Fairfield's 'accidental' first selectman's legacy of service
He moved here from Westchester County in 1990, a soft-spoken CPA who had grown increasingly fond of Fairfield while visiting friends in town.
Little did Ken Flatto -- or anyone else -- suspect then he would become the second-longest tenured first selectman in Fairfield's recent history.
Few would have bet on it three years later when he lost his first bid for elective office, a seat on the Representative Town Meeting. Yet when Flatto left office Tuesday night after serving 12 years as Fairfield's chief executive, only the 24-year tenure of John J. Sullivan exceeded his.
Flatto's passion for community service, we would come to learn only over time, runs deep, born of neighborhood improvement initiatives in his native New York. But his gentle manner and soft, measured way of speaking perhaps masks that passion and does not lend itself to great charisma.
He was the accidental first selectmen, at least in the sense that he unexpectedly -- but surely -- dominated the local political scene for more than a decade.
Two years after the failed RTM run, Flatto wanted to run for a seat on the Board of Finance. But town Democrats needed to put a name on the ballot opposite incumbent Republican First Selectman Paul Audley, and they persuaded Flatto to take a shot.
He won a seat on the Board of Selectmen, and in his own mild-mannered way, has been the face of Fairfield for a dozen of the past 14 years.
Flatto claims the decade-long and ultimately successful effort to build a third train station in town as the accomplishment of which he is most proud. Ironically, it won't open until fall, a few months after he's left office.
One can easily point to other significant gains during his tenure.
A champion of open spaces, he oversaw the acquisition of 13 land parcels totaling more than 100 acres that will be preserved. Those spaces -- so accessible one scribe called them "hidden in plain view" -- will remain forever wooded areas or fields where families can hike or picnic, individuals can stroll in solitude or commune quietly with nature.
On his watch, downtown witnessed a decade of revival. The proliferation of restaurants and other small businesses has turned the town center into the dining capital of the Fairfield County. The growth of galleries and performing arts venues and the rebirth of a movie theater gives nightlife the vibrancy of people enjoying themselves. In total, downtown has wrested the "trendy" label away from neighboring Westport.
Flatto has played a key role in the construction of new schools and upgrading of the system. Fairfield can rightfully boast one of the top public school districts in the one of the nation's most educated states. The quality of Fairfield's schools is a magnet that continues to draw professionals with children to town and perpetuates the community's envied reputation outside its borders. A father of two, Flatto's own children were educated in those schools.
At the eastern end of town, he has worked to revitalize Kings Highway East and helped bring in a much anticipated Whole Foods store on a former industrial site.
In the debit column is the loss of $42 million in municipal pension-fund investments to Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Certainly, thousands of other financial professionals were hoodwinked, too. But Flatto has said he had persistent doubts about the quality of the advice the pension funds' consultant was giving the town. Yet as a member of municipal boards that influenced pension funds for both school department and town employees, he failed to act on those doubts until it was too late.
The long battle for the new train station of which Flatto is so proud also fueled some of the harshest criticism of his tenure. When the private developer who would build the commercial segment of the Fairfield Metro project and the town's Conservation Department became embroiled in a permitting dispute, the first selectman ultimately removed the conservation director and his staff from oversight of the project. That prompted lawsuits and cries that Flatto was far too chummy with the developer.
Yet Fairfield continues to pop up on various short lists of the best places to live in America.
While Flatto is not the most charismatic of leaders, Fairfield has seen few as dedicated to public service and few who work as hard. Both his Democratic allies and some of his harshest Republican critics seem to agree on that. The time demands of the job are endless.
With barely a week left in Flatto's tenure, Arbor Day was approaching, and a tree-planting ceremony was planned at Roger Sherman Elementary School. For many an outgoing politician, it would have been the perfect opportunity to send your regrets and a surrogate with a shovel.
But as storm clouds gathered April 28, there was Flatto, awash in a sea of third- and fourth-graders, looking upon a skinny, 16-foot elm and telling the kids trees are important because "they give us oxygen, give us life, give us the air that we breathe."
As the wind picked up and a drizzle started, who was the last one to flee the scene for cover? Flatto, on the job to the end.
It's been said that being a first selectman is a thankless job. It is not today.
Thank you, Kenneth Flatto. We didn't always agree with your positions or your politics. And although passionate presentation was not your style, you proved beyond any doubt your love for this town with unflagging energy, time and toil.
And for that, Fairfield is a better place.