Brenda Kupchick, elected in November as Fairfield’s first selectwoman, understandably has many goals for her inaugural term. Chief among them is introducing the town’s government to the 21st century.
“I’m still getting a handle on this place,” she said in her office in Sullivan Independence Hall at 725 Old Post Road. “But it’s been run like it’s still 1970.”
Kupchick effortlessly reels off some of the reasons she thinks the town’s machinery is 50 years out of date. The Office of Community & Economic Development, whose physical presence is usually just a few doors away from the office of most municipal leaders, is in Old Town Hall at 611 Old Post Road — certainly within walking distance of Kupchick’s building, but she is determined to “move the deck chairs around on the ship” to move it closer.
There is also an inconsistent array of email domains used by the heads of various departments; the contract for a website developer signed by the previous administration has been difficult to locate; and Town Hall lacks the ability to put out a newsletter, one of her preferred ways of communicating with constituents during her eight years in Hartford as the 132nd District Representative.
She’s even spent time putting new paint on the walls of Sullivan, “so that it looks more like a professional building.
“If you’re trying to encourage people to come to Fairfield and your Town Hall looks like no one cares about it, why should they think you care about them?” she said. “It’s all about first impressions. This building should reflect the beauty of our town.”
The town of 65,000 is facing some larger problems as well. Still stinging from the 2016 loss of General Electric — GE had been Fairfield’s largest property taxpayer for a number of years, paying some $1.5 million for real estate property and another $291,000 in personal property taxes — Fairfield is strategizing how to build its grand list.
Kupchick said Fairfield will need to beef up the Community & Economic Development office.
“It’s understaffed and has not been prioritized,” she declared.
That director Mark Barnhart is filling two different functions is “ridiculous and not efficient,” Kupchick said. “With economic development you need to be going out to expos in Connecticut as well as outside of it, trying to bring people in, while also addressing the needs of those who are already here, making sure they’re happy.
“Community development is more about meeting with the Chamber and doing restaurant weeks and things like that,” she continued. “And those are very nice, too.”
She plans to meet with Barnhart to discuss which side of the divide he would prefer to be on, and begin a search for an executive to run the other.
THE FILL PILE FIASCO
A headache for Fairfield that officially dates back to 2013 is also ongoing. Julian Development was hired by the town to manage its Public Works Yard and reduce the soil and spoils there by 40,000 cubic yards. In 2016, near the end of the contract, contaminants were discovered on the site in violation of the contract, and the fill pile was found to have more than doubled in size.
Police opened an investigation in 2017 after conservation officials reported that the transportation and dumping of contaminated material could have violated state or federal law. Former Fairfield Superintendent of Public Works Scott Bartlett, who was allegedly seen accepting illicit cash payments from Julian Development, where his son Steven is an employee, was arrested last August, along with former Fairfield Director of Public Works Joseph Michelangelo and Julian Companies owner Jason Julian.
They have pleaded not guilty to a number of charges, ranging from forgery, bribery and larceny to illegal dumping, handling waste without a permit and violating waste facility requirements.
In November, the town received a notice of violation from the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) that Kupchick said could carry a penalty of as much as $25,000 per day. At issue are PCB exposure risks associated with the fill pile itself, as well as if testing proves that PCBs are present at places that received the fill, including schools and parks.
Kupchick said the town believes the PCBs are restricted to the fill pile, adding that she has met with “dozens” of DEEP representatives to get across the message that “there’s a new sheriff in town” who is determined to get the fill pile properly cleaned up.
While a Jan. 17 deadline to submit an environmental cleanup plan is looming, Kupchick said she believed that DEEP understands the complexities of the case and is appreciative of her efforts at righting the situation.
“It’s absolutely mind-boggling,” she remarked, noting that she has been informed that the criminal investigation is “ongoing and more arrests are coming.”
It is generally accepted that the fill pile issue played a significant role in Kupchick’s victory, by a margin of 10,140 to 7,394 votes, over three-term incumbent Mike Tetreau. Although she cautioned that she wasn’t interested in throwing her predecessor “under the bus,” Kupchick did find plenty to blame him for, indicating that he knew about Bartlett’s proclivities as early as 2010 and that he had generally taken an attitude of “going along to get along.”
Kupchick, a lifelong Republican, said she expects to work with both parties for the good of the town.
She noted her appointment of Democrat Tom Bremer, one-time chief of staff to former First Selectman Ken Flatto, as chief administrative officer. She also has hired Jackie Bertolone, former executive officer of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Fairfield County, as her chief of staff.
Kupchick clashed with members of the town’s Board of Finance to transfer $85,000 to accommodate the moves: $70,000 from payroll in animal control and $15,000 from library payroll, monies that had lain dormant for years due to unfilled positions at those two locations. Kupchick maintained that the moves are part of her “21st century” approach, with chief of staff now a full-time, rather than part-time, post.
Growing partisan divides in Hartford played a role in her return to Fairfield politics. Before being elected state representative in 2010, Kupchick served on the town’s Representative Town Meeting and its Board of Education. She has also, with her husband, owned and operated Peter Kupchick Heating & Cooling Inc. for nearly 30 years — experience she said has helped her understand the concerns of small business owners.
FAIRFIELD METRO CENTER
Kupchick expressed confidence that the Fairfield Metro Center project — a 1.1 million-square-foot commercial development and commuter rail stop that has been on the drawing board since 2005 — is finally on the cusp of moving forward.
Developer Enclave Equities of Mount Vernon, New York, is readying the first phase of the project that will include three buildings of rental apartments and a hotel — the latter a priority, Kupchick said.
“We have two universities (Fairfield and Sacred Heart) here,” she noted, “and when parents come to visit they have to go to a hotel in Shelton or Trumbull to stay overnight. That’s lost revenue for us.”
She envisions the hotel as being an anchor for the area, even more so as the remainder of the Metro Center fills up with restaurants, retail and offices.
“You could have a rooftop bar on the hotel, and there’s space where you could have concerts,” she said. “If it’s done right, it could be really cool.”
Kupchick concluded by saying the era of being content with the status quo is over in Fairfield.
“I didn’t run for any office just to be a professional politician,” she said. “I have a four-year term, and if at the end of it the voters decide they don’t want me, I’ll go home, pay more attention to our business and have a normal life.
“But I want to get some real work done here,” she added. “If you can’t do that in a meaningful way, why are you even in public service?”