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Firefighters Sue Harp

by Paul Bass | Apr 11, 2014 5:00 pm

(17) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Legal Writes

Melissa Bailey Photo The firefighters union, which endorsed Toni Harp’s campaign for mayor, has taken her to court to try to block her appointment of the new director of the city’s 911 emergency communications center.

The union, New Haven Firefighters Local 825, has filed suit in state Superior Court asking a judge to block the appointment of Michael Briscoe to run the center, which is housed at the police station.

The union also wants the judge to decide whether a firefighter is a “similar job” to the director of the communications center.

The union charges that Harp exceeded her authority by appointing Briscoe, a firefighter, to the position. Briscoe took over the job on Monday. He is remaining a firefighter, so he can continue to accumulate enough time on the job to eventually qualify for a pension.

“This isn’t about Michael Briscoe. This is about the process,” union President Jimmy Kottage said in an interview Friday.

Kottage said that if Briscoe had stopped being classified as a firefighter and had lost union protection, the union would not have objected.

Under the city charter, the mayor cannot move a firefighter into a different position without negotiating with the union. The Harp administration did not consult with the union on Briscoe’s hiring. It argued that the 911 position—in which Briscoe serves as a department head and supervises 55 employees who handled some 129,000 emergency calls last year—is “similar” to a basic firefighter position.

“If that’s the case, I have 300 other firefighters that should be considered for the position,” Kottage said. “But as I know and everyone knows, the jobs are not similar.”

Briscoe couldn’t be reached for comment. His attorney, David Rosen, called the suit “a surprising case for a union to bring.”

“I always thought unions were about supporting their members,” Rosen said. “In this case the union its trying to see that a member doesn’t get a good assignment so that it will go to somebody outside the union instead.”

Facebook In her March 31 letter appointing Briscoe (pictured) to the new position, Harp wrote that she was “exercis[ing] my authority under Article III, Section 2(A)(5) of the City’s Charter, to ‘assign any employee of one department to the temporary performance of similar duties in another department.’

“Consistent with the exercise of my authority ... during the temporary assignment, you will remain a member of the NHFD [New Haven Fire Department] and a member of Local 825 and will be entitled to all of the benefits associated with being a member of Local 825. ... This would not constitute a ‘break’ in service, nor would there be any effect on your pension or other benefits because you would continue to be a Firefighter, while running the Department of Public Safety Communications.”

Briscoe will serve in this “temporary” position until Oct. 30, 2015, according to Harp’s letter. He’ll earn a base salary of $67,283 for a 35-hour week (at an hourly wage of $36.97), then receive time and a half for hours beyond the first 35. “Under this arrangement, your actual yearly salary cannot be accurately predicted. However, the average week generally requires the Director to work between forty and forty-five hours,” Harp wrote.

Briscoe will become a permanent director of the department at a salary of $98,000 on Oct. 31, 2015, according to the letter.

The firefighters union’s legal complaint, prepared by East Haven attorney Patricia Cofrancesco (who served as New Haven corporation counsel in the early years of Mayor John DeStefano’s administration), brands Briscoe’s transfer “illegal.” It cites the city charter provision noted in Harp’s letter as well as Section 7-468(b) of the Connecticut General Statutes, “which recognizes the plaintiff Union as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent for the defendant Briscoe and other similarly situated employees.”

Briscoe’s appointment has provoked controversy for other reasons as well.

His appointment coincided with an agreement by the city to pay him $285,000 to settle a longstanding discrimination lawsuit he had filed; he had lost two rounds of the case in lower courts. Read about that here and here.

Also, Briscoe will supervise his ex-wife in the 911 call center.

Melissa Bailey Photo City Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden, pictured defending the Briscoe settlement at a public meeting earlier this week, could not be immediately reached for comment on the firefighters’ suit. Mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer released this statement: “This transfer of a city employee affirms not just the skills and attributes of one firefighter, but the skills and attributes of all New Haven public safety personnel, and recognizes that their training and first-hand knowledge of what is necessary in emergency situations is indispensable to the public safety of city residents. In this decision, the City tried to ensure that this Local 825 member was adequately protected, but if the leaders of Local 825 believe additional protections for this member are necessary, the City is certainly interested in discussing and resolving the matter.”

Meanwhile, the police union has filed a grievance with state labor board over the Briscoe appointment. The union argues that a police officer should be in charge of the center, which handles both police and fire 911 calls. The director’s job is technically considered a civilian position.

“Our argument has been for the past five years that we wanted someone from the police side to be up there to monitor everything going on up there,” New Haven Police Union Elm City Local President Louis Cavaliere Jr. said Friday. “Sometimes the civilians scratch their heads; they can’t make that split-second decision that a sergeant can.”

Asked about the controversy during a Tuesday interview in her City Hall office, Mayor Harp said Kottage had raised a valid point about the process. She also expressed confidence in Briscoe as a 911 chief: “Mr. Briscoe impressed me. He’s a very bright man. He’s almost finished with a PhD.”

Kottage, meanwhile, said he does not regret his union’s endorsement last year of Harp’s campaign.

“We’re definitely getting off on the wrong foot. She disrespected unions” with this appointment, Kottage said. But “I’m still supportive.”

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posted by: robn on April 11, 2014  2:43pm

There’s, wait, three? four? lawsuits discussed in this article? Once again I’m speechles.

posted by: IloveMYcity203 on April 11, 2014  2:59pm

This new administration is always doing something lol! Does anyone check before they do things!

The new administration is making Destefano look better and better each day.

On a more serious note, Harp better fix these constant loop holes, because she is only making it stronger for the next candidate(s) to run in 2015.

Last but not least, people tried to warn ya, but everyone voted her in. I still don’t have an opinion on this new administrator until January 2015, but these 4 months in aren’t helping my thoughts lol [excuse any typos]

posted by: Shaggybob on April 11, 2014  3:08pm

Let the mudslinging begin.

That’s what you get for supporting a candidate that is a good politician not a good leader.

posted by: romby on April 11, 2014  3:24pm

Very nicely written article.

I appreciate the Firefighter Union’s interest in not paying out Briscoe’s pension.  Clearly a $285,000 lump sum and a (nearly) six figure salary (for a job he is not qualified) is sufficient largess for the city to bestow to a person whose dubious discrimination suit is already a two time loser in the courts.

Could such fiscal policy be related to why property taxes are going up in New Haven?

posted by: Lisa on April 11, 2014  3:28pm

Wow.  With each new story involving our new Mayor, I am more and more baffled at the incompetence coming from your advisers.  I agree with IloveMYcity203. 2015 will be interesting if she keeps this up.  Heck, I think it will be interesting even if she tightens ship.

posted by: SwampfoxII on April 11, 2014  4:05pm

What a mess. Don’t see how Harp can leave the union entirely out of this arrangement and then issue and edict that the union must now represent this guy regarding his management job in a department that isn’t in the union, and has nothing to do with firefighting or the firefighters union. Harp is starting to look worse than Destefano when it comes to twisting rules and regulations.  As for Briscoe now supervising his wife, or ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s new partner, I suppose we can now look forward to dramas over at 911, and rash of employee grievances.  Good grief.

posted by: Bobbe Bellamy on April 11, 2014  6:27pm

Go get"em Attorney Cofrancesco.  It’ll be another win win for someone (this go round it’ll be the fire union).  The money our City pay out is unbelievable——smh

posted by: alex on April 11, 2014  6:37pm

This story just goes to show that Toni Harp is not a pawn of the unions, as everyone basically ASSUMED during the election campaign without any evidence.

The unions should allow Toni Harp to govern this city and stop their high-handed tactics. The job is hard enough. This lawsuit is ridiculous.

posted by: fountainst on April 11, 2014  7:16pm

Let me see if I have all this straight:  Briscoe’s transfer is “temporary” until Oct 2015.  He will continue to earn overtime until that time. Do ANY other department heads earn overtime? In Oct 2015 the appointment becomes permanent with a bump up to $98k a year - does he remain in Local 882 after that?  As a rank and file member of Local 882 he will be supervising members of Locals 884 and 3144. The members of 3144 are all supervisory employees - that’s awkward. Has anyone checked to see if the city’s corporation counsel has reviewed and approved the working arrangement with Briscoe supervising his former spouse,as required by city policy?  As a department head, Briscoe will be responsible for disciplinary matters - will he recuse himself from any matters involving his former spouse?  Has anyone asked the city’s new CAO, who Briscoe reports to, what he thinks of this mess that has been dropped into his lap?

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on April 12, 2014  2:23pm

DAY TO DAY performance within the communications center has been poor since 1990. Toss out the us versus them attitude adopted by the civilian employees brought in to move out any higher paid police officer, who were dispatching and answering the phones. This mess has been under non-sworn personnel for over 20 years. (apologies to those communications personnel who do the job, give 110% every day, have been sitting in the CCS room for years, with the incompetence, and mental illness that surrounds them.)

And now a firefighter is being placed in charge of a segment of the cities emergency service that is the source of chronic life endangering issues daily. Try calling on a routine telephone number to that communication center and see if anyone picks up the phone promptly. Measure if that person is polite, professeional, and able to perform their job in a manner that reflects any commitment to serving the general public, or treating any caller as another human being, and not a “problem”, just for calling for help.

Briscoe’s desire to do this shows he is truly not familiar with the level of problems there, as no amount of money could compensate him for assuming the responsibility for the continued mess that is emergency communications in New Haven. Or he doesn’t care, and knows he will not be held accountable. Or he truly is coming in with the best of intentions, to try and serve the new mayor and tax payers well, no matter how difficult the task. Who knows?

posted by: new havener on April 12, 2014  11:45pm

this is great stuff

while briscoe is in the temporary position, being fought against by his union, if he really screws this up, before getting the permanent position, the union will have to fight for him to get the permanent position, all the while fighting against him for being in the temporary position.

it’s like a marx brothers movie. honk, honk

posted by: Hmmmmm on April 13, 2014  10:55am

Gets more interesting everyday. I couldn’t agree more with the action taken by the FF union.  If Mr. Briscoe was deemed qualified for the Director of PSAP position because he is/was a firefighter, then that means that every other firefighter in the City of New Haven was also qualified for the position. They didn’t get the opportunity to apply or be considered because it was handed to Mr. Briscoe.  I’m sure there are other firefighters who would have been interested in that position.  That’s what a good union president does, looks out for the interests of all members not just a select few.  Go Kottage!  Listening 884?

posted by: Hmmmmm on April 13, 2014  11:02am

One other thing, can anyone explain to all of us how a Director qualifies for overtime under the FLSA? An employee who “has genuine input into personnel matters” is considered exempt from overtime under the FLSA.  Tell me what makes him non-exempt and therefore eligible for overtime?

posted by: robn on April 13, 2014  11:35am

NH,

The “honk” slayed me.

posted by: Jones Gore on April 13, 2014  3:24pm

New Haven Politics is more interesting than what happens in the State Capital. You think we can get a reality show called 9th Square.

posted by: fastdriver on April 14, 2014  9:17pm

LOL…LOL…Well, that love fest didn’t last long! Did they really think that just because they backed her that would mean she’d abide by the rules? It’s going to be a LONG two years!

posted by: Edward Whalley, H.C.J. on April 15, 2014  6:02pm

@Jones Gore. “I’ll take Jimmy Kottage in the Center Square to block.”

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