote to kill it, all in the name of process.”
Of the 38 RTM members in attendance, 24 voted to approve the ordinance, 10 to reject it and four abstained.
On Thursday, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick told CT Examiner she agreed with the Republican RTM members. Though she supports the idea of safe streets, Kupchick said, Gerber’s ordinance was not ready for approval.
“Our Police, Engineering, and DPW Departments effectively collaborate to identify and address safety issues. They follow a very structured process, including viability investigations, field visits with the Local Traffic Authority, and safety evaluations to determine a plan of action,” Kupchick said. “The recent ordinance, however, lacked legal compliance, key department input, and a fiscal note, departing from long-standing legislative practice. I urge a return to bipartisan collaboration and thorough vetting of future ordinances.”