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Guest column / Ex-chief of staff: Sound alarm over firefighter pensions

Updated 7:09 am, Friday, January 11, 2013
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I just finished reading the Fairfield Citizen's Jan. 4 lead story about firefighters being promoted just before they retire -- a custom that boosts their pension payments.

As the former chief of staff to the previous and the current first selectmen, I have avoided entering the public discourse since leaving town government out of respect to the current administration. After a successful corporate career, I entered town employment only with a desire to make the town a better place to live.

I can remain silent no longer.

The Citizen reported that the head of a town department promoted a number of his trusted people into higher-salaried positions, enabling them to retire just days later with higher pension payments. Nothing in any contract requires anyone to do this. But let us not get distracted by talk of irrelevant contract language.

Fire Chief Richard Felner -- who during discussion of the issue told the Board of Selectmen he is a "good manager" and is "doing an excellent job" -- promoted a number of firefighters who then promptly retired, some within days.

Any discussions with these firefighters their promotions? No mention of retirement? No promotion party to congratulate them? No retirement parties previously planned?

Please. It strains credulity to think that the fire chief did not know that his most trusted colleagues intended to retire shortly after receiving these higher salaries.

If these alone were the facts, it would be straightforward to instruct the town attorney to advise the pension board to deny these benefits. Mistakes and poor judgments happen.

But my reading of the facts indicates a much deeper problem.

It seems that the fire chief may have created a scenario for two promotions by transferring Assistant Chief Chris Tracy laterally from his duties as the primary training officer to shift commander, saying it was a good idea for Tracy to get line experience.

So, the very first of these "pension promotions" was to fill Tracy's previous post. Felner moved Assistant Chief Doug Chavenello to the higher-salaried training post vacated by Tracy. Chavenello retired 14 days later, and Felner then moved Assistant Chief Stephen Curry to the training post at a higher salary. Curry retired 12 days after that.

For his part, Tracy objected to his transfer and had filed a union grievance over it. But after the two quick retirements, the fire chief returned Tracy to the training center and, voila, the grievance is withdrawn. The chief apparently no longer seems to think it's such a "good idea" for Tracy to get line experience.

A cynical person might think this was all well planned to reward friends and colleagues for a job well done. I will let readers draw their own conclusions.

This is a sad day for Fairfield, and I dare say a sad day for the management of the fire department. Speaking of management, where was the first selectman's office when all these promotions, retirements and grievances were ongoing? But I digress.

How does the fire commission allow this? How does the pension board permit this?

I could continue and point out that if these "pension promotions" are allowed to stand we will read about "past practices" and how all town employees are now entitled to these promotions to boost their pensions.

I could continue and talk about how the town is violating the provisions of its own pension plan, but again, I digress.

Selectman Kevin Kiley -- who grilled Felner on the promotions -- appears to be the lone voice of outrage. Mr. Kiley, you are not alone.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau since has said he will hire an independent counsel to investigate the situation. The finance board -- the body ultimately responsible for the town's fiscal well being -- has given Tetreau a list of questions it wants addressed.

If the scenario described proves true, I urge the Board of Selectman to instruct the town attorney to take whatever steps necessary to deny these inflated pension benefits. Don't just be "concerned and troubled." Do the right thing.

Wake up, Fairfield! We should all be concerned about our town's fiscal health and the taxes we will pay to cover these inflated pension benefits. Even three blind men can make out this elephant.

Tom Bremer was former First Selectman Ken Flatto's chief of staff and served briefly in that capacity under current First Selectman Michael Tetreau.