Revelation of memo on firefighter pact sparks anger
Updated 12:19 pm, Thursday, February 2, 2012
The Fairfield Board of Selectmen learned Wednesday that former First Selectman Kenneth Flatto signed a memo of understanding with the local firefighters' union in January 2011 that limited issues that could be arbitrated after the Representative Town Meeting rejected the contract in June 2010.
Under state statute, that memo needed to be approved by the RTM. But it was never brought to the legislative body and so, by law, it was considered approved 45 days after it was signed, according to the town's labor counsel.
The Jan. 24, 2011, memo stated that with the exception of sick leave, wages and pensions, all other aspects of the three-year contract "shall remain in full force and effect."
In that context, the town's new labor counsel, Patrick McHale, is recommending the RTM approve the contract it rejected. The new pact would expire in July 2013 in any case, he said, while arbitration costs to the town would be about $80,000 to $100,000. It would mean the town could risk losing the cut in sick days that it negotiated, McHale said, and any requirement that newly hired firefighters would go into a 401a retirement plan, rather than the now-standard pension, would only apply to a very few people.
"There's got to be confidence in the system, that our first selectman is going to follow the charter," Selectman James Walsh said. "This is extremely disappointing."
McHale said the law does not require that any contracts or memorandums of understanding be brought to the Board of Selectmen, but if they involve any commitment of town funding, under law they must go to the RTM.
"This is so unfair," Flatto told the Fairfield Citizen on Thursday, "and I am asking for an apology since no one discussed the full and correct facts regarding the steps I and our labor lawyers took to resolve the contract and minimize the town's costs and legal exposure, and no one had the courtesy to inform me this was being discussed."
He said the memorandum of understanding came after attempts to renegotiate reached an impasse and an unfair labor suit was filed against the town. Flatto said he convinced the union to proceed to arbitration on just a few issues "given all other contract items were reviewed by the RTM and all members said they liked the rest of the proposed contract." He said officials did what was legally required.
Flatto said labor lawyer Donald Houston, representing the town, explained to the RTM after it rejected the contract that it would have to wait until after arbitration was complete to become involved again.
"This MOU was the legal step required according to my lawyers to arbitrate," Flatto said. "I thought this is what the RTM expected us to do and we told town boards during budget sessions that we were starting arbitration, so I do not understand why selectmen who are not negotiators would improperly criticize this now."
Flatto said Houston did not sit in on all the talks regarding the memorandum of understanding, but was advising the town and helped to draft the document. "He was not in all the meetings," he said, "we were trying to keep the costs down."
"I can't believe I'm saying this again, but can we void this agreement by the first selectman for failing to follow procedure?" Walsh asked. He was referring to the issue that arose recently with the revelation that a "secret" letter signed by Flatto with the state Department of Transportation agreed to a change in the parking revenue stream from the Fairfield Metro train station parking lot. That letter also was never sent to the RTM.
"No, you can't," McHale responded. He said former Town Attorney Richard Saxl apparently was not part of the negotiations, and "most of it was off-the-record negotiations. In other words, it didn't happen unless we reach an agreement. There aren't a lot of notes or history."
First Selectman Michael Tetreau said those practices have now changed. "There's no excuse for not knowing the rules," he said, adding that the issue was discussed Wednesday in order to give the RTM members enough time to familiarize themselves with the contract and the reasons for the recommendation that it now be approved.
"There's nothing that's happy here," Tetreau said, "nothing that's creating good will when negotiations are kept in secret and documents are not disclosed."
Walsh said he has no problem with the firefighter union's actions. "This has no bearing on what the fire union has done," he said. "My concern is on our side. The rules clearly weren't followed." He reiterated his request for a town charter revision that would include penalties for town officials who don't follow the rules, such as revoking their pensions or medical benefits.
As for the contract, McHale said it would make better sense to get the latest fire union contract signed and move forward on the five other municipal employee contracts that remain outstanding -- police, Department of Public Works, mid-managers, Emergency Communications Center and public health nurses. All expired in 2010.