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.”
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.
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.”