Uncharted territory lies ahead to find next Fairfield first selectman

The who and the how of selecting an interim chief executive for Fairfield may be up in the air following First Selectman Kenneth Flatto's decision to leave next month for a state job, but with state Sen. John McKinney -- the heir to a powerful political legacy -- not completely ruling out a November run for the post could make the longer-term political picture a bit clearer.

"There'll be time when we're not in session for me to think about other things," said the Republican legislator, who has been courted unsuccessfully by partisans over the years to run from everything from first selectman to governor to Congress, where his late father, Stewart B. McKinney, held the 4th District seat for many years.

If McKinney, now the minority leader in the state Senate, were to enter the first selectman's race this year, he would be the odds-on favorite to lead the pack, according to many political observers.

"It's certainly something I may think about in due time," McKinney said Tuesday. "I've spent most of my life in Fairfield. I love it, it's my home."

For now, though, he said he is focused on the state budget process.

"Right now, as minority leader of the state Senate, I've got a huge challenge in front of me trying to work with the legislature on passing a budget," he said. "I'm not happy with the tax increases that Gov. Malloy has proposed. I want to work to get a balanced budget that doesn't raise so many taxes."

But before the municipal election in November, an interim first selectman will be chosen -- largely uncharted territory necessitated by Flatto's decision to step down April 29, about seven months before the end of his term.

He was appointed Tuesday by Gov. Dannel Malloy as the executive director of the state Division of Special Revenue.

Under state statutes, the remaining members of the Board of Selectmen -- Democrat Sherri Steeneck and Republican James Walsh -- have 30 days from the effective date of Flatto's resignation to choose an interim first selectman. The appointee must be, like Flatto, a Democrat. The interim appointment would fill out the remainder of Flatto's term, which ends in November.

If the two selectmen can't agree within 30 days, state statutes then say that all of the town's elected Democrats officeholders have 60 days to choose an appointee.

And neither scenario rules out a special election to name the interim official. Within 15 days of the appointment -- whether by the selectmen or the elected Democrats -- voters can petition for a special election by gathering signatures of 5 percent of the town's registered voters.

Republican Town Committee Chairman James Baldwin said he thinks the interim first selectman should be a place holder and not a candidate for the seat. "It's very important the person who is selected is not someone who has ambitions to run for first selectman," Baldwin said. "It should be someone who both Jim and Sherri, and everyone in town, knows and who will be the best to shepherd us through this interim period."

Steeneck disagrees, saying that someone who wants the job should get top consideration, and that may include someone who also wants to run for the post in November.

Susan Barrett, a veteran Democrat who has held numerous local and legislative offices, including 18 years as a Board of Finance member, said the appointment shouldn't become mired in politics. "Don't you want the person that is running a town of our stature to be the best person we can find?" Barrett said. "I think you need someone in there that knows what's going on, someone who can step in and knows some of the players."

She said she doubts the public would be concerned about whether the interim first selectman also might later become a candidate.

"To me, I think you need people who have some sort of a track record," Barrett said.

Board of Finance member Michael Tetreau, a Democrat, is among those who has expressed interest in the job -- both on an interim and full-time basis after November.

"I am very interested in serving the town as interim first selectman," Tetreau said Wednesday. "I think Ken Flatto leaves the town with a long list of accomplishments including our high-quality school system, Connecticut magazine award as top community in our size, CNN/Money recognition as a top town in the nation, the fertile environment for commercial growth as proven by our high occupancy rate, and the soon-to-be-completed new train station, our Triple-A credit rating and a vibrant downtown that has transformed into an art, cultural and dining destination for Fairfield County."

Tetreau, a real estate agent, said he would look forward to building on those achievements as first selectman. "I have also received a tremendous amount of encouragement from people all over town, he said.

"As of now, I have let the Democratic Town Committee leadership know of my interest. However, in the short term, I am focused on completing the budget in a very challenging year. The Board of Finance still has a lot of work to do."

Two Republicans had already announced they are considering making a run for the first selectman's seat this year.

Robert Bellitto Jr., the vice chairman of the finance board, and David Becker, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1, had both said they might seek their GOP nomination well before Flatto decided to leave the field.

Devon Pfeifer, the Democratic town chairwoman, said the party's executive board met the same night that Flatto made his announcement to discuss recommending a replacement and it expects to hold additional meetings over the next several days.

"I am encouraged by the past practice of the Board of Selectmen, which has accepted the recommendation of the party," Pfeifer said. "Further, last December I had a conversation with Mr. Baldwin in which we agreed that we would accept a party's recommendation to fill its own party vacancy."

She said while she doesn't agree with Baldwin's suggestion that the interim official have no aspirations to run for the job in November, she does respect his right to that opinion. "A person who fills in on an interim basis cannot be prohibited from running for office," Pfeifer said. "There are laws which protect these rights."

Baldwin said he doesn't want to see a candidate use the interim position "to get a leg up in the race for first selectman slated for November. I hope and trust Sherri and Jim see it that way and they can agree."

Will Steeneck and Walsh be able to come to an agreement?

"I think we have a great working relationship and I would hope it wouldn't become political," Steeneck said.

If they don't agree, "then it becomes interesting," Baldwin said, but added that he doesn't think the option of a special election is something the town needs.

Meanwhile, Steeneck is emphatic that although she will step in as acting first selectman until an interim successor is chosen, she does not want the job. "I'm not even running for selectman in November," she said. "I only took this job because Denise (Dougiello) asked me to."

Steeneck filled the seat on the board created by Dougiello's death in 2008. Her GOP counterpart on the board, Walsh, was also appointed. He filled Ralph Bowley's seat after Bowley died last year.

State Rep. Kim Fawcett, a Democrat who represents the 133rd House District, is ruling out a run for first selectman.

"I'm very happy where I am, and I'm just interested in continuing to focus on the work that I'm doing in Hartford," Fawcett said Wednesday.

"Our next first selectman is going to have to be someone who is fiscally moderate and thoughtful about all the different implications that spending has on property taxes," she said.

Staff writer Paul Schott contributed to this report.