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Firefighter should be fired, analyst says

The decision lies with Chief E. Caroll Williams, whose department already dismissed one lieutenant for a slur.

By SHANNON TAN
Published January 10, 2004

LARGO - A Largo fire lieutenant made disparaging comments about a firefighter's ethnicity and should be fired, a human resources investigation concluded Friday.

The investigation found that Lt. Edward Sajdak Jr., a 26-year veteran of the Largo Fire Department, made a remark at Fire Station 39 demeaning people of Puerto Rican or Cuban heritage.

And after firefighter Argelio "Frank" E. Rodriguez Jr. reported the Oct. 7 comments, Sajdak retaliated against him by giving him a negative evaluation, personnel analyst Jack Loring concluded.

The latest incident is yet another black eye for the department, which fired a female lieutenant in 2002 for saying "I hate n-----s," and for Largo, which has battled its image as a racially intolerant city for years.

The earlier racial slur prompted city officials to revise the city's internal harassment policy, which now emphasizes "zero" tolerance and prohibits retaliation against those who complain of discrimination. The changes, which took effect in October, were accompanied by diversity training.

Loring recommended that Sajdak be discharged, and Rodriguez's November performance evaluation be replaced with a higher rating.

The final decision lies with Chief E. Caroll Williams, who expects to make a decision Monday. He said Friday he hadn't had time to review the report.

"I'm very concerned about the impact that some of that stuff will have on the department," Williams said.

In 2002, Lt. Brian McCrea resigned amid allegations that he made inappropriate remarks at work, days after Lt. Jeannine Horton was terminated for using a racial slur. Largo police Officer Mark Gluski resigned last year amid an investigation into allegations he used the word "n-----" twice during a ride-along with a police applicant.

"We thought having one lieutenant resign over this, they would get the message," said City Manager Steven Stanton, referring to the city's strict stance against harassment. "I'm not sure how many it'll take, but the message has been given."

The city employees who seem to be the most resistant to the harassment policy are the firefighters, Stanton said.

"That group of employees still asserts . . . nobody in the city is going to tell them they cannot express what they need to express in order to do their jobs," Stanton said.

When reached at his home Friday, Sajdak declined to comment. "Call back Monday," he said.

In his interview with city investigators, Rodriguez alleges he was talking in Spanish to his brother on his cell phone when he overheard Sajdak saying, "That Puerto Rican is too stupid to understand how to use that like a cell phone instead of a walkie-talkie."

Sajdak told Loring he did not remember making that remark to Rodriguez, who is Cuban.

Three witnesses made statements supporting Rodriguez's allegation, according to the report.

Rodriguez then went into Sajdak's office for a counseling session, and was yelling and arguing, according to Sajdak. He sent Rodriguez home on paid administrative leave for violating the code of conduct. The chief later suspended Rodriguez for five days without pay and ordered him to attend anger management training.

Rodriguez filed a grievance, but Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert found that the discipline was justified. The local firefighters union is challenging the discipline, and an independent arbitrator will hear the case.

"My client feels he did nothing wrong and was the victim in this," said Diane Bailey, Rodriguez's attorney. "He wants to be completely exonerated."

On Nov. 12, according to Loring's report, Sajdak said: "Right now, the way this whole thing is going down, I'd like to see him (Mr. Rodriguez) terminated."

Twelve days later, he gave him the lowest rating Rodriguez had ever received during his 10-year history with the city.

- Shannon Tan can be reached at shtan@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

[Last modified January 10, 2004, 01:16:20]


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