Clerk seeking to nullify fire district action

Groton - The clerk of the Poquonnock Bridge Fire District is asking a state commission to nullify the votes that approved a new union contract and cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.

In the complaint, which the state Freedom of Information Commission received Friday, Nancy Beckwith says the board "denied the public's right to attend" the July 26 special meeting because the agenda didn't state the board would discuss the contract and the retiree payments beyond the nonpublic executive session.

She cites the section of the Freedom of Information Act that prohibits public agencies from considering other business at special meetings.

The commission can nullify votes, said Thomas Hennick, the commission's public information officer. But it doesn't do so often.

"It would have to be shown to be a particularly egregious violation because that's an extreme remedy," Hennick said Monday. "But the commission does have that power and certainly has done it before."

The board of directors could render the point moot by voting again. But since the board now has nine members instead of five, doing so could lead to a different result.

The 10-year contract with the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 2704, took effect July 1. Under the terms, a newly hired Poquonnock Bridge firefighter, who currently would make $52,700, would earn about $70,000 in 2021. The highest-paid employee, the fire marshal, currently makes $75,450, which would increase to slightly more than $100,000 in 2021.

Retirees and their survivors now get cost-of-living adjustments, an automatic annual 3 percent increase in their retirement payments. Previously, the district could approve an adjustment, but nothing was guaranteed. Beckwith voted no on both items.

It will be a few weeks before the commission can review the complaint, Hennick said, since the more than 800 complaints it receives a year are dealt with in the order they're received. The commission will first make sure it has jurisdiction, which it does appear to have since Beckwith filed the complaint within 30 days of the alleged violation and the board is a public agency.

An ombudsman, or mediator, will be assigned to try to resolve the issue. If that fails, a hearing would be scheduled, most likely in eight to 10 weeks, Hennick said. The hearing officer's report recommends a course of action, which the commission can either approve or deny.

At the district board's annual meeting in May, the fewer than 30 voters in attendance did not re-elect the president and vice president. District voters then petitioned the board to hold a special meeting on expanding the five-member board. The board met for the first time as a nine-member body Aug. 9, with the former president and vice president now serving as members.

The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is Sept. 13, 7 p.m., at the firehouse, 13 Fort Hill Road.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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