Freedom of Information complaint seeks disclosure of fire chief report

A Freedom of Information complaint is seeking documents concerning the end of former fire Chief Kevin Tappe’s town employment.

The complaint to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission was filed by lawyers for Hearst Media Services Connecticut LLC on behalf of the The Danbury News-Times and its reporter Dirk Perrefort. It was received by the Freedom of Information Commission Jan. 20.

The appeal seeks access to “the draft investigation report recently completed by the Human Resources Department regarding an alleged policy violation by Fire Chief Kevin Tappe” that Perrefort had requested in early January, when the town selectmen and Fire Commission were considering what action to take in response to the alleged violation. The complaint also seeks “any and all other reports that may have been generated in connection with the alleged violation, including but not limited to any police and fire department reports.”

At that time, The Ridgefield Press also requested that the town open up access to the report by Human Resources Director Laurie Fernandez.

The report wasn’t made public, and the specifics of the alleged policy violation were never discussed in public.

Tappe resigned. The selectmen’s acceptance of his resignation closed the town’s proceedings on the situation — with both sides signing a five-page “separation agreement” that included limits on what both sides could say publicly.

The separation agreement specifies that “the negotiations leading up to the agreement are confidential and the parties agree not to disclose any such information.” The agreement also said both parties would respond to questions by saying “Chief Tappe has decided to retire from the Ridgefield Fire Department after a lengthy career in public service.”

The agreement contains a clause saying “both parties acknowledge the town’s obligation to disclose certain information pursuant to the Freedom of information Act.”

Responding to media requests for the report from Fernandez’s investigation, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the document was “a draft report” and therefore exempt from freedom of information public disclosure requirements.

In the complaint filing, Hearst Media attorney Diego Ibarguen challenges this defense.

“Marconi’s public statements and the conduct of the two boards suggest that the investigative report was a draft in name only and that it was in fact a final report and that the report was sufficiently final to be discussed in the ‘joint meeting’ that preceded the public portions of the meetings in which the BOS and Fire Commission formally accepted a separation agreement with Tappe.

“Here, the BOS and Fire Commission appear to rely on a legal theory that because they have framed Tappe’s departure from service as a resignation, the discussion of the investigation report they commissioned on Tappe can remain hidden because the matter was concluded without their taking a specific action on the report. The argument flies in the face of the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act,” Hearst Media charges, “and, if accepted, would serve only to encourage agencies to hide the results of completed investigations by encouraging investigation subjects to resign rather than face the consequences of the investigation.”

‘Expedited hearing’

Hearst sought an “expedited hearing” on the matter, but that request was denied by the Freedom of Information Commission.

The commission notified the town that it will be scheduling an order to show cause hearing, at which the town may present arguments as to why it should not be required to open up the requested documents to public scrutiny.

The commission also assigned an attorney, Lisa F. Siegel, to act as a liaison between the parties, helping them reach a settlement without going through the full hearing process.

“I’m supposed to get them to settle, if possible,” she told The Press Tuesday, Feb. 7. “I’m sort of a facilitator with that. I haven’t spoken with either of the parties with that, yet — I don’t know where it stands.”

Siegel also said that no date had been set for the hearing, but she thought it would probably be “sometime in late March or early April.”

Marconi had a muted reaction to the complaint.

“I’ll send it up to our attorney, and bring the board up to speed,” he said.