Inside Kupchick’s plans for bringing accountability back to Fairfield

FAIRFIELD — First Selectwoman-elect Brenda Kupchick says she is serious about following through on her campaign promises.

Kupchick - who has officially decided to go by First Selectwoman, rather than the usual Selectman title - defeated eight-year incumbent Mike Tetreau in a campaign centered on improving transparency and accountability after the town’s fill pile scandal.

On the campaign trail, Kupchick promised to do better than Tetreau, who came under fire for his handling of the town’s Public Works pile. The pile is the subject of an ongoing criminal case that has charged two town employees with illegal dumping and bribery.

Joseph Michelangelo, who served as the town’s public works director since 2012, is accused of conspiring with Scott Bartlett, the town’s superintendent of public works, and Jason Julian to allow Julian Enterprises to dump truck loads of contaminated waste into the pile.

Julian then resold some of the contaminated soil as clean fill for construction projects in the town. After testing 60 sites at parks, fields and playgrounds, the town identified eight areas that need to be cleaned up, a million-dollar process.

Kupchick and her party have argued that Tetreau’s lack of oversight of the Public Works department allowed this to happen under his watch. With messages of increasing trust and accountability, Kupchick vowed to do better if elected.

Now, Kupchick is getting ready to make good on that promise once she assumes office on Nov. 25.

“I want to work hard to restore the public trust so that people feel confident in their government,” Kupchick said.

To do that, Kupchick plans to audit multiple town departments, ensure that the Town Charter is followed more closely and create stricter processes for hiring vendors and reviewing bonds.

She’s also taking steps towards making sure town employees are comfortable reporting issues that come up in their departments - something that many say could have halted the corruption in Public Works and avoided the fill pile issue entirely.

Kupchick plans to have an open-door policy, where any town employee is welcome to confide in her.

“I want everyone to see that I’m an open and honest person, that they can come to me as their boss and that I will listen to them and take action when necessary,” Kupchick explained.

The beginning of her term will also be a time to take charge of the procedural fallout from the fill pile, including both legal action and the town’s testing and cleanup process.

On the legal side, she hopes to get a better grasp on the state’s ongoing case by meeting with the state’s attorney’s office, as well as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, to offer her help and keep the public informed.

“I want us to work as cooperatively as possible so that we can get this thing wrapped up,” she said.

Kupchick will also assume office into the middle of multiple testing and cleanup projects at local parks and fields. Tetreau directed the town’s contractor to begin cleaning up contaminants at Gould Manor Park and Burroughs Park, and cleanup is scheduled to begin next at Jennings Elementary School.

Kupchick is not yet sure whether she will stick to the testing and remediation plans developed by Tetreau’s administration. She has scheduled meetings with licensed environmental professional Tighe & Bond, and she wants to get all the information before making any decisions about how to proceed, she said.

Beyond the fill pile, Kupchick is also making a priority out of restoring a spirit of bipartisanship and respect in town politics.

With the advent of social media, Kupchick said, she’s noticed increased negativity and vitriol among both elected officials and the public. She wants to curb that animosity and foster collaboration, regardless of party affiliation.

“I want us to work together as Fairfielders, and I’m going to really work hard at bringing people together,” she said.

That starts, she said, on the Board of Selectmen. While the outgoing board was known for its political schisms, Republican Kupchick wants to work equally with both incoming Selectmen, Republican Tom Flynn and Democrat Nancy Lefkowitz, to avoid the two-to-one votes that have often characterized the board.

“I don’t think there’s going to be the partisanship that we were seeing in the past,” she said. “I’m going to work very hard to include everybody - I want to set the tone for other town bodies.”

Overall, Kupchick asked for the public’s patience as she learns the ropes and works to tackle many issues at once, especially as the town heads into its busy budget season.

“I’m going to work like hell to make sure I do a good job,” she said.