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NY fire chief spars with city as retirement nears

Former Utica Fire Chief Russel Brooks said he still believes he could return to duty, despite his impending mandatory retirement date in October


By Greg Mason
Observer-Dispatch

UTICA, N.Y. — It has been about 14 months since Russell Brooks last served as Utica's fire chief.

With Brooks on administrative leave, the Utica Fire Department has had three interim chiefs in that span. Retired Utica fire Capt. James Barefoot, the latest appointed to the role, officially started July 2.

Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks has been on administrative leave for about 14 months, and still hopes to return to duty before retirement. (Photo/Ancient Order of Hibernians)
Utica Fire Chief Russell Brooks has been on administrative leave for about 14 months, and still hopes to return to duty before retirement. (Photo/Ancient Order of Hibernians)

Through it all, Brooks continues to challenge the city's decision to place him on paid, nondisciplinary, administrative leave due to concerns with Brooks' health. While Mayor Robert Palmieri and other city officials have pointed to reports from their hired specialists as evidence, Brooks has challenged those findings with positive recommendations, he said, from his own physicians.

"I could have finished out my career," Brooks said. "This is strictly political. Palmieri and I did not get along, and this was his way of thinking he could get me out of the picture."

Time is running out on Brooks' quest for reinstatement, however.

Brooks will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 in September, meaning he will have to retire on or about Oct. 1. He also is entitled to a period of terminal leave ahead of his retirement date.

Nothing has changed with his administrative leave status. A request for comment to Mayor Robert Palmieri's office was deferred to corporation counsel due to pending litigation.

"There is nothing political about following the law and medical evidence," the corporation counsel's office said in a statement. "Any notion to the contrary is false. The city remains open to continuing negotiations with hopes of a possible resolution; however, (it) feels strongly in its position, based on the medical evidence, and therefore is prepared to litigate this dispute if necessary."

Brooks, however, said he still believes he could return.

"In this crazy city, there's always a chance," he said.

The O-D talked with Brooks about his situation as well as some of the recent developments with the fire department.

Legal challenges

Palmieri placed Brooks on leave in May 2017, on the same day that he told the fire chief that Brooks' application for 207-a benefits -- which are granted to firefighters injured in the line of duty -- was denied.

Attorney Earl Redding, who represents Brooks, said he has had talks with the city about rescheduling a pending arbitration hearing in the 207-a dispute.

Brooks, meanwhile, said that the 207-a pursuit has been put "on the back-burner," prioritizing acknowledgement for benefits outlined under a different section of General Municipal Law: 92-d, which provides sick leave benefits for responders affected by certified World Trade Center-related health conditions.

Brooks, who is enrolled with the World Trade Center Health Organization, has said his main reason for pursuing 92-d is for acknowledgment that his chronic lymphocytic leukemia was caused by responding to ground zero for 9/11 recovery efforts.

Brooks took the city to court over the 92-d issue, but a state Supreme Court judge determined that the fire chief never properly submitted a formal 92-d request.

Brooks said a request was submitted about a week after the judge's determination. The city's corporation counsel's office disputed the date, saying the request was formally submitted in April.

"The city's goal -- with many, many of their issues -- is to stall and let time run out," Brooks said.

City officials say there are discussions taking place.

"As Chief Brooks is well aware, since that time his lawyer, Earl Redding, and city attorneys have engaged in extensive and ongoing negotiations regarding a potential settlement agreement," the corporation counsel's office said in a statement.

Redding replied to a request for comment with a brief email statement.

"We're waiting on the city to make a 92-d determination," he said.

New leadership

While Brooks and Palmieri may not agree on much, they share similar views about Barefoot's quality of character.

Both have lauded Barefoot, who worked 32 years with the fire department before his retirement in 2012. While Brooks declined to comment when asked if he believes Barefoot is qualified for the interim chief's position, he called his former captain "extraordinary."

Barefoot's services were required after former Temporary Chief John Kelly resigned from the position. An investigation that concluded last month determined Kelly violated department policy for reasons related to a series of lewd text messages he sent to a potential fire department recruit.

City officials are proposing an open competitive process to vet both internal and external candidates for the permanent chief's position. Brooks, however, said he believes the department has enough talent to fill the ranks.

"It's just craziness that Palmieri has caused," Brooks said of the recent developments with the fire department. "If there was ever a situation that illustrated a need for a public safety commissioner, this was it. He injected politics into the operation of the fire department, and this was the result."

Copyright 2018 Observer-Dispatch

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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