Secrecy surrounds chief’s resignation
RIDGEFIELD - Town officials have rejected a Freedom of Information request for the report on their investigation into the “policy violation” by that led to Fire Chief Kevin Tappe’s abrupt resignation Wednesday.
First Selectman Rudy Marconi said Thursday he would not release the report, which was compiled by Human Resources Director Laurie Fernandez, because Tappe’s resignation closes the matter. He argued that the report, which he characterized as a draft, is not a public record.
“There is no final report and we do not need to finalize it because the chief retired,” Marconi said.
But Dan Klau, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, rejected Marconi’s argument. The council is a nonprofit organization formed to protect the public’s access to government.
“The reasons why a fire chief is essentially forced to retire are clearly matters of public interest,” Klau said. “I believe any individual arguments about not disclosing the report is just about, understandably, not wanting to embarrass the fire chief.”
The Hearst Connecticut Media Group, of which the News-Times is a part, intends to file a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission to require release of the report.
Tappe was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 22 by the Fire Commission, whose membership is the same as the Board of Selectmen. No reason was given for the move, other than to say the chief was under investigation for an unspecified “policy violation.”
Marconi told the News-Times on Tuesday that a draft report on the investigation had been completed. That same day, he called a special meeting of the Fire Commission for Wednesday evening, just before the regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
The Fire Commission convened at 6:30 p.m. and went immediately into executive session. After nearly an hour behind closed doors, the commission returned to public session, voted without discussion to recommend acceptance of Tappe’s resignation and then adjourned. Minutes later, members reconvened as the Board of Selectmen and, again without public discussion, voted 4-0 to accept the resignation.
“Chief Tappe has decided to retire, and we want to thank him for his service to the community,” Marconi said after the vote.
Marconi said Thursday that members of the Fire Commission were not given copies of the report, but that it was discussed during their executive session and that Fernandez was present.
Also Thursday, the town released a “separation agreement” with Tappe saying that he will remain on paid leave until April 30, when his resignation takes effect.
During that period, the agreement states, he “will not perform any duties in any capacity on behalf of the town; he will not contact any employee of the town or any official of the town for any reason (unless in his capacity as a resident of the town or otherwise in a casual or social setting); and he will not access any town computer system or email system. In addition, he is not allowed to enter the fire department, unless it is to report an emergency situation that cannot be reported by other means or to gather his personal property after approval by the town.”
Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Myers has been acting chief during the investigation.
Klau said calling a document a “draft” does not exempt it from state Freedom of Information laws unless revisions of it are needed before it is submitted to or discussed by town officials.
Marconi himself admitted that no revisions of the document are required.
“It is a draft and it will remain as such,” he said Thursday.
Klau added that Ridgefield’s refusal to release the report follows a pattern developing throughout the state, particularity at the local level.
“Instead of recognizing that documents are really the public’s documents, local departments and agencies often work hard to come up with reasons for not disclosing them,” he said. “In many cases the reasons are understandable from a human perspective, especially when talking about a personnel matter, but the fact is we are talking about public employees engaging in public business, particularly when it involves emergency personnel.
”These are serious jobs with serious responsibilities and the public has the right to know about performance issues,” Klau said.
Richard Moccia, vice-chairman of the Ridgefield Republican Town Committee and a former four-term mayor of Norwalk, said he did not know the details of the matter but said it appeared town officials tried to handle it fairly.
”I know, having been in a position as mayor and fire commissioner, we had to take action on employees, and it’s a delicate balance to respect the employee and the process,” he said.
”It’s not for me to decide” whether the report should be made public, Moccia added.
Two years ago, Ridgefield paid $40,000 to settle a lengthy battle with the state FOI Commission over the legality of a special Board of Selectmen meeting held in 2006. Assistant Fire Chief Anthony “Nick” Gaeta, who had had a heated argument with Marconi the day before, was summoned to the meeting and forced to retire.
The FOI Commission found that the meeting had been held illegally and reversed the selectmens’ decision. The town appealed, but the state Supreme Court upheld the FOI Commission.
“I still totally disagree with that decision,” Marconi said Thursday.