Conn. Voters to Decide Fire Department's Fate

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."

The city's other two volunteer fire companies, Glenbrook and Springdale, were not included in the July 9 letter.

A message left on the Glenbrook fire company's answering machine was not returned this week.

Springdale Fire Chief Shawn Fahan said his department agrees with Kovack's letter.

"Springdale supports the letter 100 percent and the other fire departments," Fahan said. "Springdale didn't have time to review the letter and we didn't meet the deadline to sign on."

Board of Representatives Public Health and Safety Committee Co-Chairwoman Gloria DePina had no comment on the volunteer fire departments' letter.

"The Charter Revision (Commission) did what they had to do, the Board of Representatives voted on it and now it's up to the people to decide how they want to handle this," she said.

Pavia's five-year, $42.3 million fire services plan would consolidate four of five volunteer fire departments into a single organization called the Stamford Volunteer Fire Department.

The initiative is stalled following the Board of Finance's decision to cut funding for the first phase of the merger from this fiscal year's budget, and the mayor said Friday he is going to wait and see how Stamford citizens vote on the Charter referendum this fall.

"If the people vote against it it's an indication that we need to move forward with my plan," Pavia said.

"If the public votes in favor of it then we need to find a way to continue with volunteer firefighting services in a way that conforms with Charter revision."

Charter Review Commission Co-Chairman Jay Sandak said the group's recommendations aimed to include and support the volunteer fire companies.

He said he hopes career and volunteer firefighters can work together as the Charter revision process moves forward.

"The new system contemplates a partnership between career and volunteer fire services," Sandak said. "If you have a true partnership, as issues come up -- and there will be issues, I'm not denying that -- they'll look for solutions.

"Our goal throughout the Charter revision process was to identify a structure for the delivery of fire services for the city of Stamford that was inclusive of the volunteer service that exists."

Kate.King@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking

Copyright 2012 - The Stamford Advocate, Conn.

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