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Board backs firefighters on chief's ban on e-mail

Also, the firefighters union and the city of Clearwater settle a claim about use of leave time.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published July 28, 2006


CLEARWATER - The firefighters union has proved again that the fire chief unfairly targeted its members and, as a result, violated state law and the bargaining agreement that binds the two.

On Wednesday, a hearing officer from the state Public Employees Relations Commission determined that the city committed an unfair labor practice against Clearwater Fire Fighters Association, Local 1158 Inc., when it banned union members from using city e-mail to conduct or discuss union business.

And on Thursday, the city and union decided to forgo a hearing and instead settled a claim that alleged that Chief Jamie Geer arbitrarily prohibited union members from using leave time.

What did the union claim that Geer and the city did to warrant Wednesday's ruling?

The grievance, filed Dec. 23, alleged that Geer prohibited union members from corresponding through the city's e-mail system. In an Aug. 26 e-mail, Geer wrote: "Effective immediately, the use of the e-mail system to send group messages to all Fire Department employees is prohibited unless cleared through your respective division chief."

Geer sent a subsequent e-mail on Aug. 31 that read: "Please note that my direction is that there will be no union activity on duty or on premises without my approval. No employee will be allowed to visit, participate or view any union hall activity while on duty or paid status until further notice and with my approval."

The hearing officer determined in the Wednesday ruling that the city and Geer violated state statutes by "promulgating and maintaining an overbroad no-solicitation rule, by banning the use of the city's e-mail system for Local 1158's communications, and by discriminatorily enforcing its restrictions against Local 1158's communications."

The officer recommended the city and desist the overly broad no-solicitation rule; from prohibiting employees from using the city's e-mail system to send union messages on nonwork time; and from discriminating against Local 1158 by imposing the no-solicitation rule in an arbitrary manner. The officer also recommended that the city pay the union's legal fees.

What happens next?

The city has yet to decide whether it will appeal the decision.

What was the basis of Thursday's settlement between the union and the city?

On May 19, a grievance was filed by the union charging Geer with denying union leave time requests for arbitrary and discriminatory reasons, and for threatening members with disciplinary action in response to their requests for union leave time and their requests for his reasons for denying leave time.

The collective bargaining agreement states, "the union may, upon request, be allowed up to 400 duty hours per fiscal year to be excused for union business, conferences, training, and executive board meetings pertaining to the city of Clearwater."

According to the contract, the request must be in writing through the chain of command.

On Thursday, the city and the union reached a settlement after several hours of negotiations. In the two-page settlement agreement, neither party admits wrongdoing in the matter and the city "agrees not to deny request for union leave time for arbitrary and capricious reasons, and agrees that it will provide a legitimate reason for any denial."

The city also agrees not to counsel or discipline employees for not making union leave time requests in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement and it will not interfere with or coerce public employees in the exercise of any rights guaranteed to them by state statutes.

The city also agreed to pay $7,230 for fees and costs.

What was the reaction to Thursday's settlement?

John Lee, president of the Local 1158, said, "The union will always stand up for the rights and laws of its members. If we don't fight that fight and roll over, then our collective bargaining agreement would mean nothing. Today was positive. Maybe it's possible for us to have a cooperative labor-management relationship. I'm encouraged that there is some hope for change."

Joe Roseto, Clearwater's human resources director, said, "We want to move forward in a positive way. We have a Fire Department that we are trying to make the best in the country. We are certainly wanting to have a collaborative relationship. But they want to start those discussions with the firing of the chief and the city manager and that's not a good way to start discussions and that's not productive."

What were the issues involved with the recent union victories?

On June 27, a commission hearing officer ruled in a combined complaint that Geer and City Manager Bill Horne unlawfully threatened the jobs of union members last year, and the commission ordered the city to cease and desist such actions and to pay the union's legal fees.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 23:14:22]


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