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Greenwich Selectmen Split on Fire Marshal Appointment

The Board of Selectmen did not appoint the fire marshal candidate endorsed by the Greenwich Fire Chief.

Deputy Greenwich Fire Marshal Shawn McDonnell in Greenwich Town Hall after his appointment to Fire Marshal, April 24, 2014. Photo credit: Barbara Heins.
Deputy Greenwich Fire Marshal Shawn McDonnell in Greenwich Town Hall after his appointment to Fire Marshal, April 24, 2014. Photo credit: Barbara Heins.

The third time was the charm for the Greenwich Board of Selectmen to appoint a Fire Marshal.

And the vote — along party lines — came after nearly an hour of discussion by Fire Chief Peter Siecienski and the selectmen who conducted what amounted to a final interview between the candidates — acting Fire Marshal Rob Natale and Deputy Fire Marshal Shawn McDonnell. Both McDonnell and Natale agreed to have the questioning open to the public rather than in a closed-door executive session with the board.

In the end, by a 2-1 vote, the Republican Selectmen — David Theis and First Selectman Peter Tesei, who's also the town's Fire Commissioner, voted to appoint McDonnell, a 24-year veteran of the department.

Democrat Drew Marzullo nominated Natale, who was endorsed by Siecienski. But the nomination failed when neither Theis nor Tesei would second the nomination.

Marzullo said cast the lone dissenting vote because he believed it prudent to follow the chief's recommendation and the advice from town's Human Resources and Labor Relations directors as well as the Town Administrator. Today's vote came after much discussion in two previous selectmen's meetings earlier this month.

After a written exam, oral interviews and seniority there was a one-point difference on the eligibility list between McDonnell and Natale.

Siecienski said that based upon his 40-plus years in the fire service, "It is nice we have two eligible candidates, in my mind Rob Natale stood out." He added, "This isn’t about past transgressions, it is simply who we feel is the best capable candidate — the individual who is going to continue to raise the bar of the division."

Tesei and Theis wanted assurances from McDonnell that if he were appointed, he would continue the fire marshal division's efforts to improve performance with completing safety inspections of multi-family homes, schools and day care centers. A lack of timely inspections of those facilities was among the factors that led to the replacement of former Fire Marshal Joseph Benoit four years ago.

During the tenure of his successor, James McDonald, the rate of inspections improved. McDonald retired in March and Natale has been serving as acting fire marshal since.

Tesei said, "We had validation via the audit that the job wasn’t getting done. We’re in a better place now. My concern is  that we not go back…A lot of issues had to be about style." Tesei added, "Give me a sense of assurance, what sort of diligence you’re going to apply. I want to know that the metrics are going to get done and get along with the chief … have harmony. I don’t have the patience or desire to put up with nonsense."

McDonnell said he understood the responsibilities of the position and that "I've been responsible for 44 percent of those inspections. We're not 100 percent there on the multi-family home inspections. Two-thirds of the homes not inspected are now done. It’s been my baby, proud that I got that thing done."

Tesei asked McDonnell if he would be able to perform his duties despite not being recommended by Siecienski. "I don’t see it as a problem," McDonnell said. "I can’t say I harbor ill will.  He had to pick one or another — I see no reason why I can’t fulfill my job."

Natale, who's been assigned to the fire marshal's division for five years, said he wanted to keep the division "going in a forward direction for this town. We have been very strong in enforcing the fire code. I have a very strong sense of pride to fix wrongs that have been overlooked in years past."

Natale added, "McDonald started building foundation for this division and I want to continue building what it should be and not what it used to be. There are big violations that we’ve caught and have been remedied. My goal is to put the past cloud of this division not even in our memory and make decisions you’ll be proud of."

After the statements, the selectmen discussed the candidates.

Theis said the "tipping point" in his vote was the eligibility list. It’s devoid of political opinion. It creates more orderly change going forward. Theis added, "I think Sean is closer to retirement than Rob and it will (eventually) give other guys opportunity."

Tesei said he valued seniority and opportunity. "Sean, I want to give you the opportunity to perform the job. I am weighing heavily that this department advances forward, the metrics (are met) and you can work with Chief Siecienski and Assistant Chief Kick. You don’t have to love them but you have to get job done."

Tesei added, "Rob I think you’re well suited for the job. Sean it's not giving you a kiss and a kick. One of the things that’s important is to have a succession plan and groom a successor. You have to see that your people are properly trained and there are good opportunities."

Following the vote, Natale approached McDonnell, shook his hand and left. Siecienski and Kick both left the meeting and could not be reached for comment.

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