Fairfield's Top 10 stories of 2020

FAIRFIELD — The town has faced a challenging year: a global pandemic, summer protests over police brutality and a continuation of a scandal that involved town officials.

Here’s a look back at some of the top stories of 2020.

1. The fill pile scandal continues

Several current and former officials were arrested this year in a scandal where town officials allegedly conspired with private companies to dump hazardous material in the town’s fill pile and then tried to cover it up. The estimated cost to clean up the soil, according to court documents, will be $5 to $10 million.

The arrests are the result of a three-year investigation.

In January of this year, former town Chief Financial Officer Robert Mayer was charged and accused of removing town files, some of which were related to the investigation of the fill pile, the day after his employment with the town ended.

Then, in late November, Scott Bartlett, the former public works superintendent; Brian Carey, the interim public works director and town conservation director; and Emmet Hibson, the town’s former human resources director, were arrested and charged with conspiracy and illegally disposing of PCBs and solid waste. Robert Grabarek of Osprey Environmental in Clinton, the company Fairfield hired to do the cleanup, was also charged for conspiring to bury contaminated materials.

The same week former public works director Joseph Michelangelo was arrested again and faces additional charges relating to the scandal. Court affidavits in the case are critical of former First Selectman Michael Tetreau, a Democrat, claiming he was constantly in contact with the defendants regarding the contaminated site, downplaying the cost of the cleanup.

2. Fairfield Police Department implements policy on race-based calls

In a meeting the town held in June in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Police Chief Christopher Lyddy said the department would no longer be answering calls based solely on race, which they had received about once a week. Police officials in other towns said it was an unwritten policy in their own departments for many years before that.

Of the 12 departments that responded, many said procedures and training do the same job without a specific policy or public statement because good policing means sorting the wheat from the chaff, starting the moment a call comes in.

3. Rising college COVID cases frustrate Fairfield residents

Town officials and residents were worried after a sharp rise in the number of students testing positive for coronavirus at Fairfield University in October.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said she was hearing a lot of concern about students from the universities causing the virus to spread to the wider Fairfield community, and residents in the beach area felt as if there was no oversight on the students living there.

Jennifer Anderson, Fairfield University’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the school took immediate steps to quarantine and suspend public interactions where necessary until Oct. 23.

The number of students at Fairfield University testing positive for the virus did drop beginning in late October, but took another sharp rise in mid November before dropping off again. The university reports 647 students and staff tested positive in the fall semester.

4. School reopening during a pandemic

Reopening Fairfield’s public schools was an issue that took front and center in the later half of a year marred by a global pandemic. District officials were open about their desire to see students back in classrooms every day, but were clear about their concerns it could lead to the virus spreading with in the community.

Instead, the district opted to both open a Virtual Learning Academy, for families who did not want their children in schools, and a hybrid program, which saw students going into the classroom part-time through the week. School officials planned to re-evaluate a full-reopening in late September, but those plans were dashed by a rise in the number of COVID cases in town.

Some parents decried the hybrid plans as detrimental to students and working families, even hosting rallies to fully reopen. In the end, the district stuck with the hybrid program, and is attempting to execute a plan in January that will see elementary school students in school every day while middle and high school students will get more class time.

5. Giant Steps school closes but property finds new purpose

Giant Steps, a school that served about 40 students with disabilities, closed in June. The school’s founder said its board of directors tried, but could find no way to safely operate the school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents of children who attended the school met the decision with anguish and anger. Community members pleaded with the board to keep the school open, even offering to sign waivers if that made the board more comfortable.

When that failed, parents tried to find someone to buy and operate the school. The plan never came to fruition, and instead Hubbard Day School was opened in Greenwich.

In December, town officials voted to buy the school and the property in Southport it sits on for more than $5 million. Officials plan to relocate the alternative high school there and will look into other uses for the rest of the nearly 12-acre property later.

6. Protests and racial equity and justice task force

On June 2, hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes. In response, officials held a town meeting billed as a conversation on race inequality and policing, in which there were some tense conversations.

During that meeting, First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick also announced the Racial Equity and Justice Task Force’s creation. Throughout the summer and into the fall, Selectwoman Nancy Lefkowitz and other officials drew up a mission statement and took applications for members.

Ultimately, 11 members were appointed — including Lefkowitz, who serves as co-chair. Part of the group’s mandated goal is reviewing town policies to find if any have explicit or implicit racial biases that contribute to racial inequity in all aspects of Fairfield governance. The group will provide formal recommendations to the Board of Selectmen, including a racial equity plan, by Jan. 31, 2022.

7. Democrats flip state assembly seat

After First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick was elected, her position as state representative of the 132nd District opened up and needed to be filled via special election early this year. Brian Farnen, a Republican, and Jennifer Leeper, a Democrat, vyed for the seat.

When the polls closed, Farnen claimed victory — earning just 79 votes more than Leeper. But with a general election around the corner, both of the candidates were renominated and began campaigning for the seat again.

In November, Leeper took the seat, earning 7,637 votes to Farnen’s 7,344. The seat had previously been held by Republicans for almost a decade.

8. Fairfield continues to see 8-30g affordable housing applications

The town of Fairfield saw a swath more of affordable housing applications pass through the Town Plan and Zoning Commission in 2020 — a controversial issue because many residents living near where proposed apartment complexes would stand think they would negatively impact neighborhoods.

Among the developments to be approved was one on Beach Road and one on High Street.

The crux of the issue involves 8-30g, a state regulation which allows developers of affordable housing to bypass municipal laws and regulations in order to get such housing into communities with fewer affordable units than the state recommends — about 10 percent. As of July, approximately 2.5 percent of the town’s housing was considered affordable.

9. Town bodies pass budget with no tax increase

Fairfield had no tax increase in 2020 after town bodies cut enough money. The final budget totaled $317.2 million, less than a $1 million increase from the year before.

First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick said it was the first time in more than three decades the town did not require a tax rate increase.

Elected officials praised the budget process as a grueling but rewarding experience, and cited it as Democrats and Republicans working together to lower the tax burden on residents during an economically challenging time.

10. Fairfield women come together to help families in need

During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, three Fairfield women began holding food drives in order to help bring donations to local food banks — primarily Operation Hope of Fairfield, which was serving 35 percent more families than expected.

Helene Daly, Heather Dubrosky and Alexis Harrison have since organized more than 20 food drives.

The drives saw volunteers wearing masks and social distancing picking up donations out of trunks of peoples cars, and eventually grew in scope to include gourmet coffee beans on sale and musical performances.

joshua.labella@hearstmediact.com