FAIRFIELD, CT – The Fire Commission has decided to review future lateral personnel transfers and provisional promotions in the wake of controversy that erupted after an anonymous letter to the finance board chairman last December revealed a series of pre-retirement staff changes that boosted pension payments.
Several firefighters were either provisionally promoted or transferred to the Training Center, which includes a $10,000 boost in pay, shortly before retiring. Under the fire union’s contract, pension benefits are based on the salary a firefighter is receiving on the day they retire. Provisional promotions were because there was no promotional list in effect at the time.
But Thursday’s meeting, where the Fire Commission heard a report from Alex Trembicki, independent counsel hired by First Selectman Michael Tetreau to look into the issue, and a response from Richard Saxl, the former town attorney, in Chief Richard Felner’s defense, still was not without controversy.
Trembicki’s report raised questions about whether the contract was followed in the Training Center transfers last year, but said there was no evidence any “secret deals” were made between the fire chief and the firefighters over the appointments that increased their salaries just prior to their retirement — and, consequently, their pension payments as well.
After receiving the reports and asking a few questions, a motion was made by Commissioner Patrick McCabe to go into a closed-door session for more discussion.
Members of the press objected, contending that commission members are not allowed to convene in private to discuss general policies, but only specific personnel. Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey, an ex-officio member of the board, further informed the commission that any personnel that the panel plans to discuss had to be given the opportunity to attend and to have that discussion in public, if they so chose.
“I think we have the right to do that,” Chairman Richard Popilowski responded about a closed-door discussion, and was dismissive when told that violations of the Freedom of Information Act could result in fines of up to $1,000. Saxl offered to advise Popilowski on the legal procedures during a brief recess, which he did.
Following the recess, the commission did not go into executive session.
Commissioner William Fitzpatrick then moved to accept Trembicki’s report, and urge the Board of Selectmen to take a closer look at the firefighters’ union contract, particularly the section dealing with retirement benefits and how they are calculated.
He also urged the commission to look at all lateral transfers and provisional appointments.
“I think the provisional appointments fall under the established duties of this commission anyway,” said McCabe. “I don’t know where it fell apart.”
Popilowski agreed that while Felner has regularly reported personnel changes to the commission in private session, “the key is these should be part of the public process.”