Firefighter fumes over fundraising 'conflict' by fire panel chairman
Updated 7:01 am, Thursday, May 16, 2013
Did the chairman of the Fire Commission cross the line when he showed up at mandated Fire Department training classes to make a pitch for his employer, the United Way? At least one firefighter thinks so.
As chairman of the commission, Richard Popilowski helps to set the rules and regulations governing the Fire Department and its employees. As director of individual and major gifts for United Way, Popilowski helps to raise funds for the nonprofit agency.
His appearances as a paid United Way employee at mandated fire-reporting training sessions for firefighters in March prompted letters of complaint from Firefighter Wayne Parks.
Department members had already received an email regarding contributions to the United Way fundraising campaign.
Parks, a 23-year veteran of the department, wrote to both Fire Chief Richard Felner and First Selectman Michael Tetreau about what he calls a clear conflict of interest. Parks said he is making his complaint not as a labor issue, but as a town resident.
He said that he and the other firefighters were uncomfortable with being asked to donate to the United Way while the Fire Commission chairman is "hovering over them."
Parks said when Popilowksi appeared at his training session to speak on behalf of the United Way, it was the second time he had done so.
He said he contacted Felner, who agreed with him, but that Popilowski continued to appear at six more training sessions over a two-week period. Popilowski asked for, and received, permission to attend the training sessions from Felner.
"Every company that asks for permission to pitch their service to Fire Department members does so in a manner that makes their presentation entirely voluntary and never accompanied with mandatory training sessions," Parks said.
He said Popilowski gave introduction and closing remarks for the United Way presentation by another staffer, and stayed in the room during the presentation.
Popilowski, hired by the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County last October, was asked in several emails and a phone call to respond to Parks' complaint. He responded Tuesday by email, saying: "I forwarded your email to my superiors." Prior to his United Way post, he was director of development for the Milford Hospital Foundation.
"I have found it offensive how certain commission members and other representatives of the town treat their positions as bully pulpits in the most negative connotation of that phrase," Parks said.
In response to his March 14 letter questioning the propriety of Popilowski's appearance at the mandated training sessions, Felner wrote in a March 19 email to Parks: "After reading your letter -- I agree -- I'll be in touch."
On April 18, Tetreau sent a response in writing to Parks.
"You pointed out that it is not a good practice for a current member of the Fire Commission who also works for United Way to be involved in any way with the annual United Way presentations to the Fire Department employees," Tetreau wrote. "This certainly can have the appearance of a conflict."
Tetreau said as soon as his office learned of the situation, "We directed that this practice be stopped and we have taken steps to make sure that it will not happen again."
Tetreau said he spoke with Popilowski, who confirmed he would not participate in any way in future presentations on United Way fundraising to firefighters.
"As much as Mr. Popilowski wasn't taking part in the presentations, I think it certainly can have the wrong appearance," Tetreau told the Fairfield Citizen on Tuesday. "And when we became aware of it, we corrected that going forward so it would not happen again."
Parks, however, said that at the very minimum, Popilowski should email an apology to department members.
"If blatantly disobeying Standards of Conduct are only to be swept away with an, `Oh, OK, I won't do it again since I'm done doing it anyway,' then what stops any of us from looking forward to getting away with future misdeeds and ethical breaches," Parks wrote in his most recent letter to Tetreau. "Should we all just save time and say `oops' now so we can quickly put the future behind us?"
Under the town charter, there are standards of conduct that apply to all elected and appointed boards and commissions, officers and town employees.
Any violation is grounds for removal from office, or termination of employment.
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