Maglione picked as city's new fire chief

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

By Cara Rubinsky

Copyright 2005 Republican-American

WATERBURY -- Bridgeport Fire Chief Michael Maglione was tapped Tuesday to lead the Waterbury Fire Department, which has been without a permanent chief for more than a year.

Mayor Michael J. Jarjura chose Maglione over former Naugatuck fire chief Kerry Flaherty, the other finalist for the job. Jarjura said both were strong candidates, but Maglione won out because Bridgeport's 320-member fire department is similar in size to Waterbury's, which has 300 firefighters. Naugatuck has 40 professional firefighters and 10 volunteers.

Maglione "brings obviously a wealth of experience in managing a very large fire department with many of the same challenges that we face here," Jarjura said.

Maglione, who expects to start in Waterbury in February, takes the helm of a department that is still adjusting to a contract imposed by the state oversight board. Firefighters have a strained relationship with the board, which controls city finances and has sweeping power to impose contract provisions.

A Waterbury Superior Court judge vacated the fire union contract in October, citing a problem with the way the oversight board arbitrated it. The board and the city appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is not expected to rule until at least the spring. Meanwhile, firefighters continue to work under the new contract, which is expected to save $1.5 million in this year's $18.3 million fire budget.

"I think he realizes that he's coming into a very tense situation, but he'll do his best to reach out," Jarjura said.

Maglione has logged 33 years with the Bridgeport Fire Department, the last eight as chief. He sought the Waterbury job because Bridgeport rules limit the fire chief to two five-year terms. Bridgeport Mayor John Fabrizi said Maglione would have been appointed to a third term were that rule not in place.

Tom Sherwood, Bridgeport's budget manager, called Maglione one of the city's best budget managers. That endorsement carries a lot of weight in cash-strapped Waterbury, where department heads are charged with providing adequate services while maintaining tight control over budgets. He also worked with an oversight board in Bridgeport.

He said Tuesday he is excited about the Waterbury job.

"I see it as a challenge, part of my adventure in the fire service," he said. "From the beginning I've always sought a higher position, and this is now allowing me to go on to another department and an excellent department. I believe I can bring something good to the department, and I also believe I can bring something good to the city."

Among other tasks, Maglione will oversee implementation of recommendations in a fire department efficiency study commissioned by the oversight board. Those recommendations included eliminating positions and consolidating three firehouses into one.

Acting Fire Chief James Cavanaugh, whom Jarjura consulted before making a decision, said Maglione is a good choice.

"He definitely has been through many of the things we're about to go through, and also I think he's going to bring a lot of knowledge to the table as far as areas the fire department wants to head in," said Cavanaugh, a retired firefighter who stepped in to lead the department when George Klauber left in June 2003 to take a job in New Hampshire. Cavanaugh, who was not a candidate for the permanent job, will continue as chief until Maglione arrives, then stick around a few weeks to help with the transition.

Daniel French, fire union president, said Maglione appeared to be the only candidate other than Waterbury Deputy Chief John Mancini suited to lead the Waterbury Fire Department.

Mancini was still in the running after the city's human resources department narrowed the field from 20 candidates to five, but he withdrew from consideration, citing the climate in the department and tense relations with the oversight board. The others on the list were Vineland, N.J., Fire Chief Peter Finley Jr. and former Branford fire chief Peter Buonome, now a consultant and deputy fire marshal in Plymouth. City hiring rules allowed Jarjura to pick any of the five. He interviewed all of them, then narrowed the field to two and interviewed them again.

Maglione "is the only other candidate that I saw that had the qualitative and quantitative experience," French said. "I know he's a career guy from Bridgeport. Bridgeport and Waterbury have always had a pretty close relationship. I hope for the best. It's certainly going to be difficult under the auspices of the oversight board, but we're hopeful."

French said, however, he is uncertain how much influence Maglione will be able to exert.

"It's difficult because quite frankly, in many instances, the chief of the department isn't making the decisions," French said. "The oversight board is clearly knee-deep in managing the fire department, and that's going to make it difficult for the chief to have the latitude he needs to establish relationships."

Some black and Hispanic firefighters from Bridgeport opposed Maglione's appointment to the Waterbury job because of his association with Bridgeport Firefighters for Merit Employment, which they said is a racist group that works to stop the department from hiring or promoting minority firefighters.

Maglione characterized the group, of which he was once a member, as an organization that works to preserve the civil service hiring system, which is supposed to remove political influence from the municipal hiring process. He said the organization is not racist, and Jarjura said that what he had learned about it did not seem serious enough to factor into his decision.

Jarjura and Maglione will negotiate a contract, which will also need approval from the oversight board. The budgeted salary for the position is $101,000.

Among Maglione's first tasks will be establishing a management team. He can bring in anyone he wants as assistant chief, and the city is in the process of hiring a civilian administrative officer to manage the department's budget.

Maglione said it's too early to comment on whom he might choose as assistant chief, but both Jarjura and Cavanaugh said Maglione had indicated he would try to find someone in the department willing to take the job.