I met Ken Flatto because our wives wound up coaching Riverfield’s first Odyssey of the Mind team back in the mid-1990s. He was already keenly interested in politics; I was still figuring my way around town, but a friendship blossomed. As a result, I had a unique perspective watching Ken enter the Democratic scene and surprisingly have a rapid rise to the top. In a town with deep and long family ties to both political parties, this seemed unheard of, but there was Ken, sitting as a selectman during the uneven Paul Audley administration.
In 1997, the town and Ken were ready for one another and he won election as first selectman. As he was sworn in, no one knew what to expect. He wasn’t a resident with deep roots, he was a fiscal guy, and no one could quite anticipate what direction he would take us in. Nor did Ken feel the bull’s-eye being painted on his back as he was sworn in by Town Clerk Marguerite Toth. Despite serving as a selectman, I doubt he understood the terrible hours kept by the town’s chief executive. After all, he has to be called when things go badly, from home fires to fatal traffic accidents. It’s the first selectman who makes the tough calls such as closing town offices during a blizzard. I'll give you just one example.
Early on, we joined Ken and his family at the beach on July 4. The cloudy day was ominous, and by 8:30 p.m., as the sky darkened, you could feel the beginning of rain. Parks and Recreation officials found their way to our blankets and discussed the impending storm with Ken. Despite the sky not being quite dark, he surveyed the thousands of people ready to brave the elements in order to see the fireworks. He gave the approval to start early then crossed his fingers. Sure enough, the rains held off long enough for the spectacular display.
Ken and his wife, Liz, fell in love with Fairfield, and despite the long hours or harsh criticism, that affection never wavered. Every two years, Ken would pound the pavement seeking votes, and hearing the usual political mudslinging but that grin never faded. As much as he enjoyed being at the top, he loved getting out and speaking with the residents more. Wherever Ken went, be it a school function, a Little League game or just dinner out, he would always recognize faces and shake hands, stopping to chat. Invariably, someone would tap a watch or a foot and signal that it was time to move on.
That affection worked both ways, it seems. People loved that he remembered their names or previous conversations. His office staff was usually lauded for their follow-ups to issues raised on a casual night out. While the Democratic Town Committee took the town’s pulse, Ken seemed to find a truer sense of the body politic and used that as his barometer.
Last week, Ken was treated to a delightful retirement party. The Patterson Club was filled with people from both sides of the aisle and there was a sense of joy in the air. Not that Ken is leaving for Hartford, but that he served so long and more often than not, so well. That affection extended to some good-natured ribbing from lawyer John Fallon, state Senator John McKinney, acting First Selectman Sherri Steeneck and Chief of Staff Tom Bremer and was capped by the hilarious Power Point presentation from Public Works Director Richard White. Ken was teased for his cheapness both personally and as first selectman but underlying that was the acknowledgment that his frugal ways saw the town repeatedly have low tax increases even as we built new schools and repaired older ones.
His fashion sense was also mocked and he was teased for his sartorial choices, notably many pictures of him with his socks showing. He wasn’t your typical fashion plate politician, but his man-of-the-people appearance no doubt endeared him to more than a few people. He looked and acted like one of us and that sincerity won him a lot of support through the years.
Ken didn’t go looking for fights and could take the critical barbs hurled his way but when enough was enough, you could tell when he was steamed. It didn’t happen often, but when he reached his limits, he spelled things out to try to clear the air, but he always was striving to steer things back to an evenhanded debate. He wanted the town boards to do their diligence, have their say, and make decisions for what was best for Fairfield.
Something must have worked because under his tenure national publications took their turns proclaiming us as a safe town and a wonderful place to live. Of course Ken didn’t do it alone, but his time in office saw us ease out of a divisive years-long fight over our exploding student population. After years of talk, he managed to hammer out the deal that finally got the third train station moving and now it’s finally ready to open this fall. With limited resources, he continued to push for acquiring more open space and making it useful for all residents. And he deserves full credit for getting the former Exide plant cleaned and ready for more constructive use.
Was everything in town perfect? Of course not. There’s plenty of challenging work for the next first selectman, who will have every opportunity to build upon Ken’s work, much as Ken built upon the work of John Sullivan and Jackie Durrell.
The real winner in Ken’s move to a state office is his family, who will now be able to enjoy Ken’s affable presence on a far more regular basis. That’s a gift well earned.