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Editorial / Fire panel again favors secrecy and silence

Published 5:21 pm, Thursday, January 17, 2013
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Troubling questions about the oversight of the Fairfield Fire Department have surfaced again.

And once again, Fire Commission members are projecting a preference for secrecy rather than conducting the public's business in the light of day.

Thanks to an anonymous letter to the Board of Finance, it has come to light that the Fire Department customarily moves firefighters to higher-salaried positions shortly before they retire -- thus guaranteeing them fatter pension checks.

In the past 18 months, eight firefighters have retired. Six were transferred or promoted to jobs with higher salaries. Some served just two weeks in the new job but will enjoy heftier pension benefits every month for the rest of their lives.

The practice has boosted recent retirees pensions by as much as $8,000 a year. An outraged Selectman Kevin Kiley estimates the cozy deals will cost Fairfield taxpayers nearly $2 million in added costs over the next three decades.

But rather than deploring the practice and vowing to curtail it, some Fire Commission members seem more upset that the mess wasn't kept private.

Fire Commission Chairman Richard Popilowski was agitated that the finance board made the letter of complaint public rather than silently passing it to the Fire Commission.

Had the letter gone to the commission, Popilowski said, "I don't think it would have blown out of proportion like it did."

But the situation has not "blown out of proportion." The grave concerns of selectmen and finance board members about the fairness and financial impact of pension upgrades are perfectly appropriate to what's gone on.

And taxpayers who will be paying the pensions have a right to know.

Commission member Charlene Lebo, like Popilowski, was unhappy that the cat was out of the bag. "I would like to see something like this not brought to the public before all the facts are clear."

The commission has an established track record of keeping things secret -- even after all the facts are clear.

When Fire Chief Richard Felner last year was accused of slapping a subordinate at fire headquarters, the commission hunkered down secretly behind closed doors for hours on end. In meeting after meeting, the panel went into executive session to talk about the case.

An independent investigation concluded that the chief "more likely than not" slapped Assistant Chief George Gomola in the face three times.

Yet after their secret meetings, the commission took no action -- neither disciplining nor exonerating Felner. Then they refused to discuss the matter.

It issued no report and silently swept the incident under the rug -- although anyone looking at the rug could plainly see the huge bulge.

Once again, it's clear commission members would prefer the pension issue, too, could be hidden away from the public.

Popilowski told selectmen they were overstepping their bounds in even talking about the issue. First Selectman Michael Tetreau nonetheless has said he will appoint an independent investigator to probe the matter.

While Lebo prefers to keep the public in the dark "until all the facts are clear," many facts already are known. Among them:

Felner customarily has made provisional promotions of firefighters before they retire.

Such promotions are permissible under terms of the firefighters contract when there is no current list of qualified candidates based on test scores.

There is no current promotion list, although an exam was recently held.

Felner recently orchestrated the short-term transfers of three officers that allow two retiring assistant chiefs to collect an extra $8,168 a year in pension payments.

In negotiation of the current firefighter contract, a proposal to require 12 months service in a position before it affected pension benefits was rejected.

The department has routinely ignored a pension-plan rule that employees give notice of at least 30 days before retiring.

It is imperative that the situation be corrected in the next firefighters contract, and lists of personnel eligible for promotion must be maintained.

But make no mistake: anyone who has ever jumped into a pair of boots and hopped on a fire truck to answer an alarm is a hero. Every single day that a firefighter checks in for a shift, his or her life is on the line.

For the risks they take and the brave service they provide, firefighters deserve good pay and good retirement plans. But two weeks in a temporary job should not be rewarded with an additional $680 a month for life.

As for the Fire Commission, it has a responsibility to conduct the public's business in public. Given its penchant for secrecy, should anybody really be surprised the complaint was sent not to the commission but to a panel that would handle it openly?

It is good and proper that the selectmen are concerned about the fire pensions. But the selectmen appoint fire commissioners, and moving forward, they should insist on candidates who will conduct the public's business transparently and in plain view.