Tensions Flare in Fairfield Over Funding for Communications Director Role

Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick and First Selectman Bill Gerber debate funding a communications director role during a Fairfield Board of Selectmen meeting on March 4, 2024 (FairTV).

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FAIRFIELD — A routine budget deliberation unraveled into a heated debate between current and former town leaders on Monday over a request to fund a new part-time communications director.

First Selectman Bill Gerber set aside $93,600 in his proposed $330 million town budget for the newly created role, but former Republican First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick questioned the need and instead motioned to redirect the funds to the Department of Community and Economic Development.

“If we’re going to put in a $93,000 a year job, I personally feel that it should be in a department that is really sucking wind,” said Kupchick, who lost by a slim margin to Gerber in the November election but earned enough votes to keep a seat on the Board of Selectmen.

Tensions rose during the meeting, as Gerber and Kupchick defended their respective management approaches. 

While the economic development department has not requested immediate funding for a new employee, Kupchick said the group brings in key revenue for Fairfield and manages important town functions like housing-related commissions and grant applications with only two full-time staff members. Compared to the new $60-per-hour communications role, Kupchick said the department’s marketing coordinator makes just $34 per hour.

Kupchick said the new role seemed unnecessary, as some of its responsibilities overlap with the existing chief of staff position.

Gerber, however, said he created the role because he doesn’t want information to “fall through the cracks” as it did under the previous administration. In shifting some responsibilities like newsletters and press inquiries to the new communications director, Gerber said his office could tackle several issues inherited from Kupchick.

“We’re gonna differ on this because, frankly, I don’t think you managed the town very well,” Gerber said.

When Kupchick took office in 2019, she changed the part-time chief of staff role to a full-time position and created a chief administrative officer position for an approximate $155,000 annual budget increase. But when Gerber won, he removed the chief administrative officer and replaced it with a full-time operations director position for an additional $11,000 in the upcoming budget. He also created a part-time communications director and a part-time constituent relations coordinator role, at a cost of $124,020 in the upcoming fiscal year.

Kupchick argued during the Monday meeting that the current chief of staff should continue to oversee communications, as they did in her administration. But Gerber said he did not run for office to maintain the “status quo.”

“I wouldn’t have run at all if I thought you were doing a great job,” Gerber said. “The reason I ran was to fix Town Hall for real. Not talk about fixing Town Hall, but to actually fix Town Hall, which is going to require leadership.”

Gerber said he and his chief of staff must focus on issues inherited from Kupchick, such as a faulty payroll system, inconsistent pension calculations, and a missing capital project system — not town communications.

Kupchick, however, said she found the criticism of her management structure “insulting,” noting that Gerber did not inherit a public corruption scandal as she did, and that a communications director would not fix issues with financial and purchasing controls.

“$93,000 is a significant amount of money for a 30-hour work week,” Kupchick said. “We live in an economically diverse community and average citizens are going, ‘Holy cow, someone is making 60 bucks an hour to post on social media and write a newsletter.’”

But Christine Vitale, who ran alongside Gerber last fall, said the communications director does more than write newsletters and post on social media.

According to the town’s job description, the part-time director must implement a strategic communications plan, collaborate with other town departments, respond to media inquiries, publicize town events, oversee social media, implement crisis communication protocols and oversee communication-related contracts. 

By shifting some of these responsibilities away from the chief of staff, Vitale said Fairfield can better serve its residents.

“There are things that the first selectman has identified that he wants his chief of staff to be focused on in order to help address some of these problems … which will ultimately, hopefully save our taxpayers money to make a more efficient government,” she said.

Kupchick’s motion to transfer funds away from the communications director role to the Department of Community and Economic Development ultimately failed, with Gerber and Vitale opposed. 

Instead, the board unanimously decided to allocate an extra $15,000 to the department, allowing it to outsource some of its tasks to outside firms in fiscal year 2025. Meanwhile, the staff will assess the need for creating a new position.


This story has been updated to clarify staffing decisions after the 2023 election