Tetreau at mid-term: A look at how he's doing
Updated 10:35 am, Friday, January 3, 2014
It's been two years since Michael Tetreau was elected first selectman, but a look around his office in Sullivan-Independence Hall would make a visitor think he'd just moved in.
There are no personal mementos displayed; no photographs on the walls.
He's been busy, Tetreau explained about the lack of attention to decoration.
Midway through his four-year term as the town's top official, Tetreau sat down to review the record as he sees it.
In front of Tetreau was a "cheat sheet," a list of goals for his administration that he said have been accomplished.
"I'm very proud of what we've accomplished in the first two years," Tetreau said, ticking off things like: getting the negative outlook removed from the town's top AAA credit rating; appointing a CPA as the town's chief fiscal officer; expanding hours and programs at the Fairfield Senior Center; improving access for people with disabilities at Jennings Beach; and creating a long-term capital projects plan for the town.
For him, though, those accomplishments start with the very first problem he had to deal with, which actually landed on his desk when he was the "interim" first selectman -- the continuing problems that plagued the Fairfield Metro Center project and its ballooning budget for the uncompleted railroad station on the site.
"I believe I played a key leadership role with the completion of the Fairfield Metro Center," Tetreau said. "Discovering the cost overruns, reorganizing the project and getting it completed, and getting up to another $3 million for the town."
Democratic Town Committee Chairman Ellery Plotkin said Tetreau, a fellow Democrat, has demonstrated "exceptional" leadership qualities and also points to the town's third train station, Fairfield Metro, as evidence. Tetreau, he said, "hit the ground running when he assumed the mantle of first selectman, addressing the problems at the Metro Center project."
Another example of his leadership, Tetreau said, has been the way he has shepherded the town through four major storms, including Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy and the blizzard last February that dumped close to three feet of snow on the town.
Even James Millington, chairman of the local Republican Party who is not reluctant to voice criticism when he thinks it is warranted, agrees that Tetreau's handling of Mother Nature's impact on the town earns a passing grade.
"I think Mr. Tetreau has done a good job dealing with major storms and has kept the community well informed of emergency plans," Millington said, while fellow Republican Thomas Flynn, the chairman of the Board of Finance, said Tetreau's strong point "was his and the town's emergency-management team's handling of the storms."
Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc along Fairfield's shoreline, forcing many beach area residents from their damaged homes for a week, months and more. A year later, Tetreau points out the ways the town is still trying to help homeowners rebuild or repair their homes. "We've had to separate panel discussions on FEMA, we used FairTV to inform the public," Tetreau said. "We got a FEMA office open in Vets Park, and then the Senior Center, along with the SBA loan office. We're working with the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council to get our flood-mitigation plan updated and increase funding opportunities."
The work with the council will qualify the town to participate in the Community Rating System, which provides for discounts on flood insurance.
A new intake office has opened at the Senior Center for victims of Sandy to participate in a grant program for owner-occupied housing repairs.
Hal Schwartz and Sheila Marmion, the Democratic minority and deputy minority leaders of the RTM, said Tetreau showed "strong leadership" not just through storms and the Metro Center problems, but also responding to the Metro-North train crash just east of the town border last May.
While most observers seem to agree that the new first selectman handled emergencies in an effective manner, their viewpoints on his budgeting skills split down party lines.
"High taxes are harming our community, reducing property values and making Fairfield a less affordable and less desirable place to live and taxpayers simply can't afford to wait five to 10 years for relief," according to Republican Joseph Palmer, who has served as the majority leader on the RTM. He said while Tetreau has worked with other town bodies to address long-term liabilities and protect the AAA credit rating, "I think he needs to work with more of a sense of urgency to find short-term solutions that can reduce the overall cost of town government and slow the growth of taxes."
Flynn called the budget with an initially proposed 6.4 percent tax increase last year one of Tetreau's weak points, while Millington said it was the only bold move -- and not a good one -- that Tetreau has made in his two years in office.
That 6.4 percent, Tetreau countered, is political rhetoric, pointing out that elected boards worked together to bring the tax increase down to under 3 percent for this fiscal year.
He pointed out that Millington hasn't suggested what should have been cut from the budget.
"The strategy was, as we got new information, we would pass it along," Tetreau said, with the largest reduction in the proposed spending -- 2.5 percent -- made by the Board of Selectmen. "It was the biggest cut by any board, and it was done by a board with a Democrat majority," he said.
As the budget made its way through the approval process, Tetreau said, additional recommendations were passed along by his administration, and additional spending reductions made.
"I'm not going to suggest I agreed with all of them," he said. "One of the challenges in this budget process is we're putting together a budget in January and using information from November and December, for a budget that's going to start in July."
Tetreau said as much as Millington may want to make the last budget process a contentious one, "I would suggest there was more teamwork involved to make sure we made informed decisions based on the best information available."
Plotkin said Tetreau's years on the Board of Finance prior to becoming first selectman have served him well in the top job.
"Unlike all other towns in Fairfield County, Mike budgeted to surplus contribution, to strengthen our AAA rating," Plotkin said. He has saved the town millions in interest payments by refinancing bonds and established a commission to reduce workers' compensation liability, Plotkin said, adding, "In short, Michael Tetreau is watching the store, and very effectively."
Tetreau has used all sorts of media, including the town's website, a Twitter account and its Facebook page, to communicate with the public. It is, Schwartz and Marmion said, one of his strengths, and they said he is "upfront and honest about concerns the town may have" whether it's the Metro Center or the damaged Penfield Pavilion.
"Michael does not change when it comes to small groups or one-on-one exchanges," said Plotkin. "With Mike, it's pure honesty."
During his tenure as RTM majority leader, Palmer said he found Tetreau was "candid, reasonable and was willing to openly discuss our differences. He also made a concerted effort to keep me informed on developments during the budget process which led to meaningful reductions at the RTM level."
Millington said the lines of communication to other officials initially were open in Tetreau's tenure, but now he and Tetreau rarely speak. "I get information through emailed press releases," Millington said. "The last conversation I had with Mr. Tetreau was a few months ago when I called him to encourage him to intervene and help facilitate a resolution with the redistricting gridlock on the RTM. He refused and ended our conversation by saying, `Game on.' I have not called him since."
The RTC chairman also said former First Selectman Kenneth Flatto used to seek the RTC's advice before making appointments of Republicans to municipal boards and commissions. "Mr. Tetreau has discontinued that practice."
Tetreau said Millington did call him about the redistricting stalemate and was "somewhat vocal and loud in his comments on the phone. I think that from his standpoint, it was inappropriate." And the first selectman said he did work with the Democrats to try to resolve the dispute. "That was a classic case of gridlock from both sides."
As for their relationship, Tetreau said they've had a "good" one and he's happy to talk to Millington. "I have always taken his calls and will take his calls, and after hearing this, will reach out," he said.
But he took issue with Millington's criticism of board appointments. "He's talking to someone whose appointment to the Board of Selectmen was held up by the then-RTC Chairman James Baldwin and then-Selectman Jim Walsh. "I would point out that when Mr. Baldwin was going to fill a vacancy, it went through promptly, and when Mr. Walsh was appointed, that also went through promptly and expeditiously."
Tetreau said he consistently asks for recommendations from both political parties "and I believe we follow their advice. Most recently, I would point to the FairTV commission; a year ago we held that up for months waiting for recommendations from the RTC for Republicans to fill spots."
The first selectman's office now routinely sends out news releases when looking for residents to fill vacancies on boards and commissions.
"One objective is to reach out to people that haven't served on town boards before," he said. "This town is built on volunteers and we need to keep growing that."
Tetreau said he usually asks himself if he could have done something better, and thinks if he had to do something over, he would have handled the dismissal of Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller differently. The number-one challenge facing him, he said, is communicating with the residents and getting out to the public more.
He is glad he has a four-year term during which to try and accomplish his goals. "Some of the things we're doing are longer term projects and you'd like to be able to see them through," Tetreau said. "It lets you set some priorities and develop a working relationship with department heads ... Just catching up on the labor agreements took the better part of two years."
"The goals and objectives, at least in my vision, are to keep Fairfield a family oriented community, and neighborhood-oriented," Tetreau said. "We value our top education system and we value living in a safe and secure community."
Administering the town has been, and will continue to be, he said, a team effort, working not just with other elected officials but also with his department heads, supporting them when they need it, and getting out of their way when the situation calls for it.
RTC Chairman Millington's advice for the next two years? "Make your decisions based on what is in the best interest of the town and not based on what is the most politically beneficial," he said.
Palmer said it's not easy to be the CEO of a town the size of Fairfield during less favorable economic times. "But there is no question that everyone will be watching closely once again to see if the first selectman will look to offset continued increases in fixed costs by finding efficiencies and/or reducing services or if taxpayers will be asked to bear the additional burden. I hope he pursues the former, not the latter."
Tetreau's leadership is "par excellence," according to Plotkin, who said he hopes he keeps it up. "My further advice is to find more time to get out into the community as much as you can -- neighborhood groups, school groups, private organizations."
Marmion and Schwartz said in a joint statement they want the first selectman to continue to "infuse all that you do with passion and commitment," as well as continue to be honest and outline clearly the benefits and risks of present and future actions.
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