Judge rules EMS director illegally hired

Stratford will appeal a state Superior Court judge’s ruling that Stratford EMS Director Phil Onofrio, hired by Mayor John A. Harkins, has no legal claim to the job.

“The defendant Onofrio is not … director of the Stratford EMS,” according the ruling.

The decision came in a suit against the town filed by EMS Administrator Donna M. Best, alleging that “Onofrio illegally usurped” her responsibilities for budget and command of Stratford EMS.

Marc Dillon, chief of staff for Harkins, said last week that the town will appeal, and the situation will remain status quo until appeals are exhausted.

Town Attorney Tim Bishop told the Town Council Monday, Dec. 10, that an appeal will wait to see if the judge clarifies his ruling, which could take up to two months.

“Two months is not an unreasonable time to know if the judge is going to articulate on his decision further,” Bishop said Monday.

The court had previously rejected all claims in the suit except a single count against Onofrio.

Officials insisted at the Dec. 10 Town Council meeting that the suit is Best v. Onofrio, although originally titled, and still listed as, Best v. Town of Stratford.

That led Councilman Matt Catalano (R-3rd District) to ask if the town should be helping pay for Onofrio’s defense.

Bishop replied that it was the right and moral thing to do, and the town should support those employees who are in a management role.

The ruling states that Onofrio was given that role in violation of Stratford’s charter.

The town argued that as mayor, Harkins had the right to appoint a director for each public safety department.

The decision by Judge Trial Referee Howard T. Owens Jr. in Bridgeport focuses in part on the presence of “a” before “director” in the charter.

“Each department has only one director,” the ruling reads.

“As director and administrator of EMS, Best was responsible for all operative command, managerial and fiscal decisions and responsibilities for Stratford EMS from 2000 to 2011,” it continues.

The ruling says that Onofrio “effectively removed” Best from her position in March 2011, although the court ruled that Onofrio had no legal claim to the office, and Best maintained her employment.

Owens cited testimony from Human Resources Director Ronald Ing [placing quotes around the first reference to director] stating that Onofrio took over the position without a Town Council vote on his salary.

Ing, in testimony cited in the ruling, “eventually acknowledged” that as EMS administrator, the title granted Best’s role in the Town Charter, she served as director of the department.

When Onofrio assumed his role, Best was told to vacate her office, and Onofrio assumed the duties she was performing.

“The plain language of the charter states that the administrator of Stratford EMS is the ‘director’ of the EMS Municipal Department,” Owens wrote. “The charter does not provide for a second director.”

The judge further wrote that every reference to a director in the charter is singular.

“These are problems created by the administration’s oversight,” Councilman Matt Catalano (R-3rd District) said Monday. “If we followed the ordinances, we wouldn’t be here.”

“The fundamental issue of the case is the interpretation of the town charter,” Bishop said.

The judge wrote that use of the indefinite article “a” does not allow there “to be as many directors of EMS as the mayor wants.”

Judge Owens cited general statutes, saying that the court may proceed to punish a person or organization for “usurping” an office.

Councilman Stephanie Philips (D-2nd District) asked Monday about a timetable for resolution of the case.

Bishop said those who watch clocks, used to seeing seconds, minutes and hours, “are going to want to get one that focuses on weeks, months and years,” predicting a full year.

 

Joseph Cole contributed to this story.

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