After spending almost two hours behind closed doors with all three selectmen, the Fire Commission on Thursday voted to freeze provisional appointments of firefighters for the next 30 days while lists for future promotions are established.
The Fire Department's provisional promotions and transfers came under scrutiny -- and sparked controversy -- when it was recently learned that several firefighters had been transferred or promoted shortly before retirement. Under the firefighters' union contract with the town, firefighters who retire while serving a provisional appointment have their pensions based on that higher salary, no matter how briefly the provisional post is held.
"We're in the process of an investigation," commission Chairman Richard Popilowski said. "We want to see what that investigation entails. Once we get that, we'll rescind this or move in a different direction."
For the third time at a public meeting the last two weeks, Fire Chief Richard Felner read a report on Fire Department staffing. He gave the same report last week to the Board of Selectmen and this week to the Board of Finance.
According to Felner, he has simply been following the union contract when a vacancy occurs and no promotional list is in place to fill the job. He also said two assistant chiefs were transferred to the fire training center -- a position that carries a 10 percent pay premium -- in an attempt to give Assistant Chief Chris Tracy, who had held that post, some experience on the line as a shift commander. Both assistant chiefs, however, retired about two weeks after their transfer to the fire training job and, as a result, their annual pensions were increased by about $8,000. Tracy has since been transferred back to supervising the training center.
The contract calls for the provisional appointments to be offered first to the firefighter with the highest seniority. If, however, a promotional list has been established, the promotions are done according to that list. Under the contract, the Fire Commission is required to schedule a promotional exam within 90 days of a job vacancy occurring if there is not a valid list.
Exams for promoting firefighters to lieutenant and assistant chief jobs were held this month. They had been postponed from last October, having initially been scheduled on the day Superstorm Sandy hit.
Felner said he needed to have senior leadership on shifts where there were vacancies because of retirements, and without a valid promotional list, led to several provisional appointments.
Over the past year, a number of firefighters retired within several weeks of filing their papers with the town. However, the municipal pension plan requires 30 days notice, and Human Resources Director Mary Carroll Mirylees sent a notice to police and firefighters Monday indicating that provision will be enforced.
There was little public discussion of the pension controversy at Thursday's meeting between the selectmen and fire commissioners. The exception was questioning by Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey about the testing process and promulgation of a promotional list.
"It sounds like we're not going to have a lot conversation here," Vahey said.
Commissioner Charlene Lebo expressed concern that the anonymous letter that prompted the controversy was not forwarded to the fire panel by Board of Finance Chairman Thomas Flynn. Popilowksi agreed, "I was very disappointed," he said. "I feel if he (Flynn) called me ... I don't think it would have blown out of proportion like it did."
"I would like to see something like this not brought to the public before all the facts are clear," Lebo said.