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It is time to separate two issues.
One issue is the long failure of the New London Fire Department to diversify its ranks racially and ethnically to better reflect the diversity of the community it serves. Departments in other communities have managed to achieve such diversity without sacrificing professional excellence. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has said his administration is committed to moving New London's fire department in that direction. He wants open hiring for future firefighters, moving away from the certification requirement that favored already trained, predominately white applicants from suburban volunteer departments.
The second issue is the controversy surrounding Mayor Finizio's decision, in one of his first actions after his election in November, to follow Fire Chief Ron Samul's recommendation to fire recruit Alfred Mayo before he could become a full-fledged member of the department.
The connection between the two issues is the fact that Mr. Mayo is an African-American and his hiring would have ended a long drought of minority hiring in the department. But there is no evidence that Mayor Finizio's motivation for not hiring Mr. Mayo was to perpetuate that lack of diversity.
While one can certainly disagree with Mayor Finizio's personnel decision, trying to label it discrimination defies logic and runs counter to the mayor's other actions.
Mayor Finizio had to know firing this black recruit would be controversial, though it's probably more contentious than he could have imagined. Certainly the easier course politically for the new mayor would have been to countermand his fire chief, hire Mr. Mayo and boast of bringing diversity to the department.
But the facts troubled him. Mr. Mayo is seen giving the finger to a security camera while marching in formation at the Connecticut Fire Academy, an action he has admitted was immature, but one he notes was repeated by other recruits without repercussions. He reportedly failed to inform the department or academy about motor vehicle infractions, speeding and following too close, which the mayor said could endanger his license, a requirement for firefighters. Other accusations concerning Mr. Mayo's behavior at the academy are vague, subjective and of questionable reliability.
The fire academy itself is the subject of an internal state investigation. At issue is whether the academy, because of outright discrimination or cultural insensitivity, treats minority recruits differently and unfairly. A report is pending. The mayor knows of the concerns about the academy, but explains he also based his decision on information gained independent of academy officials, pointing to the obscene gesture and driving record.
Ultimately, the mayor decided Mr. Mayo did not meet the qualifications to be a New London firefighter, firing him just two days before the completion of his training. Agree or disagree, we do believe the mayor made what he thought was the right decision.
Subsequent discussions focused on Mr. Mayo's potential claims against the city and his possible reinstatement, said the mayor, but in the end he stood by his decision.
The City Council made the right choice Monday in rejecting calls for it to investigate the mayor's firing of Mr. Mayo. Hiring is the role of the executive, and the council should not meddle.
The mayor's overall record during his first few months in office shows a commitment to diversity. His chief administrative officer is Jane Glover, a black woman and former ceremonial mayor long active in the city's politics and civic life. He recently named Henry Kydd, a long-serving member of the fire department and an African-American, as deputy chief. He added two women to the Personnel Board and hired a Latina woman, Raquel Graham, as a records technician, providing needed translation assistance in City Hall. Given the option to make a change, he decided to keep a woman as his police chief, Margaret Ackley, still a rarity in law enforcement.
On the subject of diversity, Mayor Finizio is a pioneer himself, an openly gay man elected as the city's first strong mayor under the charter change.
Mr. Mayo has named the city, along with the fire academy, in a complaint filed with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. He may also sue the city. The process must play out. But while the academy may be vulnerable to allegations of misconduct, we don't feel a case can be made that the mayor acted in a discriminatory manner.