An aerial view of the Fairfield Beach area of Fairfield, Connecticut. The wastewater treatment facility (bottom right) has been emitting a strong odor since April when a digester broke after a buildup of pressure. Ryan Caron King | Connecticut Public

Swaths of Fairfield’s beach neighborhood had been suffering for months from a noxious odor emanating from the “digester,” part of the sewage processing plant/Water Pollution Control Facility (WPCF).

The stench was so bad many residents couldn’t open their windows. Dinners and graduation parties were cancelled. Residents were frustrated and appealed to the town administration, looking for leadership.  But they received an unexpected message:  Don’t blame us, it’s someone else’s fault.

Bill Gerber

The buck stops… there

Fairfield’s Town Attorney, Jim Baldwin, sent an email on July 19 to many disaffected residents at the behest of his boss, the first selectwoman. According to the email, she asked him to “set the record straight on the structure, organization and oversight of the WPCA [Wastewater Pollution Control Authority] and, more particularly, the role of the administration and DPW.”

They were treated to a word salad of state law sprinkled with bits of town charter. The town attorney explained that a WPCA, as an ‘authority’ under state law, “operates with a greater level of independence that includes the ability [emphasis added] to hire staff, set rates, levy taxes and acquire property without direct involvement of any of the town’s three main governing bodies…” (C.G.S. Chapter 103 §§ 7-245 to 7-273a).

Okay, so WPCAs have some autonomy, if they want it. No big deal.

What was shocking was Baldwin’s assertion that in Fairfield “the WPC[F], including its director, report directly to the authority [WPCA] and not the First Selectwoman or BOS” [Board of Selectmen]. 

He supported this position with § 6.1(C)(2) of the Town Charter that states: “All Town officers, boards, commissions, and employees of the Town appointed by the Board of Selectmen shall be responsible to them for the faithful performance of their respective duties.” Baldwin extrapolated: “just as ‘authority’ is excluded from this Charter section, this also helps explain why the head of the Authority’s operations is not recognized to be a town officer in Charter Sec 9.1 like all other department heads.”

All in the family

Strangely, the town attorney ignored the very first sentence of § 10.13(B) of the Charter, titled “organization and personnel”: “For purposes of this Charter, the Water Pollution Control Authority shall be deemed a commission (emphasis added) except where any provision of this Charter of general application to commissions conflicts with a provision of the General Statutes concerning water pollution control authorities.”

In other words, Fairfield’s Board of Selectmen does have supervisory and investigatory power over the WPCA under § 6.1(C)(2), but under state law the WPCA may do certain things without administration oversight if it so chooses.

No wonder Fairfield’s organization chart, published within Fairfield’s audited financial reports and bond offering prospectuses, shows a direct line of reporting from the WPCF Director to the Administration’s DPW Director.

No wonder DPW directors regularly attended WPCA meetings, as can be confirmed by years of minutes (until the current administration). No wonder DPW directors managed WPCF supervisors, which can be confirmed by WPCA commissioners (until the current administration). No wonder DPW directors were required to hold professional engineering credentials that could be relevant to managing WPCF supervisors and which is, in fact, required under § 9.7. of the Town Charter. This requirement has been sidestepped by the current Administration for almost three years by using the title ‘Acting’ DPW Director.

Surprise! You’re on your own

Imagine how WPCA commissioners – appointed volunteers – were taken off guard by this email that distanced the administration from responsibility over such an important town asset, in the middle of a crisis.

Here are a couple of remarks during the next (7/19/23) WPCA meeting: (FairTV

  • “When I came on the commission, DPW ran point on just about everything sewer related…” [1:01:42].
  • The WPCA has “an evolving mandate that became very clear today” [1:06].

The email also contradicted the administration’s prior actions.  After the digester broke, initial bid instructions for cleaning and repairing it were sent out without WPCA commissioners’ involvement. When a single bid was received, it was rejected as too costly by the Acting DPW Director and Town CFO [1:06:58] without WPCA commissioners’ knowledge or consent. It would be months before a second request for bids would go out, substantially delaying resolution of the problem.

Lingering miasma in town hall

What is the most striking aspect of the whole affair? That honor belongs to the first selectwoman’s use of taxpayer-funded resources to manufacture excuses and distance herself from a large and incredibly important town asset, instead of owning the problem as chief executive officer of Fairfield.

A new direction

What would I and my running mate do differently? We will use the town’s resources only for solving problems and making Fairfield a better place to live, work and visit.  We will lead.

Bill Gerber is a candidate for Fairfield First Selectman.

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