FAIRFIELD — The local firefighters union called for the resignation of its department chief this month, alleging he argued against contract demands, violated state election laws and endorsed former First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick’s campaign, a claim Kupchick denies.
After taking a unanimous vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Denis McCarthy on Dec. 7, the fire union — International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1426 — wrote a letter to officially request his immediate resignation.
The letter listed 12 ways in which the union claims McCarthy, who has held the position since 2015, failed to lead his staff, such as:
- “Wrote and submitted an opinion essay to a local news media company painting his firefighters and their union as liars and endorsing a political candidate.”
- “Made a donation of town resources to a political campaign.”
- “Fought against manpower in negotiations, then provided the sole testimony and evidence used by the town in arbitration to deny manpower.”
Based on a roll call of the special meeting, 38 of the 96 union members attended and voted to co-sign the claims.
Additionally, the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut — the state body representing local unions — voted unanimously to censure McCarthy based on what they said were “several examples of serious misconduct” brought to them by the local union in November.
Union President William Tuttle attributed many of McCarthy’s alleged missteps to his loyalty to Kupchick, the former Republican first selectwoman who served from 2019 to 2023, but lost by a slim margin to Democratic First Selectman Bill Gerber last month.
“He was acting as a puppet for his boss,” Tuttle told CT Examiner on Monday. “And the reason I know he’s a puppet for his boss is because, just read his political letter that he put out the weekend before the election.”
Kupchick, however, defended McCarthy and refuted the union’s claims. In a statement to CT Examiner, she said it is “dangerous and irresponsible” for the union to undermine the chain of command.
“Throughout the last few years, union leadership has shown a disgraceful pattern of bullying tactics and misinforming the public in an effort to get their way, a methodology that would never sway me away from doing what’s in the best interest of both the taxpayers and the firefighters,” Kupchick said.
Tensions between the fire union and the town came to a head during a two-year negotiation over the 2021-25 Fairfield firefighters contract.
The parties first started negotiations on a new contract in March 2021, but were unable to agree on staffing and wages. While the town offered four new firefighters and 2 percent wage increases for 2021 and 2.75 percent for 2022, 2023 and 2024, the union requested 12 new firefighters to double the proposed wage increases.
After the union declined numerous offers for mediation by the town, the contract went to arbitration where a panel heard testimony from the town, union and McCarthy. Before the panel ruled in favor of the town on staffing and wages in July, Tuttle and Kupchick publicly argued about the contract proposals – Tuttle on social media and Kupchick at public meetings.
A political endorsement?
But debates over the fire contract did not end there. Ahead of the November election, Tuttle posted endorsements of Gerber and criticisms of both Kupchick and the new contract on social media. In response, McCarthy submitted an opinion piece to CT Examiner on Nov. 3.
McCarthy did not say that he endorsed Kupchick in the letter. But he explained the arbitration process while maintaining that the town has “consistently supported the Fire Department’s needs,” and that the department was increasing staffing with the full support of Kupchick.
On Monday, the fire chief clarified the intent behind the opinion piece.
“The letter is not an endorsement nor was it intended to be. I believe that Op-Ed speaks for itself and my intentions and forward looking approach are clearly stated,” McCarthy said.
But Tuttle argued that the timing of McCarthy’s letter, which he submitted three days before the election, alone suggests an endorsement of Kupchick.
“The Friday before the election is when that letter came out. We’ve been having this fight for two years. Why didn’t he put it out two years ago?” Tuttle said. “And if you look at what we were putting out there politically, it’s a direct answer to our political ads.”
In addition to the opinion piece, the union claimed in its letter that McCarthy crossed a line by offering town resources to a Republican Town Committee fundraiser.
According to documents provided by the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission, McCarthy offered a tour of any firehouse for the 2023 Fairfield RTC Lincoln Reagan silent auction, which was held in April. SEEC spokesperson Joshua Foley confirmed on Monday that the commission launched an investigation into McCarthy’s contribution after receiving a complaint from Tuttle.
Asked about his complaint, Tuttle said the auction violated state statutes, and that he would have done the same if the chief had contributed resources to town Democrats.
“You can’t use town resources to raise money for politics,” Tuttle said. “It’s unethical at the least. And we’ll see what the SEEC says, but I think it’s illegal.”
While Foley said he could not comment on the legitimacy of the complaint, state law outlines that any department head who solicits a contribution on behalf of a political party is “guilty of illegal practices.”
Kupchick told CT Examiner on Monday that she did not believe the Nov. 3 letter to be an endorsement. Beyond the letter, she maintained that McCarthy has never endorsed her campaign.
“I don’t think anybody views it as an endorsement,” she said. “If you read the Op-Ed, it was in direct response to the fire union repeatedly saying in social media posts that the department was unsafe.”
Kupchick also defended the chief against allegations of illegal practices. Offering a prize for local fundraisers, she said, was common practice well before McCarthy took over.
According to Kupchick, McCarthy’s predecessor — Chief Dick Felner — used to offer rides in Fairfield firetrucks for fundraisers organized by political committees, the Boy and Girl Scouts of America and the parent-teacher association. She said it was McCarthy’s idea to switch the offering to a tour to curb safety concerns.
“They give free tours to everybody. It’s really a thing that they do anyway,” Kupchick said.
As for the union’s claim that McCarthy fought against hiring more firefighters during contract negotiations, Kupchick said the chief was not acting in defense of either party. Rather, she said, he testified to the panel based on his own knowledge of department needs.
But Tuttle argued that McCarthy’s testimony in arbitration directly defied national standards. In order to comply with National Fire Protection Agency standards, Tuttle said the union recommended that each firetruck be staffed with at least four firefighters at any time. However, the panel ruled in favor of the town, which required a minimum of two employees per truck.
According to a transcript of the Nov. 7, 2022, hearing of the arbitration panel, McCarthy testified that increasing staffing likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome of recent injuries endured by his on-duty firefighters. Tuttle maintained the opposite.
“Our issue is that by testifying against national industry standards, he’s not being truthful,” Tuttle said. “The standards are there. He knows they exist.”
Tuttle claimed that McCarthy’s testimony put not only Fairfield at risk, but all other towns as well. Convincing an arbitration panel to rule against industry standards, he said, sets a precedent for all other fire departments.
In a Nov. 16 letter to McCarthy, UPFFA President Peter Brown informed the chief of the unanimous vote to censure him, which meant the association would no longer support him in his capacity as fire chief. Of numerous reasons listed by the president, providing testimony against staffing increases was at the top of his list.
“Our organization does not take the issue of censure resolution lightly but when the actions of the administration put the health & safety of the firefighters in jeopardy, we must take immediate and severe action,” Brown wrote.
Asked how Fairfield planned to respond to the local union’s call for resignation and UPFFA’s censure, Gerber declined to comment.
McCarthy did not respond to a call for further comment on the union’s claims, but Kupchick said the chief was undeserving of the new criticism. While working alongside him as first selectwoman, she said she saw McCarthy serve as an exemplary leader in times of crisis.
“Chief McCarthy has a strong reputation amongst his peers. His character and integrity are unwavering,” she said. “It is unfortunate the fire union is lashing out as a result of a neutral arbitration panel ruling, and Chief McCarthy’s firm stance in defense of facts and reason.”