Editorial / Fire panel's secrecy sounds an alarm
In the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe set the standard for mystery.
But when it comes to mystery and keeping people guessing, few best-selling novelists have anything on the seven members of the Fairfield Fire Commission.
The panel that oversees the Fire Department has over the past two months met repeatedly behind closed doors to talk about issues involving the department's highest-ranking officers.
As questions about department's management mount, the commission has kept the public in the dark, meeting in secretive executive sessions. The panel has behaved more like the Cold War Kremlin than public servants in a state with a Freedom of Information law.
Fairfield has more than $10 billion worth of real estate. Fire is any property owner's worst nightmare, and the preparedness of the fire department always is of urgent public concern.
More than two months have passed since allegations first surfaced that Fire Chief Richard Felner had slapped an assistant chief during an altercation at fire headquarters. Although Felner has denied it, an independent investigation concluded it is "more likely than not" that the chief slapped Assistant Chief George Gomola on Jan. 10.
The commission has said absolutely nothing publicly about the incident and has taken no official action.
Should Felner be disciplined? Should he be exonerated so his name is cleared?
The Fire Commission seems happy to let you wonder for yourself.
To obtain a copy of the independent investigator's report from the commission, the Fairfield Citizen had to file a request under the state's Freedom of Information law. And even after the report finally saw the light of day, the commissioners refused to talk about it.
Meanwhile, questions about the status of the Fire Department's second in command -- Deputy Chief Art Reid -- have surfaced in the wake of yet another closed-door commission meeting last week.
Reid's three year contract expires at the end of this year, and under its terms, the commission must tell him by April 1 if it plans to extend his contract. The panel talked about it behind closed doors for 2½ hours March 22 but made no decision.
Reid ultimately agreed to give the commission until its next meeting later in April for an answer. Yet the commission made no motion, took no vote to extend the deadline.
The state's Freedom of Information law allows public boards to go into executive session for very specific reasons. Most of them involve discussion of personnel matters, security issues, lawsuits or strategy in negotiation of contracts, purchases or sales.
But the law also states that any motions or votes must be in public session. So while the doors may be closed to discuss an issue, they must be opened up before taking any action on the private discussion.
The Fire Commission certainly has the right to go into executive session, and it was no surprise that it barred the public when it took up allegations the chief had struck a subordinate.
What is troubling, however, is that the commission says it has taken no action on the issue. Yet the decision to do nothing is in itself an action.
As of early this week, minutes of the Fire Commission's meetings on Jan. 12, Feb. 9, Feb. 18 and March 8 had been posted on the town's website. Executive sessions were conducted during each of those meetings, and the minutes for each state no motions were made and no votes were taken during the private session. (That's a good thing, because the law says all votes must be in public session.)
But in the absence of any action in public session, one is left to wonder what the commission talked about for hours on end.
When no action is taken in public on a serious issue that cries out for closure, one can only wonder whether some unofficial agreement of silent nods was reached in private. While one may hope the attitude is not "lets keep our mouths shut and hope this blows over," the public doesn't really know.
The Fire Commission is flouting the spirit -- if not the letter -- of the FOI law.
Public safety is a life and death issue, and taxpayers deserve explanations from a Fire Commission that is not being accountable.
The commission should quickly, decisively -- and publicly -- resolve this and leave the mysteries to the library staff.