Kupchick, Tetreau face off at Fairfield First Selectman debate
FAIRFIELD — Brenda Kupchick and Mike Tetreau faced off Wednesday night in the League of Women Voters’ debate for the First Selectman spot.
Tetreau, the incumbent Democrat First Selectman, and Kupchick, a Republican State Representative, clashed on economic development, affordable housing, schools and, of course, the Julian fill pile - the most controversial issue driving what is expected to be a close race.
Selectmen candidates Tom Flynn and Nancy Lefkowitz were originally scheduled to debate too, but a back injury left Flynn unable to attend on doctor’s orders.
This compelled the League to cancel the Selectman debate. Lefkowitz was present Wednesday night to answer questions, and League leadership said they would try to reschedule the Selectman forum.
The debate followed a similar format to last week’s Board of Education and Board of Finance forum, with moderator Kay Maxwell posing a series of audience-submitted questions to each candidate.
The fill pile dominated much of the conversation, with Kupchick alluding to it throughout the debate in response to questions both explicitly about the issue and not.
The town’s Public Works pile is the subject of an ongoing criminal case that has led to the arrests of two town employees and Julian Enterprise’s co-owner.
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 the company 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.
Removing the materials, including arsenic and asbestos, is expected to cost the town millions.
Kupchick asserted that Tetreau is to blame for allowing the situation to develop because he did not provide adequate oversight over his staff. As First Selectman, she said, she would take a more active role in overseeing town business.
“The number one lesson is that we need to make sure the chief executive of our town provides the appropriate oversight over employees and departments,” Kupchick said. “We need someone who’s a little bit more passionate and a little bit more engaged.”
In his rebuttals, Tetreau accused Kupchick of fearmongering and politicizing an issue that his administration has responsibly and actively addressed since it was discovered.
“We’re making sure every control we should have in place, we have in place, so that this never happens again,” Tetreau said.
They also sparred on economic development, with Kupchick saying Tetreau has not done enough to grow the corporate tax base at the Metro Center and other undeveloped areas.
“We must be prioritizing our economic development in a serious way in town,” she said.
Tetreau said he has focused on economic development and would continue to do so in another term. He accused Kupchick of misstating facts and using incorrect statistics to imply that the grand list has shrunk during his tenure, when in fact it has grown.
Education, too, was an important issue of the night, with Tetreau emphasizing his commitment to funding what he sees as an investment in the town.
“I think education is the number one reason people move to Fairfield,” he said. “We have to make sure that Fairfield’s education system is one of the top in the state.”
Kupchick responded that she is also committed to education, and that carefully scrutinizing the budget is not anti-education, but the responsible way to keep the system effective.
“We have to make sure that we are spending money appropriately,” she said.
They discussed the Mill Hill Elementary School building decision at length. In June, the Board of Finance voted to approve Mill Hill as a 441-size school rather than the Board of Education’s requested 504. This party-split decision was driven almost entirely by Republicans.
In a departure from her caucus’ stance, Kupchick said she would have supported a 504-size school, noting that she actually helped write 504 policies during her tenure on the Board of Education.
Tetreau expressed his support for a 504 school and said that if Kupchick had this opinion, she should have shared it at the time of the contentious vote that had her party united.
“I wish Ms. Kupchick had stepped forward then and asked some of her colleagues to vote for it,” he noted.
Other issues of debate included affordable housing and group home development, sustainability and senior housing.
In his closing statement, Tetreau said his experience as an incumbent makes him the best choice to lead Fairfield into the next four years.
“This election is all about Fairfield’s future,” he said. “I have eight years of effective leadership and proven results.”
Kupchick, meanwhile, said it was time for a change.
“I am prepared for the responsibility to lead Fairfield with honesty, transparency and accountability,” she said.
Kupchick and Tetreau will face off again at the Rotary Club’s candidate luncheon on Monday. The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 5.