Jun 132014

Groton Fire Chief Joe BosselaitArt Campbell | The Groton Line

Groton Fire Chief Joe Bosselait

For at least 14 years, during the tenure of Fire Chief Joe Bosselait, Groton Fire Department employees have not been annually reappointed as town employees. The omission was overlooked by dozens of people — a succession of town administrators, selectmen, several town human resources officials, Town Manager Mark Haddad, and, apparently, all the firefighters. But the lack of reappointment may turn out not be a big issue, just a formality, because Groton uses a “strong chief” administrative model for the fire department.

By law, all town employees are appointed to one-year terms that are synchronized to the town’s fiscal year — July 1 to June 30. The reappointments are usually a routine rubber stamping by the Board of Selectmen of lists of names compiled by department managers and vetted by town administrators, or in this case, Haddad. If an employee is not reappointed, they are no longer employed.

The process works almost automatically … so much so that no one noticed that the list of 40 or so fire department employees — firefighters and EMTs, office workers, and officers — was not being submitted each June.

Bosselait said that he has never been asked to reappoint the entire staff on the fiscal year cycle.

The discrepancy surfaced within the last week or two, when Haddad and Bosselait wanted to make some sweeping changes in the fire department’s call firefighter roster. Haddad is familiar with the reappointment process because he prepares the list of employees for ratification by the Board of Selectmen each year. Using the appointment tool to cut some firefighters from the payroll in the coming fiscal year would be an easy way to cut staff. Apparently, during the discussion between Bosselait and Haddad, the fact that fire department personnel have never been annually reappointed surfaced.

From that come some interesting questions, according to several local attorneys who were uniformly amused and intrigued by the situation: If the firefighters were never reappointed as employees, what are they? What is their status? Have they been covered by town insurance? Can a firefighter’s union be made up of people who are not, officially, employees?

All of the attorneys requested that comments not be attributed to them, but the consensus is that the fire department employees were “de facto” town employees because they were submitting pay vouchers or time cards and being paid.

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Josh Degen agreed with the “de facto” employee status, and said, “They received paychecks on a weekly basis whenever they responded to an incident. So therefore, I presume that they were employees.”

Degen stated that because Groton uses a “strong chief,” the chief’s appointments may not be changed by either the Town Manager or Board of Selectman, and that the appointments do not require ratification by the Town Manager or selectmen. He said that town counsel has told him that the annual reappointments are a formality.

“It’s the chief’s job to make the appointments. The fire department employees have not been routinely been reappointed like other individuals and employees of the town offices and police department. It was an oversight and it certainly should not have occurred. On the advice of town counsel, the chief should implement annually reappointing the members of the call fire department,” he said.

Degen said town counsel has not offered an opinion on whether the lack of the annual reappointment affects any fire department employee’s status.

Haddad did not return phone calls seeking comment on the situation.