Power Struggle Unfolds Over Fairfield’s Penfield Project 

Fairfield Town Hall (CT Examiner)

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FAIRFIELD — After losing the town’s executive seat in the November election, former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said it’s been “a bit painful” to release the reins on her old position — a modest power struggle that played out during a recent Board of Selectmen meeting on the topic of Penfield Pavilion.

Democratic Bill Gerber beat the Republican incumbent by just 37 votes after a Nov. 14 recount. Kupchick, now a Board of Selectmen member, told CT Examiner on Monday that it has felt strange to take a back seat in meetings that she once ran. 

“I still think I have a lot of value to add on the Board of Selectmen, even though it’s a bit painful to sit there. Because let’s face it, I’m a human being,” she said. “I was in charge, and now there’s somebody there sitting next to me who won by a slim margin.”

While Gerber attributes his win to a general mistrust of town Democrats following the fill pile scandal under former Democratic First Selectman Michael Tetreau, Kupchick said her opponent won because of the “vitriol” leading up to Election Day.

“The complete, utter, negative, nasty campaigning that was taking place from the Democratic Town Committee and the Gerber-Vitale campaign,” she said. “I think negative campaigning, which we would all hope wouldn’t work and wouldn’t be effective, I think it was.”

The three board members — Kupchick, Gerber and his running mate, Democrat Christine Vitale — must work closely together at the bimonthly meetings. But tensions continued to linger Monday, when Kupchick questioned Gerber’s position on Penfield Pavilion.

In 2013, the property management company Julian Enterprises was hired by the town to manage and reduce the size of a fill pile. But three years later, the town realized the fill pile had grown, the company had accepted contaminants like PCBs and asbestos, and the contaminated fill was used to construct sites like sports fields, parks and Penfield Pavilion. Under Kupchick, and now Gerber, the town has worked to remediate the environmental waste.

Along with addressing a notice of violation from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection by removing the contaminated fill beneath Penfield Pavilion, the town must also lower the grade of the pavilion to 8 feet to resolve a violation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Forced to either correct FEMA’s violation or face increased flood insurance costs earlier this year, Kupchick recommended keeping the pavilion, remediating the fill and lowering the grade for an estimated $11.5 million rather than knocking it down. The Board of Selectmen, Representative Town Meeting and Board of Finance subsequently voted in favor of the idea.

But Gerber told CT Examiner last week that the $100,000 flood resiliency study that Fairfield funded in March should have been completed before starting work at the pavilion. If the study ultimately warns of an increased flooding risk for the nearby neighborhood — which accounts for a significant portion of the grand list — as a result of lowering the pavilion’s grade, Gerber said he might consider halting work and removing the structure.

On Monday, Kupchick told CT Examiner she doesn’t believe Gerber has the authority to make that call alone. Rather, she said, the first selectman would need approval from the three boards who voted for the original plan.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for Bill Gerber to say, ‘Oh, because I didn’t vote for this, I’m just going to tear down the pavilion,’” she said. “I mean, that sounds kind of like a dictator to me.”

Kupchick also claimed there has been a lack of transparency from the town about the pavilion since Gerber took office on Nov. 28, a criticism similar to one she had received from a fellow board member.

After the town bodies voted to keep the pavilion, then-Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz, a Democrat, said in April that Kupchick should form an oversight committee for the Penfield project in the spirit of transparency. 

Kupchick had said a committee would not be appropriate because the town was not constructing a new building. Instead, she offered to provide monthly updates at the board meetings and frequent communications in her newsletter, a new initiative she implemented during her tenure.

Ahead of the Monday board meeting, Kupchick said she requested that Gerber add a December update to the agenda. In response, she said a member of his administration said Gerber would provide an update during the “other business” portion of the meeting instead. She took issue with that decision.

“That means the public can’t ask questions, because it’s not an agenda item,” she said. “So, I’m going to talk about it.”

A continued power struggle

Later that day, she did exactly that. When Gerber was about to speak about other business at the board meeting, Kupchick interrupted him for a “moment of personal privilege.”

Kupchick then launched into a discussion about the pavilion, summarizing her unanswered request for an update. She also told Gerber she was concerned about his comments regarding the pavilion.

“I really feel like this is an important issue that needs to be discussed publicly. We need to have the engineers and the people who have been working on it for all this time to provide updates because this is a huge project in our town,” Kupchick said. “I have senior citizens calling me saying, ‘What’s going on? Are they gonna knock the building down?’”

Kupchick also noted that, regardless of what the flood resiliency study suggests, FEMA is requiring the town to lower the elevation of the beach around Penfield Pavilion. She said her administration had spent “hundreds of hours” negotiating with FEMA, and the agency likely would not be receptive to any major changes in the plan.

Her comments prompted a half-hour debate on the planned construction, study and transparency between the three board members.

Gerber explained he did not put a pavilion update on the agenda because he is anticipating the results of the resiliency study by RACE Coastal Engineering, LLC to come next week. Once he reviews it, he said, he will determine additional costs and provide the public with an update.

As for FEMA’s notice of violation, Gerber said he is aware the town needs to address the elevation requirements. Still, he defended his comments from last week, reiterating his concern for Penfield neighbors. 

While he’s concerned about the impacts that a large, 100-year storm could have on nearby properties with a decreased elevation, Gerber said he also worries about smaller flooding events.

“What I want to hear from RACE is that we are not doing permanent harm to our ability to increase the resilience of the coastline by sort of permanently bringing this beach down to 8 [feet],” Gerber responded.

Gerber clarified that the current plan is to move forward with Kupchick’s idea, and that he would prefer to keep the building. The only thing that could stop that plan, he said, is if the flood study warns of detrimental impacts to the surrounding neighborhood.

But no matter the decision, Kupchick said, Gerber should better communicate his thinking to residents.

“I know the newsletters have been a little light. There hasn’t been a lot of communication and transparency in them,” Kupchick said. “I tried very hard to be very detailed.”

But Vitale argued that a newsletter is not the best way to communicate with residents. 

While she understands why Kupchick didn’t implement a building committee, Vitale said, all conversations about the pavilion would be public if she had. She said she doesn’t want newsletters to replace “proper government” and open dialogue.

“I appreciate your newsletter, but not everybody gets it,” she said. “And it doesn’t take the place of when it’s shared in a public meeting, it’s on the public record, people can watch it on their TV, it’s in the minutes.”

By the end of the meeting, Kupchick, Gerber and Vitale agreed that the first selectman would invite RACE to the upcoming Jan. 3 board meeting to present the results. Beyond that, Gerber said he would provide a monthly update to the board.