Republicans on the Representative Town Meeting got their chance Monday to let First Selectman Michael Tetreau know what they thought about the forced resignation of Chief Fiscal Officer Paul Hiller, who was ousted in July from the post he held for 13 years.
And amid all the questions, comments and opinions came two apologies -- one from Tetreau and the other from RTM member Hank Ference, R-3.
"I am very disappointed with the lack of transparency on this issue," Ference said, and as a member of the RTM, "We owe Mr. Hiller an apology for the way this was handled and I would personally like to apologize to Mr. Hiller."
Tetreau also expressed remorse. Hiller was put on administrative leave in July because of unspecified "increasing concerns," and on July 31 a settlement was reached that outlined his new position as part-time manager of financial services, his pay, severance and pension. During that time, Tetreau refused to comment on the situation, and has since declined to give details about his concerns over Hiller's performance, citing a confidentiality and non-disparagement clause that is in the settlement.
"I'm sorry for any innuendo or rumor that was generated by this leave," Tetreau said.
Under the separation agreement with Hiller that Tetreau signed, Fairfield will continue to pay Hiller based on his annual salary of $135,591 through December, regardless of whether he has taken another job. From Jan. 1 to June 30, 2013, the town has to pay the difference between an annualized salary of $110,000 and the salary he is paid by Shelton, where he recently was hired to manage that city's Finance Department.
Many of the Republican RTM members' comments and questions centered on whether Tetreau had the authority to enter into the settlement agreement with Hiller without at least getting approval from the Board of Selectmen, and whether a precedent had been set by agreeing to bump up Hiller's salary on July 31 for purposes of calculating his pension benefits.
Tetreau said that was done because Hiller had planned on staying as chief fiscal officer for about another four years. He said payouts for unused vacation time and severance are spelled in a document outlining benefits for department heads. According to Tetreau, that document, which many on the RTM called a "side letter," has been in use by the town at least two decades.
RTM Majority Leader David Becker, R-1, said there were a lot of questions about a lack of transparency in Hiller's treatment when the matter came to light.
"The first selectman has a lot power when it comes to something like this," said Ed Bateson, R-3, but when it comes to the settlement agreement, it should have at least gone to the Board of Selectmen. "If Mr. Tetreau wanted to take it in a different direction, I absolutely understand ... What resulted was a settlement agreement with a dollar amount attached. I believe that has to go to the Board of Selectmen and that hasn't happened."
But Democrats on the RTM voiced support for Tetreau.
"I believe the first selectman acted in good conscience," said Ann Stamler, D-6. "He went out of his way to be sure he followed procedure. Over the past two months we have seen our first selectman face intense and sometimes even hostile criticism. He has listened to every question and attempted to answer, even if it had already been answered."
Through it all, Stamler said, Tetreau maintained the dignity of the office of first selectman.
Carol Way, R-10, asked Tetreau if he is actually committed to performing a search for a new CFO. For now, Robert Mayer, Tetreau's chief of staff, is acting CFO.
"A chief of staff was let go in order to put Mr. Mayer in the chief of staff position," Way said, "which you have every right to do. Now we have Mr. Mayer serving as chief of staff and also acting CFO."
Tetreau said a search for a new chief fiscal officer will be conducted in the near future with the goal of filling the post at the end of June. He said he plans to stay within the current budget for the CFO position, and since Hiller is still receiving a salary, hiring now would put the department's expenses over budget.