Town mum on fire chief violation
Fire Chief Kevin Tappe has retired, ending a nearly five-decade career in firefighting, and the town’s investigation into an unspecified “violation of town policy” that had him on administrative leave the last three weeks.
The fire department is now being led by assistant chief — redesignated acting chief — Jerry Myers, and town officials are fending off requests for further information about the alleged policy violation and the unfinished investigation into it.
“I am happy to be retiring from the Ridgefield Fire Department. It’s been a wonderful 10 years, but I think now the time is right,” Tappe said. “It’s been a privilege to work with the excellent men and women of the department. They are highly skilled and resourceful and it’s helped me tremendously over the years.”
Tappe spoke to The Press Thursday, Jan. 5, a day after the Board of Selectmen — acting as the town Fire Commission — voted to formally accept his retirement, cutting short the investigation into the alleged policy violation.
Human Resources Director Laurie Fernandez had been investigating the matter since Tappe was put on administrative leave Dec. 22.
“I can’t comment on what the town is doing,” Tappe said when asked about investigation.
The selectmen’s vote came in public session after nearly an hour of closed-door executive session discussions as the Fire Commission — a meeting that Tappe did not attend.
“We thank him for his service,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said after the selectmen had accepted Tappe’s retirement.
And the town isn’t saying much more.
It has released a “separation agreement” with Tappe, but declined Freedom of Information requests for further information on Fernandez’s investigation of the policy violation that prompted the chief’s administrative leave and retirement.
Under the separation agreement, Tappe will remain on administrative leave and continue to be paid his $109,600-a-year salary through the “separation date” of April 30, 2017, and he “may elect to continue his benefits under COBRA.”
But the town is not making public any of the substance of Fernandez’s investigation, or what triggered the whole affair.
“There’s a process,” said Marconi Monday, Jan. 9. “And we began that process based on information received. The chief was placed on administrative leave, pending the completion or the final report of the investigation being issued. Prior to that happening, the chief retired, which halted any reason to complete the draft investigation.
“When I say ‘complete,’ I mean complete in the form of final report submitted to Board of Selectmen,” he added. “That has never taken place. Why? Because we received the chief’s request to retire.
“So subsequently, we came to agreement on a retirement plan, and we have thanked the chief for his years of service to the town, as well as both parties moving forward,” Marconi said.
“It makes no sense to me to release information that was never formally presented to the Board of Selectmen, nor ever completed in that formal process.”
The first selectman doesn’t think the town is violating state Freedom of Information law, which makes exceptions on a variety of grounds — including “personnel matters” — to the public disclosure requirements that generally apply to the actions by public agencies and elected officials.
“Shipman and Goodwin, our attorneys in Hartford, obviously have advised the town — specifically, me — that we’re on very solid ground, and that there’s no reason to release anything that was in a draft form,” Marconi said. “The attorney is fully aware of where we’re at, had reviewed everything, and has advised us accordingly.”
‘No disparagement’ clause
Marconi’s comments about Tappe’s retirement itself reflect wording that is spelled out in the separation agreement.
The agreement states: “Both parties shall respond to inquiries about Tappe’s retirement from the town fire department with the response that, ‘Chief Tappe has decided to retire from the Ridgefield Fire Department after a lengthy career in public service.’”
Similarly, the separation agreement contains a “no disparagement” clause that applies both both parties.
It states: “Except as otherwise required by law, Tappe acknowledges that he shall not make any disparaging or defamatory statements relating to the circumstances of his employment with the town at any time, oral or written (including in any electronic form), to any other person or entity. The town will instruct members of the town Board of Selectmen and Fire Commission not to make any disparaging or defamatory statements relating to the circumstances of Tappe’s employment with the town at any time, oral or written, to any other person or entity.”
Marconi was confident the fire department will continue to function well as the selectmen work on finding a new chief.
“Assistant Chief Myers has been asked to fill the position vacated, as acting chief, and I’ll meet with him on a regular basis,” Marconi said. “The level of service to the people of Ridgefield, the quality of care, will not be impacted whatsoever.”
Hiring a new chief could take a few months.
“The board will be discussing a process to move forward,” Marconi said.
“We would like to get the position filled as soon as possible — whether through promoting from within or bringing someone in from the outside remains to be seen.”