There was debate at Tuesday's Avon Volunteer Fire Department Board of Director's meeting about which should come first – voting on ratifying the expulsion of veteran volunteer firefighter Michael Farrell, 48, or acting on his written request to be designated as retired.
The board voted to postpone a decision on ratifying his expulsion until the next meeting, but recommended that the department accept his retirement offer, sending it to the members to ultimately decide.
Farrell, who has been a regular member at the Avon department since 1983 and is chairman of the Avon Water Pollution Control Authority, is also employed full-time as a Waterbury fire captain. He is separately facing felony charges of workers' compensation fraud and larceny after Waterbury police learned he responded to some fire calls in Avon and taught Connecticut Fire Academy training classes while on paid injury leave from the Waterbury Fire Department, according to a court affidavit. Between March and July, before his Sept. 7 arrest, he collected about $19,558 in workers' compensation for his full-time Waterbury job. His next court date is Oct. 15.
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To date, Farrell has been suspended four times at the Avon department, including once when he was deputy fire chief in 1992. Department officials have said this is an anomaly and that this is not characteristic of the majority of their members.
"Every past/present Board of Directors and (the) past chiefs have been at this crossroads and been given a compromise by Michael Farrell, only to have that period of peace until the next outburst," board member and Avon Volunteer Fire Chief Michael Trick said in a prepared statement he read to the board Tuesday. "What assurances do we have that that won't be repeated?" Trick said.
A department review committee recently recommended expelling Farrell. That was after he was suspended twice in the last five years – in June 2012 after responding to calls while on medical leave in Avon and October 2008 for an inappropriate comment made to two female department members in 2006. He went on injury leave in Waterbury and medical leave in Avon on March 20 and, according to a court affidavit, was not supposed to be responding to fire calls due to a back injury.
According to Avon fire department policy, any member suspended twice in five years can be considered for expulsion.
Trick said that giving Farrell retirement status would entitle him to certain department privileges like access to its stations, social events and "other opportunities to sow the seeds of discontent and disruption."
He also said that Farrell previously offered to retire after a "prior legal action" and the department agreed to it, but that "he then withdrew his offer within 30 minutes of our agreed meeting time."
"I recommend we continue our course of expulsion and stand resolute that this behavior is not accepted," he said.
But the board voted by a majority to recommend accepting Farrell's letter asking the department to put him on retirement status. Fire department members will have the opportunity to vote on accepting his retirement.
"There's just two different things going on as I see it. The request to go to retirement status is in front of us," board member and former Avon Chief James DiPace said before the votes, "and then the requirement or procedure for expelling him has nothing to do with what this board says beside acknowledging the fact that the review committee did its job."
Trick said in his statement that he has concerns about the "safeguards" should Farrell reconsider his retirement status in the future.
"How will we be judged by those that come after us? By accepting this change of status, what is change?" he said.
DiPace told the board it was a tough call for him because he's known Farrell basically since he was born, so "it's personal." While they've had their differences over the years, there have been good times as well, he said.
"I disagree with the need to expel Michael. I've been a member of this fire department for 38 years and this is something I didn't think I'd ever come to ... expelling anybody, but especially needing to remove Michael Farrell from the membership," DiPace said.
"I know what he's put us through and everything that's going on in his life personally. He brought it on himself. From what I see and what I read, it's simply that. But I just can't see me personally voting to expel him," he said.
In an Aug. 7 board meeting, the day after the board sent him a letter ratifying Trick's decision to suspend him, Farrell complained that Trick violated a department discipline policy in the way he handled his June suspension, according to meeting minutes posted on the department's website.
He also requested an investigation "into actions presumed to have been committed by unknown members of the department with regards to Violence Free Workplace policy, AA-11," according to the minutes. Board President Ken Sedlak reported to the board at a Sept. 4 meeting that neither claim was credible, according to the minutes.