By Hiroko Sato
GROTON -- Town Manager Mark Haddad reduced fire coverage only to cut down on overtime costs, and, contrary to full-time firefighters' claims, the manager was not trying to retaliate against them for filing a labor complaint, according to the Board of Selectmen.
"We don't want the public to think people were ever put in harm's way intentionally by the town manager," Selectman Joshua Degen said Monday night, as he reported the conclusion of the board's investigation into Haddad's directive to leave shift vacancies unfilled at the Fire Department.
The takeaway from the controversy, Selectmen Chairman Peter Cunningham said, is that selectmen need to have the manager and the employees hash out such complex issues privately rather than discussing them publicly, as Selectman Jack Petropoulos has.
But Petropoulos believes he accomplished his goal.
"It's back to full staff," Petropoulos said of selectmen's decision to fill all shift vacancies for now as the result of the public debate about staffing.
At Monday night's meeting, selectmen decided to have Haddad, Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait and Police Chief Donald Palma hammer out how to best allocate manpower and deal with overtime costs. The four slots on the daytime fire shift will be filled until Haddad reports back the result of his discussions with the two chiefs.
The decision comes two weeks after selectmen temporarily halted Haddad's shift reduction, citing concern for public safety, and had a study committee formed to look into how the manager's directive came about. As reported previously, Haddad told Bosselait not to fill vacancies unless coverage fell below three firefighters per day in November, according to Degen. There are normally four firefighters working during the day.
The Professional Firefighters of Groton, Local 4879, which represents Groton's five full-time firefighters, had filed a grievance with the town the day before Haddad's shift reduction order. The grievance was related to nonpayment of certain benefit costs that the union members say are promised under their contract. The union has accused Haddad of trying to retaliate. Haddad called the allegation baseless.
Degen said Monday night that Haddad told both Bosselait and Palma to leave shift vacancies open unless coverage fell to certain levels in order to save overtime costs. The Fire Department's overtime was growing, due to vacations and the forest fire in the fall, Degen said.
Town officials were projecting an up to $60,000 shortfall for the department's budget if it didn't rein in overtime costs, Degen said.
The issue came to the public's attention on Jan. 13, when Petropoulos made a presentation about recent delays in emergency-call responses. Cunningham said Petropoulos' handling of the issue left the impression that there was a dire issue to be resolved and was not "in the best interest of townspeople."
Degen said selectmen need to be kept informed of shift issues.
"We are the checks and balances," Degen said of the Board of Selectmen.