Groton Deputy Fire Chief Clarence Jefferson and firefighters Stephen Tervo and Ben Miele should not have been dismissed from their positions this June and should be reinstated, according to the recommendation of the hearing officer who conducted the October 28 “Strong Chief Law” hearing into the termination of the three call firefighters.
Hearing officer and attorney John Clifford wrote in his “Recommendation to the Appointing Authority:”
Even if all of the hearsay evidence were admitted into the record, over the objection of counsel for the employees, I do not find that the record supports the removal or termination of these employees. There are conflicting versions of the events in question, and the evidence does not show that one version is substantially more likely or credible than the other. It is my recommendation that Clarence Jefferson, Stephen Tervo, and Benjamin Miele not be terminated as a result of these charges, and that they be reinstated to active duty.
The report from Clifford was released in a joint news release by the Board of Selectmen and Fire Chief Steele McCurdy this morning. The 39-page news release is prefaced with a note saying the town is evaluating its options and warning that no one connected with the hearing or the lawsuit filed by the three firefighters and a fourth who resigned before the terminations, James Horan, would discuss the matter because of pending litigation by the four firefighters.
The bulk of the news release is a transcript of the hearing testimony, 121 pages of proceedings logged by a court reporter, scanned into the press release at reduced size. The testimony, much it given by Town Manager Mark Haddad, gives insight into the investigation of a harassment complaint filed by firefighter/EMT Cathy Lincoln against fire department officers. Haddad said that inconsistencies in that investigation, by a professional investigator, needed to be clarified and that the Board of Selectmen directed him to conduct his own investigation with the help of then Fire Chief Joe Bosselait and Human Resources Director Melissa Doig. The results of that investigation led to the dismissal of the three firefighters when Bosselait elected not to reappoint them to their positions in June, 2014.
Read or download the Board of Selectmen’s news release here.
Clifford’s report was apparently delivered to either Town Manager Mark Haddad or the Board of Selectmen, or both, on Friday, December 5. Although Clifford was taking the role of the fire chief by conducing a termination hearing under the state’s Strong Chief Law, McCurdy did not receive a copy of the report until the following Monday, December 8, and that was delivered as a result of an email directive from Haddad to send him a copy, not directly from Clifford.
The email directive was the only response from the town to a Public Information Request filed by The Groton Line on December 7 seeking details of the town’s contract with, and hiring of, Clifford. The lack of a response to the PIR with written documents or emails is unusual for an important town purchase or contract. Unless the response to the PIR is incomplete, that would mean that the contract would need to have been for a sum less than $10,000, because an amount over that requires Board of Selectmen approval and BoS chair Josh Degen confirmed that it did not come before the board. McCurdy said that he was involved with the decision to hire a hearing officer, but was not involved with contract negotiations with Clifford. With the BoS not involved in negotiation, Clifford’s contract would have to have been negotiated verbally by Haddad and possibly town counsel and counsel for the town’s insurance company without any written communications between any of the players.
The town’s press release, issued this morning, states that the town did not receive the report until December 15.
View or download the town’s response to The Groton Line’s PIR.
Text of The Groton Line's Public Information Request
We are requesting all emails, letters, memos, contracts, status reports, and other documents created or received by Fire Chief Steele McCurdy; Town Manager Mark Haddad; or the Board of Selectmen; or any individual member of the Board of Selectmen related in any way to planning and execution of the hearing conducted October 28 by John Clifford, acting for Chief McCurdy, related to the non-reappointment of Clarence Jefferson, Ben Miele, and Stephen Tervo.
Note that this request is not for material generated in the hearing. It is for documents related to the hiring of Clifford, including his contract and fees, and the status of his report on the hearing, originally to be filed 21 days after the October 28 hearing.
This includes but is not limited to, communications with town counsel, the MMA, members of the Board of Selectmen, the Groton Fire Chief and other Fire Department officers, employee unions, and the public.
The news release also states that the firefighters although the hearing officer said they should not have been dismissed, they may not be back on the job soon:
While we disagree that the evidence presented during the hearing did not meet the Town’s burden, and while we view the report to be inconclusive, we believe it is best to move forward in the interests of the Town and accept the hearing officer’s report. The Fire Chief and the Board of Selectmen are currently evaluating their options with respect to the status of these members of the Department and the ongoing litigation.
Rob Bowen, attorney for the firefighters, issued their response in a news release at noon on Thursday.
… Despite numerous requests, the plaintiffs were not provided with a copy of the report before its public release. Furthermore, the release of personnel information such as this, in this fashion, may be in further violation of state laws protecting the privacy of government employees.
They are pleased that the report finds that the Town failed to prove its claims, and recommends their reinstatement. The plaintiffs have maintain throughout that they have done nothing wrong and have been unfairly victimized. They are disturbed, however, but the Town’s Press Release, which pays mere lip service to the recommendation of the neutral hearing officer that they hired, and continues to accuse the plaintiffs of wrongdoing.
We anxiously await their deliberations as to how they plan to implement the recommendations, but given the animosity continued to be expressed in their news release, we are not optimistic. The plaintiffs will carefully consider all options, but it is difficult to see how they could be expected to return when confronted with the obvious atmosphere of continued hostility and mistrust. In light of the town’s tepid response to the report, they have little choice at the moment but to continue with their lawsuit.
On the town side, Degen and McCurdy declined any comment and Haddad’s office did not return a phone call seeking comment on how much Clifford’s services cost.