Reid files lawsuit over non-renewal of contract as deputy fire chief
Published 7:00 am, Thursday, May 15, 2014
The deputy fire chief claims in a lawsuit filed against the Fire Commission that the board's decision not to renew his contract is retaliation for reporting a slapping incident that involved Fire Chief Richard Felner.
The Fire Commission voted 5-2 in March not to extend Deputy Chief Art Reid's contract past its December expiration date.
The lawsuit, filed April 30 in Bridgeport Superior Court and served on the town May 5, states the commission's action not to renew Reid's contract "was in response to (Reid's) report of violations and/or suspected violations of state, federal, municipal law and/or regulations and reporting of unethical actions and abuse of authority pertaining to the fire chief" and Reid's participation in the town's investigation into the slapping allegation.
Reid's suit also claims that after he reported the incident to town human resources officials, Richard Popolowksi, a member of the Fire Commission, told him that he had "screwed up" by reporting the incident. Other commission members also were upset that Reid reported the incident, according to the suit.
In 2012, Assistant Chief George Gomola filed a formal complaint with Reid, alleging he had been slapped in the face by Felner during a confrontation at Fire Department headquarters. An independent investigator concluded that Felner more "likely than not" slapped Gomola.
Felner, 76, last week informed the Fire Commission that he did not want his contract renewed and that he plans to retire after 56 years on the force. His contract expires in June 2015.
Town Attorney Stanton Lesser declined to comment on the lawsuit. "It's being sent to counsel and it will be defended," Lesser said.
At last week's Fire Commission meeting, First Selectman Michael Tetreau said non-renewal of Reid's contract could not be discussed because of pending litigation.
According to the suit, the non-renewal violates Connecticut General Statute 31-51m, which protects employees who disclose an employer's illegal or unethical practices and provides for a civil suit after administrative remedies are exhausted. Under the law, the employee can sue for reinstatement, payment of back wages and re-establishment of employee benefits.
The suit, which names the town, Tetreau and the current members of the Fire Commission as defendants, also mentions that both Popilowski and former Commissioner Susan Barrett attended the March meeting where the vote on Reid's contract was taken. Both were on the commission at the time of the slapping incident.
"Mr. Popilowski and Ms. Barrett had not attended a Fire Commission hearing since their terms ended and neither individual intended to support the renewal of (Reid's) contract," the suit states. It also references a letter to the editor Barrett wrote, which included comments on Reid's personal retirement finances, "which was irrelevant to (Reid's) request to have his contract renewed."
In the letter, Barrett said she supported Reid when he applied for the position "over a number of other qualified candidates." She said Reid "was concerned about getting in his 10 years of service to qualify for a pension from the town of Fairfield. He had already achieved pension status upon his years of service to another fire department in another state."
Barrett's letter also stated the commission "has been focusing on a plan of succession" for administration of the department and a committee was established in June 2012 to do that. That committee consisted of Popilowski and Felner, according to the minutes, though no further mention of the committee can be found until February of this year. It was noted the committee had not met because Popilowski was no longer on the commission.
Popilowski resigned in May 2013 after a firefighter questioned the propriety of Popilowksi attending a United Way pitch to firefighters while they were attending a mandated training session. Popilowski, who was chairman of the Fire Commission at that time, is a United Way employee.