When the City Council’s Contracts Committee went into caucus Wednesday night to discuss the contract terms for Fire Chief Richard Thode the chief made one thing very clear: “I am receiving just my city paycheck. No pension. Please clear that up with your readers.” The reference was to some OIB reader comments that the chief was grabbing both his city pay as a contract employee and a city pension from his decades of city service, a double dip that had been allowed in the past under the terms of the city’s former pension terms.
Several years ago came a change, active members of the Fire Department were moved into the Connecticut Municipal Employee Retirement System. Collecting both, says the chief, is a no-no.
In 1988, under a charter provision approved by city voters, the positions of police and fire chief could have up to two, five-year terms in which the mayor chose from the top three finalists. Why the change? Under the old Civil Service rules the chiefs of police and fire came up through the ranks and could serve for an indefinite period. Government reformers, backed by the voters, believed the city needed fresh blood and new perspective every 5 to 10 years.
In 2016 Bridgeport Fire Chief Brian Rooney retired from the department, per city charter regulation limiting the chief’s tenure to two five-year terms.
As chief, Rooney earned something of a financial windfall during his second five-year appointment. As a contract appointment, he was placed into a 401k pension plan run by the International City Managers Association, outside of the municipal pension system. As a result, because he came up from the ranks of the department, he was allowed to receive his city pension for years of fire service while also receiving the chief’s pay.
Former Police Chief Joe Gaudett was allowed to receive his city pension in addition to his pay as chief.
By ordinance annual salaries of unaffiliated positions are adjusted in accordance with the negotiated across-the-board increases granted to other city supervisors. Updated ranges are set each July 1.
When Mayor Joe Ganim, following a search, selected Thode as chief, the municipal salary range for police and fire chiefs was $129,778 to $142,576. The mayor may authorize salary increases within the salary ranges established by ordinance. Thode receives the highest end of the range.
Wednesday night’s Contracts Committee meeting became testy at times as Associate City Attorney Mark Anastasi declared committee members were tasked with approving a five-year “appointment letter” granted by the mayor and not a “contract.”
That received blowback by committee members including outgoing City Council President Tom McCarthy who says that violated past practice. “You’re not slaves to past practice,” countered Anastasi who argued the mayor was not handing out “contracts to people.” Thode sat quietly in the background as this played out.
For OIB readers who assert council members are a rubber stamp, certainly not in this case. Several council members bristled at this change in policy defending Thode as an effective public servant who deserved a contract. Several announced they would not approve the “appointment letter” and demanded a “contract” for the chief. As they went into caucus to discuss the matter, a phone call was made to the mayor sharing the pushback.
Ganim got the message. In an OIB moment the “appointment letter” was magically switched over to “contract” language.
Thode’s “contract” passed unanimously and now goes to the full council for approval.