NEW HAVEN – The head of the city firefighters union disrupted a promotional ceremony Wednesday, confronting the acting fire chief with an allegation that the promotion wasn’t in line with the city charter.
The confrontation by fire union President Frank Ricci preceded a small ceremony, with city officials and Antonio Almodovar’s wife at the department’s headquarters on Grand Avenue, during which Almodovar was promoted from acting director of training to director of training.
Acting Fire Chief Ralph Black and others, including Ricci, said Almodovar deserved the promotion and has served the city well.
But before the ceremony could begin, Ricci challenged Black’s authority to make the promotion, saying the city Board of Fire Commissioners hadn’t followed proper procedures at a May 31 meeting.
“We are going to promote him because he finished No. 1 on the list (of candidates who tested for the position) and was approved,” Black said.
“This wasn’t approved, Chief,” Ricci said. “You’re lying.”
Ricci contends the chief said at the May 31 meeting that there would be no promotions. Instead, he said, the chief opted to send letters to three top candidates.
Ricci then pulled out his phone with audio he said was of the entire May 31 fire board meeting.
“This is the most serious issue facing … New Haven,” Ricci said. “The taxpayers have spent millions and millions of dollars …”
“I do not believe that this is the time or the place for this,” Black said, talking over him.
“Chief, you’re inept,” Ricci shot back. “Do your job.”
As his audio played in the background, Ricci challenged others in the room to ask the commissioners whether they had voted on the promotion for Almodovar, who is a member of the firefighters’ union.
Commissioners in the room said they had followed the procedure and Ricci accused them of lying, as well as lodging the same accusation against Black, which he denied. The four-minute discussion turned heated and Black eventually told Ricci to leave and not come back.
“We approved that list,” said Commissioner William Celentano, who had been standing close to Black and Ricci when the dispute began.
“Then you’re a liar, too, Commissioner, because the tape doesn’t lie,” Ricci said.
Though he believes Almodovar deserves the promotion, Ricci said he believes that if someone challenged it in court the promotion could be nullified.
“I’m not going to have one of my members, who scored No. 1, who earned the promotion, be demoted because he’s not promoted legitimately,” Ricci said.
But when asked later whether he knew of anyone who planned to challenge Almodovar’s promotion, Ricci didn’t name any specific person or groups, including the union.
Black told Ricci there were other ways he could settle the issue outside of the ceremony. Ricci again accused him of not telling the truth, gesturing at the television cameras and reporters who turned out for the ceremony.
“I can’t believe you’re lying to Channel 8 news,” he said. “You’re lying to Channel 8 news, the New Haven Independent and the Register.”
“Frank, I am lying to nobody,” Black said.
Black then told Ricci he was being disrespectful to the fire commissioners before asking him to leave.
“Frank, if you have some other forum that you want to take up today or something else you want to take up, you may leave now,” Black said, gesturing toward the door. “If you have anything else that’s going to try to stop this promotion, you can go through legal means to go check how this process was done.”
Ricci then walked over to Almodovar, who was standing at the back of the room waiting to be called up for the presentation of his badge.
“You should’ve had a proper ceremony with your family, with the battalion chiefs and fire marshals,” Ricci said to him. “We are not taking away from that. But too many people and the taxpayers have paid millions and millions of dollars because of incompetence …”
Black then walked him out of the room.
“Do your job, Chief!” Ricci said loudly. “Do your job!”
“And you do yours,” Black repeated quietly.
“Do your job! Read the charter!” Ricci said. “It’s less than a page!”
Black then asked Ricci not to come back to the ceremony. He also declined to say more about the altercation after Ricci had left.
“It’s his right to say what he wants to say but I believe that this is not the forum and I stick by that,” Black said. “If he had a problem with this or the procedures, it should’ve been taken up a different way.”
“We went through, with labor relations, the steps that are needed to promote a very fine person to the position of director of training,” Black continued. “There is no way that this person is not deserving of having a great day today.”
“I will not let somebody else take that away from him,” Black said, to light applause and a couple of “amens” from the gathered crowd.
Almodovar has worked at the training school since 2006 and Black said he has done excellent work as assistant drillmaster and as acting director of training.
“I have seen nothing except for leadership and professionalism out of this individual,” he said. “I’ve worked with him at the firehouses. I’ve worked with him at fires. This day is Antonio Almodovar’s day to shine.”
Ricci provided a copy of his audio of the fire board meeting to the Register, which appears to include the entire meeting, which lasted less than 9 minutes.
About 5 minutes and 25 seconds into the meeting, the discussion turns to the director of training position, for which the board had the eligibility list.
A board member starts to make a motion but Black can be heard cutting in.
“There’s not going to be a promotion or anything today,” Black said.
“Oh, OK,” the commissioners say.
“I want to make sure through human resources that we get the proper notice back to the top three and all that (inaudible), OK?” Black continues. “But it will be done very shortly and, uh, outside of the list, I’m hoping to make a group promotion for a bunch of people within the department, one ceremony, hopefully in July for hopefully battalion chief, director of training, marshal’s office if it comes back that quickly and those that are graduating from the or passing certifications in the state for fire marshal. We can do it at one ceremony. They will be promoted earlier but there will be a ceremony we have on a selected date in the near future.”
Black didn’t say what he meant by people being promoted earlier and the commissioners didn’t ask.
His remarks were followed by brief discussion about the paramedic test, which had recently been completed. About a minute later, the group set their next meeting for 9 a.m. July 5 and adjourned.
There does not appear to have been a motion, second or vote to accept the director of training list.
Board minutes provided to the Register by city staff show that Black presented the board with the civil service list for director of training for their acceptance.
“At this time no recommendation was made,” the minutes say. “Chief Black wanted to consult with Human Resources and make sure the proper letters were sent to the top three candidates on the list. He will promote in the near future.”
The minutes show the meeting was called to order at 9 a.m. May 31 and that the motion to adjourn was made at 9:15 a.m., even though Ricci’s audio is less than nine minutes long and appears to include all of the events detailed in the minutes.
Laurence Grotheer, spokesman for Mayor Toni Harp, was also at Wednesday’s ceremony, standing feet from Ricci and Black as the discussion escalated.
“It surprises me when a city employee acts in such public fashion to try and embarrass his or her employer,” Grotheer said in a statement later Wednesday. “Beyond that, Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter was at this morning’s proceedings to endorse Chief Black and the Board of Fire Commissioners in their decision to go forward with today’s promotion.”
According to the most up-to-date version of the city charter, the Board of Fire Commissioners “shall have sole power of appointment and promotion of all sworn members and employees of their respective departments, under such rules and regulations as they may adopt for the purpose, and in accordance with rules governing the Civil Service System.”
It was not immediately clear whether Ricci might face any disciplinary action within the department for challenging the chief publicly.