Fairfield Releases Legal Review of Severance, Raises Constitutional Claim

Fairfield Town Hall (CT Examiner)


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FAIRFIELD – A review by the town attorney concluded that $11,440 collected by former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick in severance pay complied with town rules, but that those rules approved by Kupchick herself likely violated the State Constitution.

Including compensation for unused vacation days and severance, Kupchick, former chief administrative officer Tom Bremer and her Chief of Staff Jackie Bertolone received in total $65,428 – a sum that sparked questions last month among members of the Board of Finance who claimed they’d never heard of the policy allowing a town executive to collect post-election severance.

On Thursday, the town sent the legal review to CT Examiner, with First Selectman Bill Gerber calling on Kupchick to return the severance pay.

Kupchick called the review “political retaliation.” 

The 10-page review completed by Town Attorney Philip Pires detailed a history of compensation for unused vacation days to prior first selectmen, but concluded that elected officials were not entitled to severance pay until Kupchick approved the new policy after taking office in 2019. 

The most recent version of the policy, signed by Kupchick in 2021, allows both full-time elected officials and department heads to collect up to 13 weeks severance pay and up to 60 days of accrued vacation pay after leaving town employment. 

Given that the 2019 policy was only signed by Kupchick under former Human Resources Director Emmet Hibson, in the review provided to CT Examiner, Pires concluded that the severance likely violated the State Constitution. 

In total Kupchick, a Republican, received $28,336 in severance and unused vacation days after losing the November election to Gerber, a Democrat.

Kupchick currently serves as selectwoman of the town of Fairfield.

Kupchick, who told CT Examiner that she still needs time to carefully read and review the document, questioned the independence of a legal review overseen by a political opponent, suggesting it was “political retaliation.”

“I would be remiss not to mention that Attorney Pires, appointed by First Selectman Bill Gerber, is overseeing what should have been an independent inquiry and investigation.  The fact that it was not independent is unsettling and certainly raises concerns about the fairness and credibility of the process and its conclusions,” Kupchick said. “The handling of this matter by the current administration appears on its face like political retaliation.”

In a Thursday call to CT Examiner, Gerber clarified that the review was not an official investigation, and said he had no involvement in determining its scope. If it had been a true investigation, he said, the town would have hired outside counsel to interview those involved.

But Gerber said that based on the review, the Town would demand that Kupchick return the severance pay. Kupchick, who has not yet indicated whether she would return the compensation, told the press earlier this month that she would return the funds if they were “received inappropriately.” 

Along with a synopsis of compensation by the Town, Pires made three recommendations: One, to rethink the current compensation process. Two, to require the Representative Town Meeting to set compensation for the first selectman, selectmen and chief of staff. Three, to ensure that the Board of Selectmen, Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting regularly review all compensation policies.

Gerber told CT Examiner he intends to follow up on those suggestions, as well as reconsider the benefits policy altogether.

Responding to claims by Kupchick the investigation amounted to political retaliation, Gerber said the investigation happened as expected.

“I thought she said that if an investigation finds that it wasn’t proper, that she’d return the money,” Gerber said. “I think she was expecting an investigation, as was the whole Board of Finance.”

The Board of Finance has yet to vote on the $65,428, but the members will be discussing the legal review at an upcoming meeting.

45 years of vacation pay

According to the legal review, town policies awarding severance and compensation for unused vacation pay – for  department heads –  date back to 1978.

The 45-year-old town policy allowed “non-elected” full-time management, including those working in the First Selectman’s Office, to collect up to 13 weeks pay and retain unused vacation days.

After 1978, Pires identified six subsequent versions of the policy – four solely for department heads, and two including elected officials.

Under former First Selectman Kenneth Flatto, various policies for severance and unused vacation dating to 2005, 2010 and 2011 were largely unchanged from 1978.

Rules approved in 2016 under former First Selectman Michael Tetreau, according to Pires, were “substantively the same” as the 2011 version.

Pires offered a detailed list of numerous staff receiving both severance and vacation pay under previous administrations.

The review also found that, “in accordance with past practices,” both Flatto and Tetreau collected unused vacation pay. Flatto collected about $10,099 after losing an election in 1999 and, after a successful reelection in 2001, collected another $29,446 upon his 2011 resignation. Tetreau collected about $30,356 after losing to Kupchick in 2019.

But neither Flatto nor Tetreau collected severance pay. 

An unexplained change

In 2019, Kupchick signed a new version of the policy titled “Benefit Summary for Non-Union Department Heads and Public Elected Officials,” which for the first time included elected officials among those compensated by the town with a severance.

Kupchick told CT Examiner on Thursday, in a message, that the change was likely made by Hibson, her director of Human Resources.

Kupchick said that Hibson asked her to sign the revised policy on her first day of office. Hibson was employed by the town between 2016 and 2020 until he was charged with illegal disposal of PCBs in Fairfield’s fill pile scandal.

“I relied upon the statements made by Mr. Hibson on that date that the summary document I was signing reflected the same policies that had been in effect under the Tetreau Administration and because the summary document was used for onboarding employees, it required a signature change from Mr. Tetreau’s to mine,” Kupchick said.

Hibson could not be reached for comment prior to publication.

In his review, Pires noted that over the years the changes to compensation policy were never approved by the full Board of Selectmen or any other town body. 

Asked about further modifications to the policy signed by Kupchick in 2021, the human resources director at the time, Jim Haselkamp, explained that because the benefits were handled by the town’s tenured benefits manager, he did not think to remove elected officials from the policy in 2021. If the benefits manager had brought the issue to his attention, he said, he likely would have changed it.

Haselkamp, who defended Kupchick in a letter to the editor earlier this month, said he doesn’t understand how Hibson “made the change” on her first day in office.  He said was opposed to the idea of elected officials getting paid both severance and for unused vacation.

“I don’t understand the rationale to pay out elected officials anything, really,” Haselkamp said. “If they’re literally out of work for six months, they’re still getting paid, so you don’t need time off for elected officials.”

Regardless, Haselkamp said any investigation into potential misconduct should have been contracted out to an external law firm.

Asked for comment on the matter, Michael Tetreau did not respond prior to publication. Flatto, however, confirmed that he received vacation pay. While he did not comment on the new review, he did speak to severance pay.  

“I don’t know anything about any severance pay policy, but there wasn’t one when I was there,” Flatto said.