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Monday, October 14 News

Fairfielders disagree over use of communications consultant for fill pile matters

FAIRFIELD — Residents are concerned about the town’s use of a communications consultant to handle the fill pile debacle. First Selectman Mike Tetreau, however, said they followed best practices in hiring an advisor.

At last Wednesday’s Board of Selectman meeting, Selectman Chris Tymniak brought up the town’s contract with Christopher Gidez, a strategic reputation and communications advisor.

Gidez has advised the town on communication strategies as two Public Works officials face dumping and bribery charges related to the town fill pile managed by Julian Enterprises.

Former Public Works Director Joseph Michelangelo and Superintendent Scott Bartlett are both implicated in the dumping of material contaminated with lead and PCBs at the site. Bartlett pled not guilty on Oct. 1, and Michelangelo is scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 17.

The town spent the summer testing 60 sites at local parks and fields after discovering that the contaminated fill had been used on Public Works projects between 2013 and 2016.

So far, low levels of asbestos, arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been found at eight of the sites. Although the state Department of Health has said there are no health exposure risks posed by these levels of contaminants, the town is planning to remediate these sites out of “an abundance of caution.”

Tymniak said hiring a communications consultant to handle this matter was a “shameful use of taxpayer money,” a sentiment echoed by residents active in the Facebook group Fairfield Fights Toxic Waste.

Tymniak and others have claimed that Gidez’s work has been in service of Tetreau’s re-election campaign, arguing that the town is spending tax dollars to preserve Tetreau’s reputation as he runs for a third term.

They have pointed specifically to language in one of Gidez’s communication plans that suggests the town “through surrogates, call out those who irresponsibly raised public fears.”

In a letter published in the Fairfield Citizen Oct. 4, Tetreau denied allegations that the consultant served any political agenda.

Tetreau said hiring Gidez followed best practices in a town crisis situation, and that he was brought on to “provide communication that was factual, transparent, coordinated and timely during this time of anxiety and uncertainty over the health and safety of our residents.”

Tetreau emphasized that Gidez was hired in early August because of the upcoming arrests of Bartlett and Michelangelo. The hiring, he said, was not reactionary to the news of contaminated fill used throughout town, which did not break until Aug. 7.

After testing began at Gould Manor Park, Tetreau said, he asked Gidez to stay on and continue providing communications expertise as they encountered another difficult situation.

“It is inappropriate for anyone to mischaracterize these communications as anything other than factual and public safety oriented,” Tetreau said. “Mr. Gidez has been an excellent and very professional resource to the town.”

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Gidez’s contract confirmed that he was brought on Aug. 1, three days after the Connecticut Post reported on the arrest warrant alleging that Scott Bartlett accepted bribes from Julian Enterprises.

The contract states that Gidez would be paid a monthly retainer of $3,000, as well as an additional $200 per hour for any overtime worked. According to invoices, Gidez earned $10,600 in overtime pay in the month of August.

Gidez has billed time for reviewing media coverage and drafting town communication and resident letters, among other related work, according to the invoice.

rscharf@hearstmediact.com

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