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Judge extends New Haven Fire Department oversight; special master must OK all promotions

Aug 26 2012

As it appeared in the New Haven Register

By William Kaempffer, Register Staff

wkaempffer@nhregister.com / Twitter: @kaempffer1

NEW HAVEN — A Superior Court judge has ordered judicial oversight of all promotions in the city Fire Department for at least one more year.

Judge Angela Robinson appointed Judge Jonathan Silbert, who is leaving the bench after most recently presiding over civil cases in New Haven, as the new “special master.”

The city had asked the court to rescind the decade-old order requiring all promotions be approved in advance by a court-appointed overseer. City attorneys argued that the city had adhered to the letter of the law and that oversight was no longer necessary.

The fire union and an attorney for the firefighters, whose 1998 lawsuit triggered the court order, disagreed.

Robinson appointed Silbert as special master to serve from Sept. 4 until Sept. 4, 2013, when the issue can be revisited.

“It’s a victory for the process,” said Lt. James Kottage, president of Fire Fighters Local 825. He said there are still ongoing questions about whether the city would “do the right thing” without ongoing monitoring.

Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden said the city was reviewing the order.

“The city has received the court’s ruling, is reviewing it and will respond accordingly,” he said in a statement. “In any event, the court has established clear guidelines for ending this 14-year litigation.”

Robinson ruled that by Sept. 4, 2013, the new special master would submit a final report determining whether the city has been in continued compliance with state and local promotional rules and, if so, the order requiring the special master will be terminated.

Race-based litigation over promotions in the Fire Department dates back decades. In the case in question, black firefighters successfully challenged the city’s practice of “underfilling,” where the department could promote more supervisors than it had budgeted spots in a given rank by funding the salaries with vacancies in different ranks.

The plaintiffs argued the practice discriminated against minorities.

Their attorney, Martyn Philpot, said his clients were delighted by the decision that “keeping the Fire Department’s feet to the fire is appropriate.”

During a hearing before Robinson, three black firefighters testified about their experiences with New Haven promotions.

Philpot called the selection of Silbert, who is retiring from the bench at the end of October, an “excellent choice,” describing the veteran judge as “knowledgeable, wise and fair.”

“I have to commend the Firebirds for the important and crucial role they played in ensuring that the court fully understood” the complex issue.

The Firebirds is a fraternal organization for black firefighters.

Attorney Bill Clendenen, the previous special master who resigned last year, was paid $12,842 for his services since 2005.

 

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