Fairfield Probes Policy Allowing Former First Selectwoman to Collect $28K For Election Loss

Fairfield Town Hall (CT Examiner)

Share

TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

FAIRFIELD — Local officials are questioning the legitimacy of a 2021 policy which allowed former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick to collect $28,336 in severance and unused vacation pay after losing an election. 

What began as a typical budget transfer request at a Tuesday Board of Finance meeting quickly pivoted to questions about a little-known benefits policy, a debate about severance pay for elected officials and a new town investigation.

The discussion unfolded after current First Selectman Bill Gerber and Interim Chief Fiscal Officer David Becker requested a $65,428 transfer to the administrative services budget. According to the officials, the town found an unexpected cost driving some of the budget shortfall — payments to elected officials and department heads who no longer work for Fairfield. 

Specifically, Gerber and Becker highlighted severance and accrued vacation time payments made to Kupchick, former chief administrative officer Tom Bremer, and former chief of staff Jackie Bertolone, in the last few months. Kupchick received $11,440 in severance pay and $16,896 in unused vacation, Bremer got $25,215 in severance and $21,684 in vacation, and Bertolone received $8,863 in severance and $5,684 in vacation.

“When was this policy put in place? And what was the authority to put this policy in place?” Finance Board Chair Lori Charlton asked.

“Are elected officials, once they leave office, entitled to a severance pay?” asked Vice Chair John Mitola.

Gerber pointed to a 2021 document that his administration found titled “Benefit Summary for Non-Union Department Heads and Public Elected Officials.”

“We did find the policy — the 2021 policy — that indicates that the first selectperson, as an elected official, could get severance. I just really found out about that,” Gerber said.

The document in question was signed by Kupchick in July 2021, and states that, in the event of a “permanent involuntary termination from the payroll,” nonunion department heads and elected officials can receive up to 13 weeks of severance pay. It also states that the officials are entitled to a maximum of 60 days worth of accrued unused vacation pay.

While Gerber and nearly all of the finance board members said they weren’t aware of the policy, Kupchick maintained in a Wednesday statement to CT Examiner that the policy had been in place long before she took office and provided a copy of a similar policy from 2016.

According to Kupchick, she inherited the policy from former First Selectman Michael Tetreau, who served from 2011 until 2019, and made a few adjustments in 2021 to attract new employees.

“The severance terms, as outlined in the town policy for Non-Union Department Heads and Public Officials, were established before my term in office,” Kupchick said. “Changes were made to other areas in 2021 to attract candidates in a competitive labor market.”

Compared to the 2016 document, Kupchick’s policy on unused vacation pay remained the same for employees hired prior to July 2021, and her rules governing severance pay were unchanged. The 2021 edits included adjustments to the pension contribution schedule, base life insurance coverage and the document’s title. 

But while the 2016 policy covered “public officials,” the 2021 document explicitly includes “public elected officials.” Asked about the title change, Kupchick said she doesn’t know why “elected” was added in 2021.

She added that she wasn’t aware the policy changes would impact the first selectperson’s benefits at all.

“The entire document was worked on by the former and current HR directors who are both attorneys. I signed off because the town was having trouble attracting talent to director positions which was the reason HR wanted to update the policy,” she said. “Honestly, I wasn’t aware that the FS [first selectperson] position was included in the policy at the time when it was revised two years ago.”

Midway through the discussion at the Tuesday meeting, budget director Frank Magneri presented the 2016 document to the Finance Board. Some members, however, questioned whether it was formally adopted by the Tetreau administration. Unlike the 2021 policy, Tetreau’s signature was not attached to the eight-year-old document. 

Tetreau could not be reached for comment.

Unanswered questions

Regardless of the policy’s origin, Finance Board members raised doubts about the continued need for it.

Charlton said that the current process to determine the first selectperson’s compensation involves creating a temporary compensation committee, which recommends salaries for the Board of Selectmen to vote on. However, she said, it appears the 2021 policy was unilaterally enacted by Kupchick, as hers is the only signature on the document. 

Charlton also said it seems unlikely that any board would approve a policy which grants severance pay to officials who lose elections.

“Typically, that’s either something that has to be approved by the Board of Selectmen, or the RTM, or both,” she said. “I don’t know where this policy came from, but I find it hard to believe that any chief executive — including you, Mr. Gerber — could simply write a policy like this and have it approved.”

Nancy Lefkowitz, who served on the Board of Selectman while Kupchick was town executive, told CT Examiner on Wednesday that she had no recollection of approving the 2021 policy.

“I have no memory of that happening,” Lefkowitz said. “I can’t imagine a world where that makes sense, or where the taxpayers would be happy to pay for that.”

While the policy does not affect an official like Lefkowitz, who chose not to run for reelection, she said the decision should have been brought to the full board.

Finance board members also questioned whether Kupchick should have received severance at all, given that she’s still on the town payroll. Kupchick lost to Gerber in the first selectman race, but she still earned enough votes to sit on the Board of Selectmen. Since the November election, she has served as a selectwoman alongside Gerber and his running mate, Selectwoman Christine Vitale.

But in her statement, Kupchick said she did not request the severance pay after losing the election. Rather, she said Human Resources Director Cathleen Simpson informed her about the unused vacation payout and severance package.

“It is important to note that I did not actively pursue a severance package; rather, it was offered to me as an eligible employee by the Human Resources department,” she said.

Kupchick said any questions regarding her eligibility for the severance package should be directed to the Department of Human Resources. Simpson did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

At the suggestion of member Amy Ruggerio, the Finance Board ultimately decided to delay the vote on the budget transfer and allow the town time to research the policy.

Lisa Clair, communications director for Gerber, told CT Examiner that the administration is currently investigating the “history and validity” of the 2021 policy, and searching for answers to the finance board’s questions.

No matter what the investigation produces, Clair said Gerber is set on changing the severance pay rules. 

“We’ll be following the appropriate process to amend the policy,” she said. “First Selectman Gerber does not feel it is appropriate for the chief elected official of the town to receive a severance payment for losing an election.”