Conn. Voters to Decide Fire Department's Fate

The question of whether Stamford should have a single fire department with one fire chief will go before voters in a November ballot referendum.

July 15--STAMFORD -- The question of whether Stamford should have a single fire department with one fire chief will go before voters in a November ballot referendum.

The Charter Review Commission in May recommended several Charter changes which, if approved, would create one Stamford Fire Department with jurisdiction over all training, operating procedures, personnel and resources.

The Board of Representatives voted this week to pass the recommendation on to residents for final approval at the polls.

The board's vote came hours after President Randy Skigen received a letter from an attorney representing three of the city's five volunteer fire companies.

"We are of the opinion that not only is the so-called 'single fire department' ... entirely unworkable, but also that the proposed Charter changes are in and of themselves illegal, and if adopted, will violate, among other things, the United States Constitution and the Connecticut Constitution," said the letter, written by attorney Mark Kovack.

Ten city representatives voted against putting the fire services question before the voters.

"I see this as too complex of an issue to be in a Charter revision," said city Rep. Art Layton, R-17. "I still believe that this is something I hope the mayor's office would continue to take the lead on, to continue to work with the parties involved."

Some board members felt the Charter change would limit the city's options for dealing with its fragmented fire services. City Rep. Frank Cerasoli, R-15, said putting the question on November's ballot would be akin to asking voters "to take a leap in the dark."

"If we go down this path we're committing ourselves to one solution to fixing this problem," he said.

City Rep. Joe Coppola, R-15, a former volunteer fire chief, said the proposed Charter revision would "kill" Stamford's volunteer fire companies.

"We can legislate from now until the cows come home," he said.

"But you're not going to get everybody to agree if they don't want to agree. I just don't think it's a workable system. I think it will kill the volunteers sometime down the road."

Twenty three city representatives voted to put the fire services provision on the ballot, however.

"This is nothing more than a basic framework that's probably more aligned toward where we all think we're probably going to be going toward in the future, taking into account the extremely important role of the volunteer companies," said city Rep. Harry Day, R-13.

City reps. Eileen Heaphy, D-8, and Andy Skolver, D-20, said the decennial Charter revision process is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for the city to restructure its fire services.

"If we defeat this, we're just going to kick the can down the road for another 10 years," Heaphy said.

On Wednesday, city Rep. John Mallozzi, D-12, who chairs the board's special Charter committee, said he did not think the volunteer fire companies' letter swayed many votes Monday night.

"It seems (the letter) came at the last minute," Mallozzi said. "There was plenty of opportunity to bring the letter to the commission and the committee, both of them had a public hearing. We went forward, and we're going to let the people decide."

Kovack's letter was sent on behalf of the Long Ridge, Turn of River and Belltown volunteer fire companies.

The Westport attorney represented Turn of River in its successful 2007 lawsuit against the city, which the department filed after then-Mayor Dannel P. Malloy attempted to consolidate the volunteer firehouse with Stamford's paid fire department.

Kovack also represented the city's volunteer fire departments in their recent efforts to create a joint venture agreement, which would have gone into effect under Mayor Michael Pavia's proposed fire services reorganization plan.

"I don't believe that the proposed revisions to the Charter are going to result in a dilution of the various issues that seem to exist," Kovack said Wednesday. "It certainly would not surprise me if litigation does result in connection with those proposed revisions. There is still the ongoing litigation between Turn of River and the city."

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