Published January 13. 2012 4:00AM
Here is one of the most embarrassing statistics about New London you will find anywhere:
The city hasn't hired a black firefighter since 1978, when it was ordered to by the federal government, or lose its funding eligibility. And there is still only one African American on the force.
Let me repeat that, because it probably seems hard to believe.
But a city in which almost half the residents are minorities has a mostly all-white firefighting force.
I wouldn't expect Fire Chief Ronald Samul to do anything to correct it. After all, it's his legacy. He's been in charge since 1985. He's had 27 years to correct the problem, one identified in federal sanctions long before he was sworn in. And he hasn't.
In fact, Samul has been unapologetic in stories about the problem, suggesting it's not his fault the city tends to hire mostly white men from suburbs for the department.
But I thought things might improve with the election of a new full-time mayor in New London, one who promised changes and who made campaign commitments to diversity.
But not only did Mayor Finizio announce that he would keep the fire chief on in his new administration, but in mid-December, not long after being sworn in himself, Finizio upheld a December decision by Samul to fire a black recruit by the name of Alfred Mayo, who turned out to be the first black firefighter hired by the city in 34 years when he was offered the job last summer.
When I called Finizio Thursday to ask why Mayo was terminated, two days before he was to finish his training at the state firefighting academy in early December, the mayor acknowledged the gravity of the action and said he didn't do it lightly.
But he didn't offer up many good reasons why he went along with the chief's firing.
The mayor did mention some minor disciplinary issues.
Apparently Mayo had been scolded at the academy, where he was the only black recruit, for making too many animated facial expressions and was also accused of writing the name of the class in small letters in some fresh cement in a new piece of sidewalk, something he has said he didn't do. He was never formally charged or proven to have been involved in the cement incident.
"Their investigation into the matter revealed that it is very probable that recruit Mayo was involved, but refused to step forward when the entire class was asked for information on the incident" Chief Samul wrote about the wet cement incident in his Dec. 19 letter outlining Mayo's dismissal.
"If we have to question whether or not he will be trustworthy and honest at this point, I am confident he will not succeed the probationary period within the New London fire department," Samul went on to write.
The mayor made a vague reference to the "totality" of Mayo's record in approving his firing. He also mentioned some low test scores, including some that were lower than those of other recruits. Finizio specifically mentioned a 79 on one test that bothered him. The passing grade is 70.
When I caught up with Mayo Thursday to ask about his firing he was reluctant to talk about any of it, lest he seem like an agitator or complainer. But when I mentioned the mayor's complaint about his test scores, he agreed to say something.
"The condition of my job offer was the successful completion of the academy, which I did. I was not aware I was there competing against other recruits," Mayo said. "I was there to learn, and as best I can tell, having an average close to 80 is successful completion."
He added that he knows there were other recruits in his class who scored lower than he but kept their jobs in other towns.
"I am fully certified. I just want my job back," he said. "I want the opportunity to prove my worth to the citizens of New London. I've worked hard for it."
In my conversations with others who know him, I learned Mayo is the father of two. He was a volunteer for the Taftville Fire Department and has always wanted to make a career out of it. He doesn't drink or do drugs but spends most of his spare time working on a hobby/business he has, making model trains.
You can learn more about that on his website, www.custom-monster-pieces.com.
"I think it is horrific what happened to (Mayo)," said Gary Tinney, a New Haven firefighter and president of the New Haven Firebird Society, a part of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.
Tinney said what happened to Mayo is an example of the pervasive discrimination in the Connecticut firefighting community, including at the state-run academy.
Samul didn't respond to a message I left Thursday, asking about Mayo.
Mayo's attorney, Gary Cicchiello of Norwich, said he wrote a letter to Mayor Finizio Jan. 4 about Mayo's dismissal but has not heard back.
"I didn't threaten anything. All he wants is his job back, his career," Cicchiello said.
I think one of the things that worried me most in my conversation Thursday with the mayor was the way he kept turning the conversation to his commitment to diversity and how he repeatedly made mention of his new chief administrative officer, Jane Glover, a politically connected black woman.
I hope he doesn't think the hiring of one prominent black person compensates for the total lack of racial equality in the city's fire department.
I will repeat it again because it's so shocking.
The city hasn't successfully hired a black firefighter in more than 35 years. And now Mayor Finizio has laid claim to part of the responsibility for that sad statistic.
This is the opinion of David Collins.