By Don Stacom
An independent investigator has determined that the fire department suffers from a fractured leadership team and perceptions of racism and favoritism that are worsened by the "racial insensitivity" of Chief Thomas Ronalter.
The monthslong review did not document racism in hiring or discipline, but concluded "it is not unreasonable that a minority firefighter could perceive the existence of racial bias."
The report by the DCB Law Group and the city's personnel office indicated widespread morale trouble at the department.
"There is a strong and compelling perception amongst the overall membership of the NBFD that the administrative leadership … is deficient and dysfunctional, mired by a lack of consistent affirmative communication, unfair treatment and favoritism," the report said.
Neither Ronalter nor fire union President Ed Preece could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Mayor Erin Stewart issued a statement saying "the perception of any unfairness or racial insensitivity is unacceptable." Stewart did not indicate what action she'll take, but promised improvements.
Ronald Perry Davis, a representative of the local NAACP, said the report shows a hostile work environment at the fire department. He called on Stewart to overhaul its leadership.
"It's in the mayor's ballpark — we hope she makes the right decision," he said. "We don't want any of this in our community."
The report came about after bias complaints from Daylon Hudson, a black firefighter, and the NAACP last spring. The NAACP said New Britain doesn't hire or promote enough minority or female firefighters and applies favoritism in its disciplinary decisions. Hudson complained that a display of portraits of past chiefs deliberately omitted the late Chief Mark Carr, who was black and led the department from 2004 to 2012.
The report sides with Hudson on that matter, saying Ronalter for several years kept Carr's portrait out of the display despite requests from Carr's widow, Nikki, and black firefighters. He did that "without reasonable excuse," the report says, suggesting it shows "at best a serious level of racial insensitivity by the chief."
Ronalter told the review team that he'd made an error, but maintained it wasn't based on racism. Given the demands of running a roughly 130-member fire department, he didn't think the portrait matter was a priority, he said.
Stewart said she was appalled at the report's more wide-ranging management concerns.
"The report states that there are perceptions of the chief not having 'strong command presence or a vision of the path forward,' which has set up a 'toxic effect on the morale of the department,'" Stewart noted.
The review concluded there's a relatively widespread belief that Ronalter's administration treats some firefighters as friends while ignoring others. It punishes out-of-favor firefighters more harshly than others, several firefighters told the review team.
"There is no known strategic plan for the NBFD. Many believe that the chief is only selectively present or available to the rank-and-file, choosing to speak with certain people he likes and purposely avoiding or even recognizing or acknowledging anyone else," according to the report.
The report notes that some firefighters are fully satisfied with the department's operations and management; some told investigators that a small group is responsible for complaints and dissension.
During his tenure, Ronalter has been praised by some firefighters and residents for upgrading equipment and being accessible to the public. He is a 34-year veteran of the department and has been a fire service instructor at the Connecticut Fire Academy and an adjunct instructor with the National Fire Academy.
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