New London - Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said in an emailed statement Wednesday that he supports state Rep. Ernest Hewett's call for an investigation into the state fire academy.
Hewett, a Democrat representing New London, responded Wednesday by saying the fire academy should be reviewed but that city officials are ultimately responsible for their own hiring and firing practices.
Finizio's announcement comes one day after an NAACP town hall meeting that included a number of firefighters and recruits who recounted difficult experiences at the academy, including perceived racism. One of those men, Alfred Mayo, was fired by Finizio just days before he was scheduled to graduate with his class in December.
Mayo was the first black firefighter hired by the New London Fire Department since 1978.
"When local municipalities make decisions on the retention of fire department recruits, we must rely on information provided to us by the Fire Academy," Finizio said in his statement. "In the decision reached by the administration not to retain recruit Alfred Mayo, the City of New London relie(d) heavily on data provided by the Fire Academy. At last night's NAACP forum, I was disturbed to hear numerous former Academy recruits explain irregularities at the Academy."
On Wednesday, Hewett said he spoke briefly with Reuben F. Bradford, the commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the fire academy.
Hewett said it's a start to investigate the academy, but it doesn't change the fact that he believes city officials "didn't do their homework" and wrongfully fired Mayo.
"It's not the fire academy that fired him," Hewett said. "My point is, yes, the fire academy should be looked into, but the city of New London, in my opinion, made a mistake in firing this guy. The onus has to come back on the city."
Much of Tuesday night's discussion centered around the firing of Mayo, problems at the fire academy and a need for the city to implement programs to prepare and interest young people in firefighting careers.
Hewett spoke Tuesday night to a crowded room at the Second Congregational Church. He said Mayo should not have been fired and that one of his offenses at the academy was being too "enthusiastic" and that instructors told him to hang back.
"Those instructors in that school, when they told him by going first in class you're showing too much enthusiasm, isn't that what you teach your children?" Hewett said. "They told him don't go first all the time, that's what they told him. That's disturbing.
"I got a problem with how this happened. I believe he was railroaded from day one, from day one that he went in that academy."
Those instructors, Hewett said, should be questioned by a committee in Hartford.
Mayo handed out copies at the meeting of a seven-page letter recounting his experiences at the academy. He was one of the first to speak Tuesday night before a five-person panel of civil rights advocates, telling of his uphill battle at the fire academy, where he said he was mistreated by instructors.
Mayo said he was the only black recruit in his class.
"The fact is that I think it was because of my face, who I am, the color of my skin," Mayo said. "I was scrutinized from day one."
Hewett said Tuesday he grew up in North Carolina and attended recently desegregated schools, the first day of which "was hell."
"I can understand what Mr. Mayo went through at that fire academy," Hewett said.
NAACP state chapter President Scot X. Esdaile echoed the call for a fire academy investigation after hearing the testimony of Richard Closs Tuesday night.
Closs, now a Hartford firefighter, recounted his experience of being terminated while attending the fire academy in November 2006. He was training to become a Norwich firefighter at the time, he said, adding that the same instructors who reprimanded Mayo were working at the academy during his 2006 experience.
Hewett also offered a suggestion for improving the city's fire department diversity. "We need to have a program to start with kids that age to bring them up and get them interested in the fire academy," he said, pointing to two young children in the audience.
In an online web chat with theday.com readers last month, Finizio answered a query about Mayo's firing:
"This individual's scores were among the lowest of any recruit we have sent to the academy. Combined with other problems in the individual's personnel file and acting on the recommendation of (City) Councilor (Wade) Hyslop and Chief Administrative Officer (Jane) Glover, I accepted the recommendation to terminate this individual."