Gerber Takes Helm in Fairfield, Vows to Tackle Fill Pile Scandal and Oppose UI Project

Fairfield First Selectman Bill Gerber, center, during the Nov. 14, 2023, election recount (CT Examiner).

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FAIRFIELD — After winning the first selectman race by just 37 votes last month, Democrat Bill Gerber said he’s hoping to win the support of his opponents by resolving an ongoing environmental scandal in town and fighting a United Illuminating project. 

“A lot of people just felt in their gut that they weren’t ready to trust the Democrats,” Gerber said of the slim margin, which prompted a Nov. 14 recount.

Before 2019, Fairfield was largely run by Democrats — Kenneth Flatto for 12 years, followed by Mike Tetreau for eight. But when residents learned about the mishandling of a town fill pile, they elected Republican Brenda Kupchick, who promised to clean up corruption and contamination in the town.

During Tetreau’s tenure in 2016, the town hired property management company Julian Enterprises to reduce its fill pile. Three years later, the town discovered that the pile had grown in size and the company had accepted PCBs and asbestos. Several town employees, who now face or have been convicted of criminal charges for their involvement, then permitted workers to use that contaminated fill to construct various sites around Fairfield, including soccer fields, parks and Penfield Pavilion.

Gerber said many residents still blame Democrats for the costly scandal, but he hopes his approach to the environmental cleanup will help earn back some of the lost trust.

“I think just disposing of the problems caused by the fill pile in a rational way will probably help some people come over,” Gerber said. “It’s a big priority for me, dealing with Penfield in a rational way.”

Pause Penfield construction?

Following Penfield Pavilion’s $7.3 million construction in 2011, the town received violation notices from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, stating that the structure was built above the natural grade and that Fairfield had placed contaminated fill beneath it. 

Forced by FEMA to either correct the violations or face flood insurance hikes in February, Kupchick decided to keep the pavilion, adjust the elevation and remediate the contamination for an estimated $11.5 million rather than demolish the structure for $8.5 million.

Gerber criticized the decision to keep the structure in place and begin construction in the fall without a flood resiliency study or final costs in place.

“We have to settle the notices of violation and, unfortunately, the prior administration ran out the clock,” he said. “But I’m not going to be able to get a coastal plan in time. I’m very angry about that.”

When the town was ordered to lower the pavilion’s elevation, residents grew concerned that the construction could mean an increased risk of flooding for the surrounding neighborhood. Kupchick’s administration appropriated $100,000 to hire a firm, RACE Coastal Engineering, to study the potential impacts and inform the planned construction. The town estimated in October that the resiliency study would come in December or January. It remains incomplete as of Tuesday.

But if the RACE study is completed in the coming months and suggests that maintaining the pavilion as planned would increase the risk of flooding, Gerber said he may rethink the design.

“That area of the town is a significant portion of our grand list. Our tax base will suffer if it becomes less valuable,” he said. “There’s still time to put a halt to this project and remove the building, as painful as that might be.”

Gerber said the town was already about $1.8 million over the estimated budget, and “would never” ask taxpayers to finance $10 million resiliency efforts once construction is complete. If Fairfield can save money and improve flood resiliency, Gerber said, he would consider knocking the pavilion down.

And while Gerber has largely criticized Kupchick’s approach to the pavilion, he said the two agree on one aspect of the scandal — seeking for the compensation for the crimes committed by town officials and employees.

Former Public Works Superintendent Scott Bartlett was sentenced to five years in prison for larceny and illegal discharge of hazardous waste earlier this month, and former Chief Financial Officer Robert Mayer was given a 544-day sentence in October. 

Others charged in the case — including former Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo, former interim Public Works Director Brian Carey, and Julian Enterprises owner Jason Julian — are currently awaiting trial.

Kupchick administration members maintained that they would consider potential legal action against those charged to recoup legal fees and other related expenditures, and Gerber said the same.

“I feel the same way. I think the crimes that they committed are unforgivable,” he said.

‘I would love to expose UI’

Gerber also criticized the town’s participation in a proposed United Illuminating project, and promised to fight the utility company and Connecticut Siting Council if necessary.

The planned $225 million project from downtown Bridgeport to Fairfield would require 19.25 acres of easements, 7 acres of tree and brush clearing and 102 new monopoles along the Metro-North rail corridor. According to United Illuminating, the company has been meeting with municipal officials to discuss the plans since 2021. But Kupchick has maintained that the impacts of the proposal were not made clear until this summer.

Soon after realizing the effects, the town was granted intervenor status in the company’s application with the council, meaning they could question United Illuminating about its project on record. But Gerber said the prior administration did little during council hearings.

“The town did hire a lawyer. I’m not sure how many of these types of utility cases that that person was involved in, but he did not ask any questions when he had the opportunity to,” he said.

Since taking office, Gerber has hired attorney David Ball, who worked as lead counsel in previous Connecticut Siting Council applications. But given the council’s actions so far, Gerber said he worries it will approve the project regardless of Fairfield’s representation.

The council has held five hearings on the United Illuminating project and held another on Tuesday. Gerber said Ball had been working around the clock to prepare for cross examination, when he received a Friday letter from the council stating that each of the intervenors would have just an hour to question the company. Along with the town, intervenors include the city of Bridgeport, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, local businesses and homeowners.

He said Fairfield is now scrambling to fight the decision, and questioned the council’s motives.

“It makes a mockery of the whole process. It really shows that the Siting Council is not transparent because they let UI ask days and days worth of questions,” Gerber said. “They’re not providing equal opportunity to the other side, and they’re purely focused on pushing projects through.”

Gerber said he “will not go away” if the council decides to approve the project, and would confer with legal counsel about raising the issue with the state.

“Personally, I would love to expose the Siting Council for the way they’ve dealt with this, and I would love to expose UI for the way they dealt with this,” he said. “We are not going to stop with a ruling from the Siting Council.”

An annual disruption

While noting the fill pile and utility project were the key issues he’d tackle first, Gerber also pointed to an incident at Fairfield University that requires attention. 

Each year, the university students host SantaCon — a party inspired by the Christmas-themed bar crawl in New York City — in which they dress up as Santa Claus and head to the beach to drink. Gerber said Saturday’s event was especially disruptive as students left trash on the beach, which largely floated into Long Island Sound. According to Fairfield Patch, police issued six infractions for open containers, five infractions for public disturbance and coordinated 17 transports to the hospital.

On Tuesday, Gerber said the parties are a waste of Fairfield police resources and a danger to the environment, and called on the university to do something about it.

“It’s a disgrace, and I think the university should be ashamed of itself. They were involved in trying to siphon some of the volume off the beach, but they do very little to stop it,” he said.

Gerber said he would consult with legal counsel to determine who is responsible for the littering and underage drinking, because the town does not have the resources to control the parties.

“There’s no way that our police can go in there and break up a party like that. At a certain point, they really just try to ensure that no one dies or gets seriously injured,” Gerber said. “It’s a terrible tradition, and it has to be under control. Otherwise, we’re going to lose people.”