FAIRFIELD — Over 25 Connecticut municipalities have adopted proclamations declaring racism a public health crisis following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, and after a two-year delay, Fairfield did the same. But the Wednesday decision raised concerns and questions about a more than $10,000 unpublished report on the same issue.
In September 2020, then-First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick created an 11-member Racial Equity and Justice Task Force to identify and propose ways to eliminate racial inequalities in town. Task force members spent the next year and a half holding community meetings, talking to people of color and researching other municipal initiatives, before submitting the Racial Equity and Justice Task Force Blueprint in January 2022.
Among its findings, the task force recommended that the Board of Selectmen immediately issue a proclamation declaring racism a public health crisis. Instead, Kupchick set aside $75,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to hire a diversity and inclusion consultant to further develop the recommendations.
The department eventually hired Maurice Nelson, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Sacred Heart University, to review the blueprint and create a second report with his own recommendations. Although Nelson completed his report for just $10,249 of the $75,000 town budget, the document was never publicly reviewed by the board or published online.
Rather than reviewing Nelson’s report at the Wednesday board meeting, newly-elected First Selectman Bill Gerber instead responded to pleas by task force members to implement their original recommendations — adopting the blueprint into the public record and issuing a proclamation.
“There was a feeling it was not appropriately acknowledged,” Gerber said of the blueprint. “I want to make sure that this blueprint is accepted into the record, and that the members of the task force are acknowledged.”
But Kupchick, now a member of the Board of Selectmen, questioned why Nelson’s recommendations weren’t being considered, especially given that the town spent over $10,000 on the expert report.
While she supports the proclamation, Kupchick said, the town needs to take real action. She said Nelson’s report would be a good place to start, as it outlined specific initiatives that the board could enact.
“This is a resolution. They’re words,” Kupchick said of the proclamation. “Where are the action items? Why aren’t we doing something?”
Kupchick insisted that the board should have invited Nelson to present his findings, setting real change in motion. Gerber, however, said he doesn’t plan to incorporate the consultant’s recommendations after receiving negative feedback from task force members on the redeveloped report.
According to Gerber, Nelson was kept from contacting the task force members while developing his recommendations. Instead, it seemed the consultant only spoke to members of Kupchick’s administration and the Human Resources Department throughout the process.
“He didn’t talk to a single person on that task force, and I didn’t want to bring him here because I think some people did not appreciate that they were never contacted,” Gerber explained. “Since you [Kupchick] are white and HR is white, that was a little bit insulting to some people.”
Task force members who attended the meeting backed Gerber, and questioned why their work had been overlooked for two years. One member, Steve Bogan, told the board that Nelson brought “zero value” to the town’s efforts to eliminate racial inequities in Fairfield.
However, Nelson told CT Examiner on Thursday that neither HR nor Kupchick explicitly instructed him to steer clear of the task force. He explained that he received a list of town employees and officials to consult for his report, and members of the task force were not included on that list, which is why he didn’t contact them.
“It wasn’t necessarily to say, ‘You can’t or you shouldn’t speak to the task force,’” Nelson said. “It was, ‘These are the people that you should speak to.’ And the task force just wasn’t a part of it.”
Nelson said he reviewed the task force’s blueprint, held meetings with town staff and reviewed current policies before creating his own recommendations and submitting them to the town. He said he would have appreciated being a part of the proclamation conversation.
“It probably would have been helpful for me to be there as well,” he said. “Although, I’m not particularly offended that I wasn’t.”
The board unanimously voted to adopt the proclamation, but Kupchick continued to push for action on Nelson’s report in the near future.
“I’d just like to see some actionable items,” she said.
“I agree,” Gerber said. “I’ve been in office two months. You were in office for four years. Give me some time. This is a major priority for me.”