FOI complaint leads Poquonnock Bridge board to rescind firefighter contract
Groton — The newly-expanded Poquonnock Bridge Fire District board of directors voted Thursday to rescind a contract with the firefighters union that had called for annual 3 percent wage increases over the next 10 years, along with an increase in staffing and a boost in benefits for retirees.
The unanimous vote came on the heels of a complaint filed with the state Freedom of information Commission by board clerk Nancy Beckwith. Beckwith and other board members questioned the legitimacy of the 2-1 vote on July 26. She claims the agenda did not contain information announcing the board would be discussing in executive session the contract and retiree payments.
Beckwith abstained from Thursday's vote and did not attend the executive session under advice from the district's attorney.
The five of the nine board members who voted Thursday to rescind the contract and other items taken up at the July 26 meeting said that not only was the vote improper, but the contract appeared to be overly generous in a time when taxpayers cannot afford it. The size of the board was increased from five to nine members after the July 26 vote.
"What company gives a 10-year contract?" board member Randy Ackley asked.
"The meeting wasn't legal in our opinion," board member Ron Yuhas added. "Now that we have a few more people involved, I'd like to think we can come back together as a group and start over."
Ackley and Yuhas joined the board after district voters petitioned to expand membership to nine on Aug. 1.
To add to what is already a contentious issue, Beckwith said she was notified Thursday of another Freedom of Information complaint — this time questioning the legitimacy of the Aug. 1 vote that expanded the board. She does not know who filed the complaint.
With the vote rescinded, Beckwith said she expected further contract negotiations with the union.
"We're willing to work with the union, but the contract that was signed is just too much," she said. "Ten years is ridiculous and might even hurt (firefighters)."
Also voting Thursday was former board president Alan Ackley and former vice president Peter Legnos. Both were ousted at the annual meeting in May and replaced by President Christopher Clark and new Vice President Kevin Czapla.
Czapla and board member Tom Wimler were not present at Thursday's meeting. Clark, as president, cannot vote. He was not available for comment after the meeting.
It was under Clark's leadership that the board approved the 10-year contract with the Poquonnock Bridge Professional Firefighters Association, Local 2704. The contract boosted salaries for new hires from $52,700 to a high of $70,000 in 2021. Union president and fire inspector Kale Kiely became a deputy fire marshal under the contact and received a $3,000 raise in pay. The fire marshal, who now makes $75,450, would see his salary increase to more than $100,000 by 2021. The wage increases affected 28 of 30 sworn members of the department. The fire chief and deputy chief are not included.
Terms of the contract also added four lieutenant positions and authorized a force of six firefighters per shift. Retirees would have received an automatic 3 percent increase in retirement payments.
With a $4.7 million budget, Poquonnock Bridge has the highest tax rate, 5.9 mills, of the town's nine fire districts.
Property owner Jay Dempsey, one of a handful of people to attend Thursday's special meeting at the Poquonnock Bridge Fire Department's Fort Hill station, said he was acting as a watchdog.
"You trust government to do the right thing and that doesn't always happen," Dempsey said. "What bothers me is two people making such a big financial decision for so many. It made me want to get more involved."
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