Fire union files suit against mayor

Fire union Local 825 and its president, James Kottage, is attempting to block the transfer of firefighter Michael Briscoe.
Fire union Local 825 and its president, James Kottage, is attempting to block the transfer of firefighter Michael Briscoe. Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

The firefighters’ union has filed suit against Mayor Toni Harp in state Superior Court over an appointment that the union claims contravenes the city charter and collective bargaining law.

On April 2, Harp appointed firefighter Michael Briscoe to head the city’s Department of Public Safety Communications, which manages emergency 911 calls.

The fire union, Local 825, is now seeking to block that transfer, arguing that the mayor lacked legal authority to appoint a rank-and-file firefighter and union member to a management position. The city charter allows the mayor to assign an employee of one department to the temporary performance of “similar duties” in another department, a provision whose language is at the heart of the union’s legal claim. The union said that since Briscoe will remain a rank-and-file firefighter through October 2015, retaining benefits that come from membership in Local 825, he cannot be reassigned to perform managerial duties.

“The duties of a line firefighter and the Director of Public Safety are not similar,” said Local 825 President James Kottage. “We’re not going after Michael Briscoe. We’re going after the process.”

The legal complaint, prepared by attorney Patricia Cofrancesco and submitted Thursday afternoon, further alleges that Harp violated collective bargaining law by dealing directly with Briscoe, rather than going through union leadership. Kottage said he is the only person with the discretion to change the terms and hours of his members’ employment.

Reached Sunday, Briscoe deferred comment on legal matters to his attorney, David Rosen LAW ’69, saying only that he plans to do the best job he can in his new position.

“The union is supposed to be sticking up for its members and, instead, they’re suing to try to keep one of their members from getting a good assignment,” Rosen said.

Briscoe’s service as a firefighter has been “terrific preparation” for the director position, Rosen added. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in human services and fire communications.

Briscoe’s appointment coincided with his settlement of a long-standing suit of his own against the city. He filed suit in 2009 over the results of a 2003 exam, which denied him promotion to fire lieutenant. The city’s handling of that exam was the subject of the 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case Ricci v. DeStefano, in which 18 firefighters, 17 of whom were white, successfully sued the city for invalidating the exam results after no black firefighters scored high enough to be eligible for promotion.

One of the black firefighters not passing was Briscoe, who claimed that the exam was racially discriminatory. His claim went as high as a federal appeals court panel in the Second Circuit, which ruled in his favor. But when the city appealed the ruling, the case was re-tried and subsequently thrown out by a District Court, which had initially dismissed the suit.

Briscoe agreed to settle the discrimination lawsuit for $285,000. Rosen said the settlement came after Harp had already offered Briscoe the job.

In a March 31 letter addressed to Briscoe, Harp offered him the director’s position on a temporary basis — earning his current base salary of $67,283 plus time-and-a-half for anything over 35 hours a week — until his term with the Fire Department ends in October 2015. At that point, she said, the city would hire him full-time as director of the Department of Public Safety Communications with a salary of $98,000 and other benefits. In the interim time, the letter states, Briscoe will remain a member of Local 825 and be entitled to all the benefits of a Local 825 member, including health care and pension.

Kottage said the transfer would only have been lawful if Briscoe had resigned as a firefighter and left the union.

“The mayor is trying to say [Briscoe] is still part of the union, but executive management is clearly non-union,” Kottage said. He added that the emergency communications position should have been posted to allow all interested parties to interview for the job. It should also be civil service tested, he added.

Rosen said Harp wanted to appoint Briscoe to the full-time position, but that he needs to remain in the union for another year and a half to remain eligible for his pension.

Local 825 endorsed Harp in last year’s mayoral election, and Kottage said he stands by that decision.

“I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but not for long,” he said.

In a Friday statement, City Hall Spokesman Laurence Grotheer suggested that the duties of the two positions are sufficiently similar to justify the appointment, saying that the transfer affirms the skills of the city’s public safety personnel.

Grotheer said the city is willing to discuss further labor protections with the union. He did not specifically refute the union’s legal claims and added that any further comment could influence the ensuing legal proceedings.

The city’s police union has also filed a complaint over Briscoe’s appointment, but with a state labor board. The police union is arguing that a police officer should head the center, which manages more than 100,000 emergency calls each year. The director oversees a 55-person staff.

Cherlyn Poindexter, president of AFSCME Local 3144, the city’s managerial union, said she also has legal concerns about the transfer. Her local represents George Peet, who was heading the center on an acting basis but has reverted to the deputy position since Briscoe’s appointment. Because Briscoe has maintained his responsibilities as a firefighter, Poindexter said, she is worried that the lion’s share of the 911 center work will fall on Peet, who will then not be properly compensated.

“If my guy is doing those duties, then we will do everything we need to do to protect his rights,” Poindexter said.

Local 825’s suit names Briscoe, Poindexter, New Haven Board of Fire Commissioners Chair Eldron Morrison and Civil Service Commission Chair Daniel Delprete as additional defendants.

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