Fasano Questions OPM’s Termination of Labor Relations Director Yelmini [Courant]

November 29, 2014

The Hartford Courant
One of Linda J. Yelmini’s jobs as the state’s longtime director of labor relations has been to discipline or fire public employees charged with misconduct. She’s able to quote personnel statutes like most people can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and her expertise in such cases has gained her a reputation as the state’s terminator.

But what happens when you want to terminate the terminator — which the Malloy administration now has set out to do — and you don’t have someone with Yelmini’s experience to do the legal hatchet-work that she’s always done for you?

It gets messy, that’s what.

Two top officials in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office — called the Office of Policy and Management — told Yelmini in a private meeting more than a week ago that she was being laid off, but they didn’t handle it in practiced terminator’s style.

They didn’t immediately give her a formal notice with a termination date, didn’t provide a public explanation of how this move might benefit taxpayers, and left enough other loose ends for Yelmini to write a blistering rebuttal that said they were violating labor law and her individual rights.

Yelmini, who’s an attorney, wrote that they told her they were conducting a “reorganization” that only affected her $170,000-a-year position, and that they were replacing her with a “political appointee.” That, Yelmini said, suggested a retreat from professionalism and a return to the politicized personnel policies of the old “spoils” system.

She has vowed to pursue legal remedies.

And the messiness continues. Now the state Senate’s incoming minority leader, Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, says that he agrees with Yelmini’s statement that she “must have made someone angry” – because he said Yelmini isn’t charged with misconduct and to his knowledge has done nothing to merit losing her job at age 64.

Calling her ouster a “reorganization” is an old trick that’s often used to get rid of someone who has civil service job rights, Fasano said – adding that by that method you eliminate a person’s position and call it a layoff, rather than firing the person straight-out. Private companies do the same thing – “reorganize” a person out of a job, he said.

“Reorganization is a euphemism for ‘I want to get rid of you,'” Fasano told The Courant in a phone interview Wednesday.

Moreover, Malloy’s people “absolutely” waited until after the Nov. 4 election to execute their plan, Fasano said. It’s bad business in politics to unleash this sort of controversy during a gubernatorial re-election campaign. “Why take the risk before the election?” Fasano said.

If it’s true that OPM chief Ben Barnes plans to replace Yelmini’s civil-service position with a politically-appointed post, Fasano said that he’s concerned about how well Yelmini’s successor will represent the state’s interests in another key role that Yelmini now plays — as chief negotiator with state employee unions.

Political sources say they’re watching to see if the new appointee will be more union-friendly than Yelmini, who’s viewed as having a prickly personality at times and has served in the same position under Republican governors John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell before Democrat Malloy.

Fasano, for his part, said that Yelmini “is a tough lady,” adding that he’s interested to see “if this is a plan to put somebody in that spot that perhaps has some political alliance with OPM or the governor.”

No Explanation

What’s still missing in all of this discussion is an explanation from Malloy, his budget director Ben Barnes, or anyone else in the administration as to why Yelmini is losing her job and how the “reorganization” — as Yelmini has said it was presented to her — would work.

For the past week, Malloy’s director communications, Andrew Doba, has said the administration won’t comment publicly on personnel matters.

OPM Undersecretary Gian-Carl Casa reaffirmed that stance Friday when he was asked about Yelmini’s statements that she was told that a political appointee would be replacing her as part of a reorganization. “We’ve decided it’s best not to comment on the whole thing at this point,” Casa said.

OPM has made one internal personnel move in the past week, hiring a new employee from the ranks of Democratic politics. It’s unclear if it counts as part of a “reorganization,” and it apparently doesn’t relate directly to Yelmini’s situation, but OPM has added a new position and filled it by hiring Chris McClure, who had been serving as research director for the Democratic State Central Committee. McClure started work at OPM this past Monday. Casa said he didn’t have McClure’s salary handy.

Why add a new position in the budget office during what’s become a perpetual budget crisis, when there’s supposed to be a hiring freeze? Casa said that new positions are “evaluated individually” to determine whether they’re needed. He said McClure’s new job is needed because he has talent with both numbers and communicating.

“We know that there’s going to be a lot of difficult work as we take on a new budget,” Casa said. “We have to make serious policy decisions that we have to discuss with the legislature and the public,” and that will be part of McClure’s job.

Yelmini told The Courant last week that she doesn’t know why she’s losing her job, but “I obviously have made someone angry.”

The list of “someones” could be a long one, because Yelmini has run the labor-relations office inside OPM since 1997 – with interim service as commissioner of administrative services and deputy commissioner of public safety when Rell was governor.

Even Fasano, who’s now talking favorably about Yelmini, was upset with her during a public spat early this year.

Here’s what happened:

Yelmini was serving as a member of the State Retirement Commission when it met Feb. 20 to consider a request by East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo for reinstatement of a disability pension that state officials had disallowed in 2011, after he’d been collecting it for years.

Fasano, who supported Maturo’s ultimately unsuccessful effort, told the commission that he’d talked to Attorney General George Jepsen after he learned that the panel was seeking an opinion from Jepsen’s office on the issue. The attorney general later issued an opinion favorable to Maturo’s request.

“This guy, Fasano, went out and got the Attorney General to write the opinion that he wrote,” Yelmini told fellow commission members. When another panel member speculated as to whether there had been a “deal,” Yelmini said that “we found out today it was part of Fasano’s deal.”

Fasano responded to Yelmini’s comments in a letter March 19, saying that her “allegation that the attorney general’s opinion in this matter was the result of a ‘deal’ between me and Attorney General Jepsen is both wholly without merit and highly offensive.”

However, Fasano said his disagreement with Yelmini on that issue doesn’t make him think she should lose her job.

Jepsen, Malloy’s fellow Democrat from Stamford, also objected to Yelmini’s comments last March. He, too, wrote her a letter saying he was “deeply dismayed” by her “by inaccurate and irresponsible comments.”

Fasano said he doesn’t think Jepsen would have advocated for Yelmini’s ouster because of that. “George doesn’t strike me as that type of person,” Fasano said. Jepsen Friday that he said never advocated for Yelmini’s ouster, and the administration never consulted with him his office about it.

Yelmini served on the retirement commission until she resigned a week or so ago, after being told she was to be laid off.

A few days after telling Yelmini of her impending layoff, OPM officials finally presented her with a formal layoff notice last Tuesday. The layoff is set to take effect Jan. 20, and in the meantime she is expected to report to work and run the labor-relations unit that’s a part of OPM. But aside from keeping the office running, she said she’s been relieved of her duties as the state’s top employee-relations official and union negotiator.