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New London — Calling it a "major victory," the state and local chapters of the NAACP hailed the hiring of firefighter Alfred Mayo on Thursday, saying "the healing process must begin."
Mayo, who attended the evening press conference, said he was excited to start his career with the department. He will begin work on Monday "with the great firefighters of New London," he said.
In December, Mayo, the first black firefighter hired by the city since 1978, was fired by the city three days before his state fire academy graduation. State NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile said by offering Mayo his job back, the city had righted a wrong — a wrong that Esdaile said should have never have happened.
"This could have been dealt with in a more efficient and professional manner," Esdaile said.
Regardless, Esdaile said, Mayo is a "freedom fighter," akin to Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King Jr., who were willing to stand up and fight for what was right.
"It's not a black or white issue, it's a right or wrong issue," Esdaile said.
Earlier Thursday, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio told reporters that the firing of Mayo last year was not personal and confirmed the city offered Mayo his job back Wednesday.
Finizio said that "unconditional" reinstatement means there are "no stipulations added" and "no special conditions" attached to the offer. Though the city is in a budget crisis, Finizio said Mayo's back pay has been budgeted as part of the current year's budget. Attorney's fees, which Finizio said are not significant, will come out of a budget line in next year's budget that pays for small claims.
Finizio said the city budget crisis will affect the fire department, but hopefully not in the form of layoffs. If there are layoffs in the fire department, Finizio said, Mayo could be let go because of a contract-related "last one in, first one out" seniority policy.
"We're doing all we can to avoid layoffs in that department," Finizio said.
Finizio said it was only "fair" to pay Mayo as if he hadn't been fired because his firing was based on "tainted information" from the fire academy. An April 23 report on the academy faults the school for multiple procedural failures, inappropriate communications and possibly untrue allegations of recruit misconduct.
State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, who has championed Mayo's cause, in February called for the investigation into the academy.
Mayo was the only black recruit in last year's "Class 48" at the fire training school.
To encourage diversity in the city fire department, Finizio said he hoped to switch to an open application process rather than the current certified process, which he said limits the pool of applicants.
Rocco Basilica, fire department union president, welcomed the news that Mayo had been hired.
"We need able firefighters, and he'll have a fair chance just like every other person that walks in the door," Basilica said. "What's important to me is that they're filling the vacant spots. Staffing is our most important thing, it protects the public and the firefighters. The more staffing we have, the safer we are."
New information brought to light
Finizio said the city relied heavily on information received from the state fire academy instructor, who repeatedly told New London Fire Chief Ronald Samul that Mayo had a bad attitude and was not performing well. Finizio said such correspondence about a recruit from an academy instructor is rare, which he said spoke to its seriousness.
But the investigation into the academy — completed by the office of Reuben F. Bradford, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the fire academy — brought new information to light, Finizio said.
On Thursday, Bradford himself sent a letter to Finizio, writing that he was pleased to hear the city had offered Mayo his job back.
In the letter, Bradford invited Mayo to complete the three days of training he missed in December. The current academy class will complete that training on May 18, 21 and 22, so it provides some "synchronicity in the timing of this," Bradford wrote.
"Assuming this takes place, I would leave it to Mr. Mayo's choice whether to receive his diploma together with this year's graduating class or to receive it individually in my office," Bradford wrote in his letter, which also was sent to Samul and Mayo's attorney, Gary Cicchiello.
When he heard on Wednesday that Mayo had been offered his job back, Hewett said he had to sit down, he was so overwhelmed.
"It's a good thing we kept pushing this issue to make sure the truth comes out," he said.
Hewett said he met briefly with Finizio Thursday morning and told him the hiring was a "good move." Hewett said Mayo was "railroaded from day one."
On Thursday, Hewett said the ordeal could have been avoided. In any case, he said, changes need to occur at the state fire academy and in how a city communicates with a recruit attending the academy, located in Windsor Locks.
"I want people to know: It never was about the city's firemen, they had nothing to do it," Hewett said. "It had to do with a system that allowed recruits at the academy to be ostracized."
Hewett said his own "next move" will be to take a tour of the academy.
"I want to see what's really going on up there," he said.
New London NAACP chapter President Donald Wilson said of the news Thursday: "If you take the time, the truth will outshine everything else."
"I'm happy they decided to take him back before it went on to a lawsuit and everything else," Wilson said. "This was the right thing to do. It was wrong to fire him in the first place, so this makes it right."