For Steeneck, it's no 'act' to fill in as first selectman
Steeneck takes role as acting first selectman very seriously
Sherri Steeneck views her time as Fairfield's acting first selectman in terms of "40 days and 40 nights."
In fact, she has emblazoned those words as the scroll of her computer screensaver. The reference is of the biblical sense, not the movie of the same name, she said. In the Bible, transformations are described in periods of time of 40 days and 40 nights.
Steeneck, a 52-year-old Democrat, has been swept up in a whirlwind for the past two weeks since taking over as Fairfield's first selectman from Kenneth Flatto, who resigned to become the director of special revenue in Gov. Dannel Malloy's administration. On May 4, she stepped into the second-floor first selectman's office at Sullivan-Independence Hall and hasn't stopped -- even though her official status is as the town's "acting" chief executive.
After first sanitizing the office -- with no offense to the former first selectman, Steeneck is, after all, a former nurse -- and organizing it, she said the first few weeks have been "exhausting," as well as a "learning experience and sometimes fun."
"There is no typical day," Steeneck said. But, she added, she is "not just holding a place" and wants Fairfielders to know that if they have questions or concerns or need something looked into, they should call or email her. "I will be doing the job until the next person does the job."
In addition to handling the day-to-day business and weeding through and answering numerous emails, she has been out and about attending events, functions and meetings.
"I have met so many people," she said. "It's fun because I like people. I like that part of it. But I realized that if I were doing this full time, I probably wouldn't have a life."
She has attended sessions of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club and went to the Westport Youth Film Festival at the Community Theatre in Fairfield, and has been to meetings of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, including lunch with the mayors of area towns, the Pension Board and her own Board of Selectmen. She's also cut ribbons at new Fairfield businesses.
She laughed when she recounted how she set off the security alarm the first time she was leaving the office late one night and how she and Chief Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller were inadvertently locked out of their offices by the cleaning crew. The last incident involved getting a friend to take her home to retrieve her spare keys, as everything she needed was behind closed doors at Sullivan-Independence Hall.
The job of first selectman, Steeneck said, "is not much different than what I thought it would be. ... It's an endurance race. It takes patience and listening."
Steeneck has taken a partial leave of absence from her realty agent's job at the Higgins Group. It's a partial leave because she is not taking on new clients until her stint as acting first selectman is over in mid-June, but she continues, with the help of others at Higgins, to service a few clients who were on board with her when she assumed her new role. She also manages a family business, Wash Tub Inc., which owns laundromat locations statewide.
She is being paid the same salary as Flatto, whose yearly wage in 2010-11 was $127,020, but Steeneck rejected the health benefits, which she already carries.
When Flatto told her that he was resigning to take the state post, Steeneck said she "didn't really think about" what it meant for her. But she also had a brush with serving as the acting first selectman a year ago when Flatto unsuccessfully ran for state comptroller.
Steeneck joined the Board of Selectmen in 2008 when she was appointed to fill the seat of Selectman Denise Dougiello, who died that year from cancer. She gets teary-eyed when she talks about her friend, but Steeneck acknowledged that Dougiello would be proud of her transitioning to the first selectman's office.
Under the town charter, Steeneck and Republican Selectman Jim Walsh are charged with appointing an interim first selectman, who will serve until the November municipal election, when Flatto's term would have ended. The Democratic Town Committee has backed Board of Finance member Mike Tetreau for the interim appointment, and he already has announced his intentions to run for the job in November.
However, Steeneck and Walsh have not yet agreed on an interim appointee, but must do so by Wednesday. If they can't agree, then the choice falls to 18 elected Democrats who have local offices, according to state law. They most likely would vote for Tetreau sometime between June 12 and 19 -- but that choice also could still be challenged in a special election.
A lot about the first selectman's job is not new to Steeneck. She has a long resume that includes numerous civic, professional and governmental positions or memberships. A graduate of Georgetown University, where she earned her bachelor of science degree in nursing, and Harvard University, from which she received a master's degree, she was a registered nurse in the 1980s. She became a licensed real estate agent after leaving the healthcare field and has been in real estate sales for more than 20 years.
In a sense, Steeneck followed the footsteps of her mother, Beatrice, now 80 and retired, whose own career path also was varied. The elder Steeneck was a teacher for 25 years and served on the executive boards of educational associations. She was a member of women's and church groups, was a Girl Scout leader, helped her husband with his scouting activities and was active in the American Association of University Women, among other organizations.
"I wish she had taught me the importance of balance," Sherri Steeneck said, "but I am not sure she knew it that well herself."
Getting involved in the community, Steeneck said, "was really a way of life. There was never a question about it."
Steeneck adds that her mother "never pushed politics until Watergate when my Republican father changed parties because he was so upset about Watergate."
Her mother's civic and political activities, much like her daughter's, include a stint as secretary of the Democratic Town Committee, when a lot of women were not involved early on; membership on the Democratic State Central Committee; and two terms as chairwoman of the Fairfield Housing Authority, specifically when it built Trefoil and Pine Tree courts elderly housing complexes.
"Barely a day goes by when someone doesn't ask about her, tell me what they worked on with her and ask me to say hello to her," Steeneck said.
Her mother also is responsible for getting Steeneck into the real estate business. Her mother asked her to join her in taking classes and the subsequent exam for a real estate license. They both qualified for their licenses in 1988.
"I have no idea why she wanted to do it," she said. "I never in my wildest dreams thought about selling real estate and I am sure I never would have done it if she didn't suggest it."
Influenced by her mother's example, Steeneck has served on the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, the Representative Town Meeting, the Water Pollution Control Authority and the Human Services Commission. She is a member of the DTC and was its chairwoman from 1990 to 1995, when she wiped out a deficit and oversaw the party's campaign in a fiercely competitive battle for first selectman between Republican Paul Audley and Democrat Christine Niedermeier. Audley won, and Steeneck calls the period of time disappointing as the Democrats were close to regaining the office.
Reviewing some of things she did as party chairwoman, she remembered when it hosted its annual Century Club brunch and Richard Blumenthal, who was running for state attorney general at the time, was the guest speaker.
"I made him pay for his ticket," she said, with a laugh. "and he paid for it."
On her resume, she noteds that she "worked on, chaired, coordinated, cheered and cried over numerous political campaigns since I took Justice in America at Andrew Warde High School."
"As much as I like politics, you are at the pleasure of the people who are voting," she said. "If they don't want you there anymore, you have to take the message. And if they do, fine. And if you want it, you can try hard for it."
She also worked as the town's community and economic development director when Flatto first took office in 1997. She has been involved with Fairfield Community Services, the Fairfield Holocaust Commemoration Committee, Operation Hope, the Connecticut Dance School, the American Heart Association, the Fairfield Rotary Club, the Barnum Festival, the Fairfield Christmas Tree Festival and the Fairfield Theatre Company. She also shaved her head during a St. Baldrick's Foundation charity event for children's cancer research in 2009.
Asked if all she's done has helped her to prepare for her current role, Steeneck said, "I tend to think that most things that you do help you with everything you do."
But to maybe better explain her life changes, Steeneck turned to a revelation uncovered during an astrology reading she received while at a health spa with a friend some years ago. While not a horoscope follower, Steeneck said she took to heart what the astrologer told her. Because she had "five trines" -- various aspects in the movement of planets -- the reader said to her, "You must feel like you fall into things."
She will get a break from the stress of being the acting first selectman when she attends her college reunion in early June. With a smile and playful look on her face, she said, "Jim Walsh will be in charge for 2 1/2 days. Tell him not to mess it up."