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Commission Suspends Provisional Promotions within Fire Department

This vote came in response to First Selectman Michael Tetreau's announcement that the town is investigating the practice of advancing firefighters close to retirement.

The Fairfield Fire Commission voted unanimously Thursday to suspend all provisional promotions within the fire department for 30 days as the town investigates the practice of advancing firefighters close to retirement.   

The vote came after two hours of closed-door deliberations.

"The main reason for this motion is that we're in the process of an investigation," Commission Chair Richard Popilowski said. "We want to see what [the investigation] entails" before the commission decides whether or not to rescind the motion.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau announced at Tuesday's Board of Finance meeting that he is bringing in independent counsel to investigate review after Board of Finance Chair Tom Flynn received an anonymous letter revealing that several firefighters were promoted -- some provisionally, or temporarily -- just days and weeks before retirement.

The promotions boosted the salaries the firefighters' pensions are based on and could cost the town nearly $2 million in contributions to the police and fire pension fund, according to information provided by Selectman Kevin Kiley.

The issue is emphasized by the number of retirements in the past two years (to date, 10, according to Human Resource information Kiley obtained).

Popilowski said the department is facing "unique circumstances...a perfect storm" because there are a lot of individuals with the opportunity to retire before they lose their cost of living adjustment (COLA) on April 1.  

Felner added that employees are worried they will lose benefits they have worked toward for decades when the firefighters contract is up for negotiation come June.

"I'm very concerned about this," Fire Chief Richard Felner said. "I'm losing a lot of experience."

To fill vacancies left by assistant chiefs, lieutenants, and training officers who retire, Felner said he follows the contract and offers the job to the senior employee in the rank below. That employee may choose to retire in the new position, regardless of how long he has held it.

The department can also follow a promotional list to fill vacancies, rather than offer to the next senior man, Felner said. The list is based on the results of a promotions test, and once the scores are in the department can use the record for 18 months.

A test was scheduled for late October, but it was postponed due to Superstorm Sandy. It was administered last week.  

According to Bob Smith, president of the local chapter of the firefighters union, the department hasn't kept a running list for promotions in years due to the costs to administer the test. During periods when the department does not need to fill vacancies, there is no reason to administer the test, he said -- but then come retirement sprees like the one the department is currently facing.

"It's a catch-22 we're in," Smith said.  

tonypct January 11, 2013 at 12:40 PM
Sounds like a step in the right direction. I hope the results of this investigation will be transparent and readily available to all residents. And that someone, or some people, will be held accountable.
concerned citizen January 11, 2013 at 02:23 PM
i am outraged that this has been occuring, probably for years(and more than likely in the police dept. too). Hopefully the investigation into the promotions will be thorough. The town should not pay the individuals who were promoted within a year of their retirement the new salary rate. We are being taxed to death in our town & this is one more reason why.
Bill January 11, 2013 at 02:32 PM
I agree tony. However, I am disappointed that the Commission and others, took this long to address this. The Commission is aware of the Firemen's compensation costs - it's in their budget that they are supposed to review and verify every year during budget time. I'm sure this is not a surprise... My hope is that all Town Commissions review their budgets closely so that the Town can address this "practice" that Firemen have been utilizing so that it can be addressed in other Town affairs.
John Jameson January 11, 2013 at 02:33 PM
What exactly is this investigation going to uncover? That some firefighters were promoted or transferred and then retired? We know that. The answer is change the contract, requiring that they hold a position for a specific period of time before retiring or they retire at their previous salary. Also, have the TOWN follow its own regulations: giving 30 days notice to retire as well as scheduling exams when vacancies occur, as required under the contract. Concerned citizen, do you think the town can legally take away a retiree's pension? Those pension approvals went through the proper channels. Is the goal to get rid of Felner? Should've done that when he "more likely than not" slapped one of his assistant chiefs instead of extending his contract for another year.
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 02:34 PM
Is anyone sick of the independent counsel nonsense yet? that means an outside attorney at 500 bucks an hour because we have a political appointee as a human resource director instead of a professional who could conduct an investigation. Let's review the counsels work.... the fire chief slapping incident? God only knows how much money we blew on that for NO result... no resolution ... he "probably" did it. What did the town do? Nothing. So what do we have? One of two high ranking fire officials is an outright liar...and the town is ok with that... who won? The chief and the law firm the town hired. Contracts... does anyone realize the town actually conducted their own contract negotiations internally? When we had an actual human resources director? Not anymore... now the town hires the same counsel again.. the result? Town has paid more than $200k in legal fees to a law firm because the town won't sit with its employees... and for what? A contract that didn't really change..and that is already up for negotiation! Want to investigate the promotions...good..go ahead..you should. Want to stop them... good maybe you should.. hire someone to investigate it? Stop the nonsense of wasting money and do your job! It's not watergate for Gods sake...it's a prior practice that has existed for years.. stop it if you deem necessary.. but there isn't much to investigate! Sorry the counsel shouldn't get paid more $$ unless it comes from someone's salary at town hall.
Bill January 11, 2013 at 02:40 PM
Well said regarding "fixing" this without having to spend thousands on attorney's fees. This appears to be an easy fix, but I have a feeling the unions will have something to say about this...
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 02:52 PM
No CC.. it doesn't happen at the police department so "more than likely" you are wrong
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 03:04 PM
Hiring a law firm to discover what is obvious... a dumb prior practice...is a waste of 500 bucks an hour! Just get it changed!! Do your paid jobs and ask questions yourself.. you are the town executive officers for Gods sake!
James H January 11, 2013 at 03:12 PM
Bill..."The Commission is aware of the Firemen's compensation costs - it's in their budget that they are supposed to review and verify every year during budget time. I'm sure this is not a surprise" I agree, I would hope they are reviewing the budgets that they are responsible for however the budget doesn't have anything for pension costs. If I'm not mistaken the only costs that hit the pension line is any additional true-up between the fund balance and what the actuary says the balance needs to be based on the current retiree population. From what I've read in previous articles (especially after the Madoff scandal) that's why the town did not have to contribute to the pension for so many years - the fund increases from the normal employee contributions combined with the fund performance exceeded what was currently needed.
fairfieldtownie January 11, 2013 at 03:20 PM
Nonsense you are 100% correct on all accounts!!! The Human Resource Director is useless. Doesn't know her job, never has and never will. Hiring outside counsel when the town has their own attorneys is a big problem and like you said $200k in legal fees. I think our first selectman loves to spend money in this town and doesn't take into consideration the taxes we pay. BTW does he own a home in Fairfield yet?
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 03:23 PM
Ummm ... I'm not aware of any department commission involved in the budget process or in developing the budget. They are just appointed citizens. The department head developes the budget and moves it through the budget process. I'm sure most commissioners haven't got a clue about the budget...some in their 90s sleep through meetings!
Bill January 11, 2013 at 03:41 PM
Nonsense, I didn't say they were involved in the budget process or developing the budget. However, they are responsible for reviewing the results of the proposed budget for that particular Commission and are required to vote on it. If the commisioners ask questions regarding the budget, or certain practices like the one we are discussing here today, then it could be brought to the attention of the Selectmen's. Now, if you have Commisionners sleeping, and not asking the right questions, I can see why something like this could be overlooked.
Anybody But January 11, 2013 at 03:59 PM
You are all so concerned and outraged, how many of you peeled yourself away from sitting behind your computer to attend the meeting last night and voice your concerns in a public forum? Anybody? Anybody?
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 04:04 PM
Bill, Check the town charter. They police/fire commissions do not review or vote on the proposed budget. They are figure head positions doled out by politicians to thank them for support. Most of the time they have no clue about the departments they oversee. Don't confuse our title with what a police or fire commissioner means in a place like...say NYC.
Bill January 11, 2013 at 04:10 PM
Nonsense, Thank you for the update. I'm a volunteer on a Commission in Fairfield and we review/ask questions and vote on proposed budget. I assumed all of the Town commissions did the same - Thank you for clarifying.
Bill January 11, 2013 at 04:19 PM
How was the meeting?
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 04:27 PM
Haha...lol Bill
James H January 11, 2013 at 05:05 PM
Does anybody know if any of these commissioners have any knowledge at all about how a fire department really works (or should work) or are they all just political cronies?
larryF January 11, 2013 at 06:30 PM
James they are all Felners puppets,they have no clue what they are doing,they are told what to say by Felner before the meetings and thats what they do,why do you think they run and hide in executive session every meeting.
Frank Lombardo January 11, 2013 at 07:00 PM
All items that get paid out of the towns treasury regardless, should be regularly audited and oversight all entries. Also any costs should be held accountable in order to not impact taxpayers or be all partisan in decisions. At least this is a step in the right direction.
Fairfield Family since 1641 January 11, 2013 at 07:12 PM
larryf - glad you don't run the town because you really habe no clue. The commisioners for both police and fire are appointed by the Selectman. The Chiefs of both deparments have no say in who gets appointed. The reason they go into executive sessions is because there are certain things that can't be discussed in public, such as personnel, grievances and personal matters. Most times the Chiefs are not included in these meetings unless their opinion is needed.
dave crosby January 11, 2013 at 07:33 PM
I am glad that at the very least,this ruse came to light. now ,we indeed need to do something about it. contracts need to be gone over with a fine tooth comb,and felner should resign. if not,it goes without saying his contract should not be renewed.you all have good points about the human resources dept. what a freaking joke.
Nonsense January 11, 2013 at 08:02 PM
Fairfield family, You are right to saybthat the fire chief has no formal authority in picking commission members... but you are naive to think he doesn't have serious political pull to pick favorites.. also, don't act like these commissions run their departments... they know they don't know what the hell they are doing (usually zero police/fire .babackground ) and just defer decisions to the chief anyway. As in.... what do you think we should do chief??
payattention January 11, 2013 at 08:23 PM
The last time the town charter was reviewed the recommondation was to do away with the fire commision so the town big wigs added two more commissioners
Igor January 11, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Remember folks. The firemen and police keep us safe. We should make sure that both have all the equipment and personnel they need to respond to any emergency. In emergencies like this we don't need any delays.
dave crosby January 11, 2013 at 10:03 PM
igor, nobody wants to withhold the proper equipment and personnel that is financially prudent. what we don't want is being taken advantage of by the likes of chief felner,and the type of mindset that thinks its just fine to screw over the hardworking people of this town who pay their salaries.
fairfield newcomer January 11, 2013 at 10:10 PM
I don't believe there is anything in the town charter that requires home ownership to the the first selectman, renters are also town residents who pay taxes indirectly through the rent they pay and personal property taxes on cars and the like. Find another issue to snipe about, there are a plethora of them to bitch about but this one doesn't have legs.
Fairfield Family since 1641 January 11, 2013 at 11:16 PM
I agree with their zero background (although on of the new commisioners was a volunteer fireman) but the for the most part they couldn't tell a fire truck from a football or a police car from a peacock. as far as picking it depends on what political party is in office for the Selectman and what cronny he wants to take care of.
Igor January 12, 2013 at 12:00 AM
We also don't want to get the firemen depressed and unresponsive
Nonsense January 12, 2013 at 12:21 AM
Is it true that the guy that Tetreau hired to run the towns finances since Hiller was fired actually lost all his personal money to Madoff?? If so, should he be handling the town purse strings?!!? Does anyone vet these people!?!? WTH?? Also, does anyone have the running tab the Town has paid to this outside counsel so far?? I believe its in excess of $200k, but I havent popped into town hall lately.

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