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Concerned Citizens: Fighting Town Hall is real-life drama

Updated 6:05 pm, Tuesday, October 16, 2012
  • Members of the Concerned Citizens group -- from left, Ed Bateson, Joy Shaw and George Bisacca -- at roundtable discussion Monday about parallels between their successful challenge of Conservation Director Thomas Steinke's removal from the Fairfield Metro project and the classic drama, "Enemy of the People." Photo: Genevieve Reilly / Fairfield Citizen
    Members of the Concerned Citizens group -- from left, Ed Bateson, Joy Shaw and George Bisacca -- at roundtable discussion Monday about parallels between their successful challenge of Conservation Director Thomas Steinke's removal from the Fairfield Metro project and the classic drama, "Enemy of the People." Photo: Genevieve Reilly

 

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In Henrik Ibsen's play, "Enemy of the People," the protagonist, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, discovers the water supply for the town's baths, for which it is famous, is contaminated.

Because of his attempts to clean up the water, Stockmann is labeled an enemy of the people, and he and his family are all but driven out of the town he was trying to save.

It was in the context of that play, written in 1882, which will be performed locally later this month by Theatre Fairfield, that a roundtable discussion about personal and civic responsibilities was held Monday night at the Fairfield University Bookstore.

The parameters of the roundtable were shaped by local news events, primarily the controversy over construction of the Fairfield Metro train station, the cleanup of contamination on the former Exide factory property and efforts by a group called Concerned Citizens to get Conservation Director Thomas Steinke reinstated to his environmental oversight role for the train station project.

" `Enemy of the People' was written 130 years ago, but it feels like was written about Fairfield now," said Lynne Porter, director of the theater program at Fairfield University.

In the play, said George Bisacca, the lawyer who represented Concerned Citizens in its challenge to Steinke's removal from the Fairfield Metro project, the doctor struggles to protect his community.

But those in power, he said, were selfishly concerned about their own personal interest. "Tom Steinke just wanted to do the right thing by getting the developer on the train station to comply with the town's regulations," Bisacca said.

Steinke was removed from his traditional oversight role for the train station project by then-First Selectman Kenneth Flatto after the private developer, Blackrock Realty, threatened to sue because of what they said was interference by Steinke.

Both in the play, and in Fairfield, Bisacca said, "people in power often thwart the voice of reason for some personal reasons."

Tom Schwans, who will direct the local production, said the baths in the play have already been built, just like the train station in Fairfield has already been built.

"Here we are, this train station's built, we now have Mr. Steinke back and he's trying to figure out what did we build," he said.

But Stockmann, Schwans said, did have a tendency to overreact and could fail to see the larger picture. The character was also an egomaniac, the director added.

A difference in the real-life Fairfield drama, according to Kathy Braun, a Representative Town Meeting member and lawyer, was that Steinke was trying to work out differences with the private developer on the Fairfield Metro plans when he was summarily removed by Flatto.

Flatto acted in 2007 to remove Steinke without a public hearing, without public notice, said another RTM member, Edward Bateson, the lead plaintiff in the Concerned Citizens' lawsuit against the removal -- which was upheld in August by the state Supreme Court. "It didn't really work the way it was supposed to work," Bateson said.

Even though public officials denigrated those who challenged the action, Braun said, no one gave up. "People need to speak up," she said, recalling that after Steinke was removed, members of the Conservation Commission were afraid to talk to the press.

Bateson said any other town resident who has a permit from the Conservation Department is expected to follow the rules, and so should large developers.

The Concerned Citizens' efforts, Bisacca said, are proof that you can fight town hall. "It's not easy," he said. "People that have that personal stake, they're very clever because it's all they're concerned about."