November 14th, 2013 | City

Fire department facing possible lawsuits

Up against the threat of lawsuits, the Board of Aldermen moved Wednesday to form a committee to handle complaints related to New Haven’s system of fire department promotion exams.

New Haven Firefighters Local 825 President Jimmy Kottage appeared before the committee on Wednesday evening seeking compensation for what he alleges is an unlawful amendment to the current fiscal year’s budget. The amendment in question reduced the number of captains and increased the number of lieutenants in the department, thus requiring additional lieutenant exams before promoting lieutenants to the position of captain, which Kottage said violates the city’s charter and weakens the fire force.

Kottage said this “bottom-up” system of testing robs more experienced lieutenants of the opportunity to rise to the level of captain as soon as they pass the test qualifying them for the vacant position. A 14-year veteran should not be passed over for captain by a rookie who has just been made a lieutenant, he added.

Multiple individual firefighters are already seeking counsel to bring suits against the city on this matter, Kottage said, adding that the union as a whole may seek litigation if the Board does not act to reconsider the amendment.

Fire lieutenant Gary Cole told the committee the amendment has prevented him from accessing the captaincy position to which he ought to be entitled. He said he has sought counsel on the matter and is considering legal action unless the city alters its policy and makes available tests for captaincy promotions.

“You’re threatening us,” Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison protested. “If you don’t do what we say, we’re going to sue you — that’s not playing nice, that’s bad.”

Kottage was also joined at the committee meeting by Frank Ricci, a fire lieutenant and the plaintiff in the 2009 Ricci v. DeStefano Supreme Court case that found the city in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for throwing out promotion test results without clear evidence of disparate impact.

“We’re trying to avoid a lawsuit,” Ricci responded, saying every prior case involving the city’s stance on promotion exams has been decided against the city. “No one’s making threats.”

According to Kottage and Ricci, vacancies in captaincy positions should be filled by current lieutenants before additional lieutenants are appointed from lower ranks.

Over the objection of New Haven Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts ’01, who asked the committee to wait to act until the city and union formalize a verbal contract agreement, President and Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez moved to form the special committee. It will be comprised of two members of the current city administration, one rank-and-file firefighter appointed by the chief, one representative of the fire union, two members of Harp’s transition team and two members of the finance committee.

The formation of the committee won unanimous recommendation to the full Board.