FAIRFIELD, CT — The cost of Fairfield’s fill pile scandal loomed large over a recent Board of Finance candidate debate.
Board hopefuls talked about the importance of accountability after misuse of the town site led to over 50 locations in Fairfield receiving potentially contaminated fill and charges were brought against seven former town employees and contractors.
Expected to cost tens of millions of dollars, cleanup of the sites, including Penfield Pavilion, will be among the challenges that await board members elected this coming Tuesday.
Republican Thomas Collimore called for a “clean break” from alleged past corruption, referred to the polychlorinated biphenyls at town sites, and said the situation was a blight on Fairfield. In his closing statement, he remarked that Democrats were not asking the hard questions.
“Mr. Collimore likes to mention the corruption of the previous administration,” Democrat Kevin Starke said in reference to former Democrat first selectman Mike Tetreau, who has been identified in court documents as an uncharged co-conspirator in the fill pile investigation.
Starke added the Board of Finance has been Republican-dominated for decades.
“In a lot of ways, the scandal that happened fooled us all, on both sides,” he said.
Other hot topics at Monday’s debate, organized by the League of Women Voters and held over Zoom, included the controversial spring budget decision to cut a $123,000 conservation administrator job and terminate the employee who held the position. That conversation, too, led back to the fill pile.
“That department was, to me, somewhat broken,” said incumbent Republican James Walsh, making reference to former conservation director Brian Carey, now charged in the fill pile case. “Their director was arrested. The new director’s doing a great job.”
Democrat Sheila Marmion, also an incumbent, had a different take.
“I don’t believe right now that needs are being met,” she said. “Residents are not being served and it’s a real loss to the town.”
Democrat Craig Curley agreed.
“We’re facing a tremendous amount of development in town,” he said, noting the proliferation of Fairfield affordable housing proposals. “I personally don’t think that now was the time to cut this conservation department.”
When asked how best to control spending growth and determine the validity of cost estimates, the candidates focused on accountability.
“Little things add up,” remarked Republican Bill Llewellyn, as he advocated for evaluating which departments heads and vendors consistently provide accurate estimates.
Starke, who, along with Llewellyn, is running to fill a two-year vacancy on the board rather than a standard six-year term, suggested the town look into outsourcing certain services at a lower pricepoint and developing amenities through public-private partnerships.
Marmion noted Fairfield’s AAA bond rating allows the town to borrow at a lower interest rate, and Walsh clarified that while it’s important to look for efficiencies and budget conservatively, almost 80 percent of the budget is fixed.
After the Board of Finance debate, the four unopposed Board of Education candidates debated as well. The uncontested incumbents — Republicans Nick Aysseh and Jeff Peterson, and Democrats Jennifer Jacobsen and Carol Guernsey — discussed a wide range of topics, including the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on education, school safety, and student mental health.