FAIRFIELD, Conn. – Fairfield’s fire commissioners have ordered a 30-day freeze on provisional appointments within the Fire Department while investigators look into the department’s union contract and staffing practices.
“We want to see what this investigation unveils, and once we get that we’ll rescind this order and take a different direction,” Fire Commission Chair Richard Popilowski said Thursday night.
An anonymous letter to Board of Finance Chair Thomas Flynn brought to light that several Fairfield firefighters had retired shortly after being transferred to higher-paying jobs on a provisional basis in 2012. A firefighter’s pension is calculated based on the last active salary.
Fire Chief Richard Felner explained this week that he made provisional appointments to fill vacancies left by officers on sick leave or retiring. This saved the town from having to pay current officers time-and-a-half to meet minimum manpower clauses in the contract, he added.
He also said he had to fill those spots based on seniority, per the fire union’s contract, until the town held promotion exams. Felner said he did not know many of the recent retirees were planning to leave the department while in those temporary roles.
“I followed the contract that was given to me and approved by members of the [Representative Town Meeting],” Felner said at a joint meeting of the Fire Commission and the Board of Selectmen Thursday night.
Fairfield’s promotion exams were delayed by Hurricane Sandy, and are currently in process. Once those exams are complete, Felner and the Fire Commission will be able to make permanent promotions to fill empty leadership roles based. Commission members also expressed interest in holding exams every 18 months to keep a running list of potential appointees to avoid this situation in the future.
First Selectman Michael Tetreau told the Board of Finance on Tuesday that he planned to hire an independent attorney to investigate the fire department’s contract and retirement policy. He also said that changing the pension policy would be one of his priorities in renegotiating the union’s contract later this year.
“There’s no question this will be at the top of the list,” Tetreau said Tuesday. “That’s why we’re looking at going through this review, to make sure we understand what needs to be changed, and there may be some other implications here as we go through this review that could help strengthen this contract from the town’s standpoint.”