STAMFORD – Four years after they sued the city for incorrectly passing them over for promotions, three firefighters who were re-interviewed last week have been promoted.
A fourth firefighter who brought the suit was not promoted.
The city spent more than $880,000 defending itself in the suit, in which the firefighters alleged that personnel and fire officials decided promotions using their own criteria, instead of basing choices on best test scores.
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Taxpayers may be on the hook for more legal fees, since the final amount has yet to be tabulated, according to Lauren Meyer, spokeswoman for Mayor Caroline Simmons.
The suit never made it to court. It ended last month in a settlement, in which the city agreed to pay the four firefighters a total of $250,000.
It was not clear Monday whether the $880,000 in legal fees includes the settlement sum. If not, the city’s total cost will exceed $1.13 million.
The city has admitted no wrongdoing, but during the case the court ruled that the firefighters who brought the suit were not fairly considered for promotion, and that the personnel director’s authority to weight test results and rank candidates does not supersede the law, which mandates methods consistent with the city Charter and classified service rules.
While the case was in court, the city changed the classified service rules to allow test scores to be rounded and considered in bands, giving the personnel director wide discretion in choosing which firefighters to promote.
The retake last Thursday had its own onetime rules, which were outlined in the settlement agreement and were different from those used during the 2017 promotional exam that spurred the lawsuit.
“The fire commissioners asked all the candidates identical questions, which was not the case in the past, and they were more educated on their responsibilities,” said Brian Whitbread, one of the firefighters who brought the lawsuit. “It was far more objective than in the past, and it was well-supervised.”
The city agreed to a request from the firefighters that an independent monitor attend the interviews, conducted by the five-member Fire Commission. Usually the fire chief attends the interview and advises the commissioners, but firefighters asked that Chief Trevor Roach and a Human Resources generalist be left out of Thursday’s proceeding.
“They were among the individuals involved in what we felt was an unfair process,” said Whitbread, who became a lieutenant on Thursday.
Whitbread helped launch the lawsuit after he and another firefighter scored 77 on the 2017 civil service exam, and that firefighter was promoted along with five others who scored lower. Whitbread was not promoted.
Rob Pickering, who also brought the suit, became a lieutenant last week, too. On the original exam, Pickering scored 78 but six candidates who scored lower were promoted and he was not.
Lt. Bruce Wagoner signed on to the lawsuit after he was one of four to score 83 on the captain’s exam. But he and Lt. Kevin Dingle, who also scored 83 and joined the lawsuit, were rejected and the other two with the same score were promoted.
Wagoner has been promoted to captain but Dingle remains a lieutenant.
Besides Wagoner, John Searles and Todd Murphy also were promoted to captain on Thursday.
Besides Whitbread and Pickering, the other new lieutenants are James Romaniello, Brien Malloy, Edwardo Wilson and Paul Tafoya.
Tafoya landed in the middle of a controversy in March, when he was not promoted to deputy fire marshal even though he scored 19 points higher than the candidate who was chosen.
Simmons has not said why she wants officials to have the discretion to hire and promote firefighters beyond the exam scores precisely calculated by Morris & McDaniel, a testing company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the city.
But officials in the administration of former Mayor David Martin have said they were seeking to diversify the ranks of the Stamford Fire Department.
Meyer said Monday the city “reserves the right to use banding, rounding, and other professionally recognized scoring techniques on future promotions,” as authorized by the rewritten classified service rules.
The techniques may include “any combination of written, unassembled, oral, physical, performance tests and assessments, or any other professionally accepted measurement technique,” Meyer said in an email, and scoring procedures may include “any combination of ratings, correct or incorrect scoring, pass or fail scoring, profile matching, rounding, weighting” and other measures.
“Test scores are only one measure of qualifications for hiring or promotion,” Meyer said, and the rules “require that other factors, such as character, conduct and performance, be considered. That cannot be determined through testing alone.”
On Thursday, three slots for captain and six for lieutenant that were open in 2017 were filled. After the lawsuit was filed, a judge found just cause for the complaints and froze all promotions until it was resolved. That disrupted schedules, with firefighters working overtime to fill officer shifts.
In a press release, Simmons said the fire department “will soon be holding the first full round of promotional exams in five years to fill many more open leadership positions.”
In the same press release, Roach, the chief, said, “These leaders greatly increase the effectiveness of the department, leading to enhanced safety for both the public as well as my firefighters.”
But firefighters, including the union president, have said manipulating test scores does not enhance public safety.
“If the city keeps eluding the standards, over time there will be a decrease in competency and qualifications in the ranks of the fire service,” Whitbread said. “A score of 74 is not as good as a 92. At some point, standardized testing has to be standardized. If evaluations aren’t measuring people fairly, come up with new evaluations, but don’t ignore evaluations. Otherwise, why are we putting people through a testing process?”
The city spent four years in court without winning on the merits of its case, Whitbread said, but in that time changed the rules to allow personnel officials significant subjectivity in hiring and promoting firefighters.
“Did we fix a broken system? Time will tell,” Whitbread said.
“I hope we raised awareness. I hope those who can make a difference will see that what happened was wrong and will make it right going forward.”
This story has been edited to clarify testing and interview procedures