A letter promising an extra fire department position caused a clash between town officials this week.

It was revealed late Wednesday night during a meeting of the Board of Finance -- one day after First Selectman Ken Flatto (as member of the Board of Selectmen) recommended cutting an additional $100,000 from the Board of Education budget -- that Flatto had a signed letter of agreement with the fire union more than a year ago to provide the department one extra firefighter for the ladder truck. This move would cost the town in excess of $370,000 annually, and the position would be filled by four different firefighters working overtime every day.

The fire department wanted the added position two years ago, according to Flatto. However, he was concerned about the cost and asked the union to hold off on its request. The union honored Flatto's request and Flatto agreed to go forward with the extra position for the ladder truck in July 2010, which makes it possible for the fire department to deploy a second ladder truck as a rescue truck in the same shift if need be.

RTM Moderator Jim Walsh said a side letter is usually used to clarify certain ambiguities in a contract when they come up.

"But this minimum manning issue is the clearest term in the contract and the most expensive term in the contract," he said. "This is hardly something that should be unilaterally changed with a hidden side letter by the first selectman."

It was also revealed during Wednesday's meeting that Flatto actually signed two side letters of agreement. The first letter (which didn't have a date on it), plus Flatto's decision to suspend the program, resulted in the union filing a prohibitive labor practice violation claiming Flatto was reneging on the original side letter of agreement. Therefore, to resolve the dispute, they negotiated a second side letter agreement.

Town officials argued Wednesday that the letter of agreement was never run by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) or even the Board of Selectmen (BOS).

"This is the biggest power grab I've ever seen," said Walsh, who has been a part of the legislative body for a dozen years. "We at the RTM approved this last fire contract, with a minimum manning of 22." Flatto's agreement would change that 22 figure to 23.

Flatto told the Fairfield Citizen that the agreement he made with the union was far from a power grab.

"I believe I was following the intent of town boards that did vote two years ago to fund this program, though they want to test the program. Mr. Walsh and [RTM member] Peter Ambrose may not remember that the `ladder shift' work expansion was fully discussed at both the BOF and RTM level and the RTM approved funding," Flatto said. "If the town boards had denied funding, I never would have proceeded to commit the fire department to proceed with this program. But the town boards voted to go forward (albeit some wanted to have a review before making it permanent). This appears to me to be more a case of people on the town boards not realizing we had to conduct internal negotiations over aspects of this issue ... so in retrospect, I think the only issue is that I should have briefed the board about this side letter a year ago instead of having it come up this year. I did not expect it to be so controversial."

Walsh said he doesn't believe, in retrospect, that the side letter of agreement would ever see the light of day, "considering [Flatto] kept it in his desk drawer and did not file it properly with the town clerk's office."

Walsh believes if terms of a public contract are changed, a side letter of agreement should be made public, and therefore, he is of the opinion there may be an FOI (Freedom of Information Act) violation. He plans to look into the matter before possibly filing an FOI violation.

Board of Finance members asked Flatto Wednesday what would happen if the board decided not to fund the money for the extra firefighter. Flatto said he didn't want to speculate. Ambrose and Walsh, in the hallway just outside the meeting room, both said they wouldn't be surprised if litigation sprouted from this.

Back inside the meeting, Flatto told the BOF members: "My hope is that we can convince you this is a good idea, even during a tough time."

Board of Finance Chairman Tom Flynn, noting the town is dealing with a very lean budget, wondered where in the budget this money would come from if the Board of Finance or RTM decided to cut the funding, only to find out they had a legal obligation to fulfill Flatto's letter of agreement, which is considered collective bargaining.

Connecticut General Statute Section 7--474 (b) states that where the town legislative body is a "town meeting," the Board of Finance shall approve sufficient funds for a collective bargaining agreement.

"Is the RTM a town meeting?" asked Robert Bellitto Jr., a member of the Board of Finance who is also an attorney. "It depends on how you define town meeting."

There is another statute, Section 7-193 (organization of government structure), that defines the term listing different forms of government, including a "town meeting; a representative town meeting; a board of selectmen, council, board of directors, board of aldermen or board of burgesses; or a combination of a town meeting or representative town meeting," among others.

The confusion or debate results from CGS Section 7-474 (b) referencing a "town meeting" and Section 7-193 separating out "town meeting" and "representative town meeting."

"If we don't know what the legislature's intent was, it's hard to make heads or tails of it," Bellitto said. "If we choose to cut [the funds for the additional firefighter], we don't want to have a situation where we're told we had a statutory obligation to fund it."

Board of Finance member Michael Tetreau said Wednesday night that he was frustrated with the situation. "This is not [the time] when you make a decision to add [close to $400,000] worth of expenses to the budget."