WEST HAVEN >> After more than 38 years on the job as an Allingtown firefighter and nearly a decade as chief, Peter Massaro is being pushed out of his job by Mayor Ed O’Brien’s administration for what Massaro’s supporters say are political reasons.
But O’Brien, in an interview Friday, said that his decision not to renew Massaro’s contract was not politically motivated — and even said that while the Allingtown Board of Fire Commissioners will conduct a search for a new chief, Massaro is welcome to apply for the job.
He pointed out, however, that Massaro’s most recent contract was signed by former Mayor John Picard on Nov. 26, 2013, just a few days before O’Brien took office — and said that despite that, he had honored that contract.
“They signed it right before I took office ... It was signed in the 11th hour” after O’Brien defeated Picard, O’Brien said.
Massaro “has been a longtime public servant and he’s done a great job,” O’Brien said.
But some supporters of Massaro say he’s not being treated with the respect he has earned.
“They’re getting rid of him,” said Margaret Krzeminski, a longtime Allingtown resident and former member of the Board of Fire Commissioners who was on the board when the city agreed to absorb the Allingtown Fire District in 2012.
“They’re getting rid of him because he’s not one of the people that they’re keeping around ... and it’s all political,” said Krzeminski, who spoke out on the subject at a recent City Council meeting. “They want him out. They want somebody that they can control.”
Massaro “is being mistreated ... because you have the Democratic Town Committee Chairman James Morrissey, (City Council Chairman and West Haven Fire Department Chief) Jimmy O’Brien and the mayor” all in power, Krzeminski said. “They want him out because they can’t control him.”
Massaro supported Picard in the 2013 election in which O’Brien defeated Picard, first in a Democratic primary and then in the general election.
Massaro also supported former City Council Chairman Nick Pascale in his 2015 Democratic primary challenge of O’Brien, and Massaro’s wife, Karen Massaro, ran on Pascale’s ticket for Board of Assessment Appeals.
Both of O’Brien’s announced opponents in this year’s upcoming election, Republican City Councilman David Riccio, R-at-large, and Democratic former Councilwoman Nancy Rossi, also have spoken out against Massaro’s ouster.
O’Brien said his decision to extend Massaro’s contract — at Massaro’s request — until this coming Feb. 28 after it expired last June 30 is evidence that he bears Massaro no ill will.
Massaro made that request so he could use some of the vacation and sick time he had accumulated, O’Brien said. There are limits on how much accumulated time Massaro can cash in when he retires, he said.
Commissioner of Human Resources Beth Sabo said Massaro can only be paid for 60 days of accumulated vacation time.
Corporation Counsel Vincent Amendola would only say that “corporation counsel does not comment on personnel matters ...
“I think it’s probably hard for anybody to retire ... and I think change is difficult ...” he added, acknowledging that it might be more difficult when it’s not a person’s choice to retire.
“Life in general is just tough sometimes,” Amendola said.
Massaro, 67, makes $98,720 a year in his job leading what used to be the Allingtown Fire Department — formerly one of three independent fire departments serving sections of the city, but now part of the city and called the “City of West Haven Fire Department — Allingtown.”
He would not comment on the situation.
Massaro’s lawyer, Chip Walsh, said he was limited in what he could say by “non-disparagement language” in the extension agreement. But he said, “I guess it surprised me that given his years of experience and knowledge that a decision would be made not to renew his contract ... I don’t believe that he or I ever got an explanation that made sense to us.
“Looking at it objectively, given his exemplary service and his knowledge of the specific operations of Allingtown and his ability as a working chief to harness all of the commitment from the members of his department to work as a cohesive unit, it would seem that that’s the kind of person you would want to keep around throughout your term to assure that the citizens are getting the best fire service possible,” Walsh said.
Others close to the situation said that while Massaro’s contract extends through Feb. 28, he was told in mid-January to use accumulated vacation and sick time and to no longer come to work.
That leaves Deputy Chief Michael Esposito in charge, although sources say there are things Esposito can’t do because he technically cannot act in the capacity of chief as long as Massaro still is chief.
Esposito grew up in West Haven — the son of former state representative and onetime Allingtown Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Louis P. Esposito Jr. — but now lives in Orange. He would have to move back to West Haven were he to be selected as the new chief. He could not be reached for comment.
The decision not to renew Massaro’s contract came at a time when other changes were in the works in Allingtown, including the ouster of former Board of Fire Commissioners Chairwoman Iris Diaz.
Diaz was pushed out of the chairmanship last month and replaced by John Panza.
Panza, former longtime chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, is vice chairman of the Democratic Town Committee and an ally of the mayor.
Diaz, the only Latino member of the Allingtown Board of Fire Commissioners, remains a member. Diaz didn’t immediately return a call for comment.
“I think he did a great job,” Panza said of Massaro. “I was talking to the mayor and he wanted to put the job out ... It’s his prerogative to put the job out ... Peter asked for an extension and I think he did get that from the mayor.”
Pascale called Massaro, whose brother, Richard Massaro, also was a former Allingtown chief, “a great chief” and said, “I just don’t really understand why someone with that much experience has to go, other than politics.”
“I think it’s Pete’s job to fight for his district,” and as part of that job, “he expressed concerns” about bills that the city allegedly wasn’t paying on time, Pascale said. “It’s a safety industry,” he said. “It isn’t something that you should play politics with.”
He lamented the fact that “we have so many things to worry about in West Haven,” yet “we’re creating a situation that we now have to deal with.”
Commissioner of Human Resources Sabo, who has been held over in various positions, including commissioner of human resources and commissioner of public works, by several successive administrations dating back to Democratic Mayor Azelio M. Guerra, said that in her mind people at that level of government serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
She said that ever since Allingtown was absorbed by the city, there is a difference between the chief of the Allingtown department and those of the West Haven and West Shore departments, which remain independent.
Technically, Massaro’s contract “expired on June 30th,” Sabo said. According to the agreement that extended the contract, “he was to work up to a certain point in January” and then “take around 30 days of vacation” before formally retiring on Feb. 28, Sabo said.
“The issue is, the general dynamics changed once the fire department” was absorbed into the city, Sabo said.
She pointed out that each time a new mayor takes office, “I personally submit a letter of retirement” and department heads who aren’t eligible to retire submit letters of resignation.
“Your terms runs concurrent with the mayor,” Sabo said.
She pointed out that despite Massaro’s last contract being approved just before O’Brien took office, the mayor “honored the contract until it exhausted itself on June 30. Then, they approved an extension.