Sarah Darer Littman photo

If the window of government transparency in Connecticut has become foggy lately, in Bridgeport it’s turned into a funhouse mirror.

The latest to come from Mayor Bill Finch’s Carnival of Corruption was a vote Thursday evening to proceed with phase one of a deal to build a new Harding High School on 17.2 acres of a 78-acre brownfield site on Boston Avenue, currently owned by General Electric. This would enable Finch and his allies to sell the current Harding High site to Bridgeport Hospital.

According to federal law, a brownfield site refers to “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

The aforementioned brownfield site is, according to a piece in the CT Post, “contaminated with lead, arsenic, petroleum hydrocarbons and volatile compounds.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers helpful information about School Siting Guidelines, and why they are so important:

“Children, particularly younger children, are uniquely at risk from environmental hazards. They eat, drink and breathe more in proportion to their body size than adults. In addition, environmental contaminants may affect children disproportionately because their immune, respiratory and other systems are not fully developed, and their growing organs are more easily harmed. This means they are more at risk for exposure to harmful chemicals found outside where they play and in the environment where they spend most of their time — school and home.”

As might be expected, parents and those representing the community have concerns — especially since most of the process for this deal (like so much of what goes on in Bridgeport) has taken place behind closed doors. Indeed, in the minutes from the Bridgeport School Building Committee meeting on Jan. 3, 2013, Finch Deputy Chief of Staff Ruben Felipe reports that GE asked the administration to keep their conversations confidential. Thus both the sunlight and the community were kept out. Helping to keep things under wraps was the fact that the School Building Committee failed to file their statutory notices with the town clerk’s office until February 2014, evidenced by this email from Frances Ortiz, assistant City Clerk.

There’s been some gob-smacking chicanery involved, because, let’s face it, this wouldn’t be Bridgeport if there weren’t.

A petition to the City of Bridgeport Planning and Zoning Commission was filed in the name of the City of Bridgeport Board of Education (File 13-74). It was signed on Dec. 3, 2013, by John Eberle of Stantec Consulting Services and on Dec. 18, 2013, by Marian Whiteman, executive counsel for Transactions & Brownfields at General Electric.

On Jan. 13, 2014, Sauda Baraka, chair of the Bridgeport Board of Education (in whose name the Planning Petition was apparently being made)

But by Jan. 16, the Finch administration was able to work magic with fairy dust — or White Out — and Lo! According to School Building Committee Chairman John Bagley, the exact same application with the exact same signatures (on the original you can see the correction fluid) and now guess what? It reads “City of Bridgeport School Building Committee”! Suggested new campaign slogan for Bill Finch: “If you can’t beat ‘em, erase them!”

On Jan. 16, Dennis Buckley, clerk for the Planning and Zoning Commission, sent notice to the magically created new applicant, the City of Bridgeport School Building Committee c/o consultant John Eberle, and informed him that the new hearing date would be Jan. 27.

The day before the Facilities Committee of the Bridgeport Board of Education was due to meet, Bagley sent a letter to Larry Schilling from O&G Industries, the program manager of the Bridgeport School Construction Program, detailing the history of the project:

“The history of this project illustrates the absence of community involvement and input in the decision making process. In an attempt to compensate slightly for this sad reality, I plan to set aside substantial time at the Feb. 11, 2014, meeting to hear from residents of the community and to illicit their ideas, input and concerns.”

Compare this to Mayor Finch’s description of what occurred in his Feb. 17, 2014, CT Post op-ed Bridgeport Needs A New Harding: “The committee chair allowed a small group of political operatives with ulterior motives to derail the process with innuendo and rhetoric and in some cases, completely inaccurate information.”

Mayor Finch needs to look in his funhouse mirror, particularly since prior to that meeting, the IBEW’s Peter Carroll (IBEW endorsed Finch) sent a flyer to members urging them to show up at the meeting and speak for the development. Who, exactly, were the “political operatives”?

It’s interesting that when we look at some of names that funded the ill-fated 2012 attempt to revise Bridgeport’s charter to give Mayor Finch the power to appoint the Board of Education, some familiar names pop up — like Bridgeport Hospital, for example.

It would make it so much easier for them all if these elected officials didn’t ask so many questions, wouldn’t it?

Environmental racism is defined as policy or practices that result in poor communities and residents of color experiencing the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards.

As Daniel Faber, Director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, Northeastern University explains:

“What you find in the United States is those communities with less political and economic power, with less resources, with less time and energy on the part of the residents to mobilize themselves and learn about the issues, that those are the communities that are most intentionally and most selectively victimized through the siting of ecologically hazardous facilities. In the sociological trade we refer to those communities as having lacking control capacity . . . they have less political and economic power; and the evidence is overwhelming that these are the communities that are targeted in the United States.”

It’s 2014 in Connecticut. We’re supposed to be better than this, aren’t we?

So parents of Bridgeport, the EPA offers a quick guide to Environmental Issues. Read it, and start asking questions. Ask your local paper why THEY haven’t been asking the same questions, rather than just reflecting the views of the monied and powerful.

Here are some other interesting reads about building schools on Brownfield sites:

Building Schools on Brownfields: Lessons Learned from California

A sobering lesson from New York City

Building on Brownfields — a Catalyst for Neighborhood Revitalization

As for the Finch Administration and its secretive allies — I suggest the EPA guide to “Meaningful Public Involvement” when choosing a school site: why it’s important and how one goes about building it. You’d think the mayor of a major municipality wouldn’t need such a guide, but the folks in Bridgeport apparently need a refresher course.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.