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Fire chief says union won't hinder him

He admits that his relationship with the union is strained, but he says his focus has been on improving training and gear in the Clearwater department.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published August 24, 2006

CLEARWATER - Fire Chief Jamie Geer acknowledges that his department's success "depends on a cooperative, collaborative relationship with the union."

"Unfortunately, that's not what we have," he said.

But Geer said he has a job to do, pointing to four areas that he has concentrated on since being hired two years ago: training, accountability, professionalism and safety.

"I can't let that relationship with the union prevent me from accomplishing those goals," he said.

And so he presses on.

Even in the face of three recent rulings of unfair labor practice that have gone in the union's favor.

Even with other union grievances still awaiting a hearing.

And even as the relationship continues to raise concerns around City Hall, with council members and Mayor Frank Hibbard, who said he has been discussing the issue weekly with City Manager Bill Horne.

Horne said the department is improving rapidly and that he doesn't want "the relationship with the union to be an indication of how much the department has improved in the last two years."

"When the public sees in much greater level of detail what's going on in the department, they all will agree we have made great strides," Horne said.

The city has made major changes in the department, many at the recommendation of a March 2004 Quality Improvement Audit conducted by an outside agency, MGT of America.

The department has been realigned from two to three divisions, with a division chief at the helm of each. A new training officer was hired, and there are three new training officer positions.

Firefighters have recently received new and updated boots, gloves, suspenders and helmets. In the past, firefighters were using rubber boots. But when Geer came aboard, he required using leather boots, which are much safer for responders. It was part of his effort to implement a new standard for all equipment.

Thousands of dollars in grants have been obtained, and there has been an emphasis on all training, especially in high-rise buildings.

"What I think is important to keep in mind is what I inherited when I got here," Geer said. "This was a department that had real problems. Performance problems, training issues, management issues ... those are the issues I'm focusing on."

Geer was hired after the 2002 Dolphin Cove condominium fire on Island Estates, which resulted in several deaths and injured firefighters. The incident exposed the department's weakness when it came to training and staffing.

* * *

In the midst of the accomplishments, Geer and Horne have been locked in battle with IAFF Local 1158, the union that represents all but one of the more than 170 rank and file firefighters.

The union said Geer's main goal is to make the group ineffective.

But the union and its members have claimed some recent victories.

In May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that Geer discriminated against 20-year veteran Lt. Wendy Cason when he did not let her take a makeup promotion exam, while a male firefighter was allowed to take a makeup test.

On three occasions in the past two months, a federal hearing officer has determined in unfair labor practice complaints filed by the union that Geer violated the rights of union members. It was determined that Geer prohibited union members from using the e-mail system and that he, along with Horne, threatened the jobs of the union leadership because they were in the process of conducting a unionwide vote of no confidence in Geer's leadership.

A fourth unfair labor practice complaint by the union alleged that Geer was arbitrarily denying union members leave time for union meetings, as per the bargaining agreement. On the day of the hearing in July, the matter was settled by the city, with it agreeing to cease the behavior and to pay the union's attorneys fees.

Union members said they offered in August 2005 to go on a retreat with Geer and other city officials so the two sides could get together and hash out their differences. But, they said, their offer was rebuffed.

The union also points to a recent denial by Geer for union leave time, just a few days after the settlement on the issue was reached. A union member requested time, as per the union contract, so he could attend a meeting. Geer denied the request.

"It makes the whole process difficult," said David Hogan, the union's secretary-treasurer. "In the spirit of cooperative labor and management, I felt like this was an opportunity for him to step up, and he didn't take it, to say, 'Let's move ahead.' Instead, we get the same. (Granting the leave time) was a huge opportunity that he missed."

Doug Matthews, the city's public communications director, said under the terms of the union contract and the unfair labor practice agreement, appropriate staffing levels are determined by the chief, not by the union. With six people already off that day, Geer didn't think it would be prudent to grant the time off, he said.

Jim Carino, the union's executive vice president and a 30-year Clearwater firefighter, said morale is low in the department, mostly because of the fear of being fired or targeted by the fire administration.

Carino wants Geer and Horne to be held to the same standards to which other city workers are being held.

"It was determined that they broke the law," Carino said of the unfair labor practices decisions and the Cason decision. "What are the consequences? I think a relationship would be very difficult (with Geer) with some of the things he has said and done. He broke the law."

The union has several other grievances filed against Geer and the city that are awaiting a hearing.

"If we had a labor-management relationship, there wouldn't be so many grievances," Carino said. "We have brought things to their attention, and they say, 'We have a grievance process, grieve it.' So we do. It spends our money. They are trying to break us."

* * *

"I'm concerned about the fire department, yes," Hibbard said. "I want a top-notch fire department with good relations between management and the union. We need to be able to focus on the task at hand: providing the citizens with the best services and having a good environment for training."

City Council member John Doran said he's always concerned about the negative effect that the relationship is having on the city and that he has shared those concerns with Horne and the firefighters.

"We are in a situation when we operate under the labor laws that the union represents firefighters and management represents the city," Doran said. "I'm hopeful that we will get closer and closer together and reduce the number of disagreements we have about how the fire department is being administered."

Horne said all council members have expressed concerns about the relationship.

"I understand their concern, and they understand my perspective," Horne said. "I'm confident they support the direction we are headed, and we will be more open about that."

Geer said he understands that change is hard, but he said he will remain until the job is done. He is scheduled to make a presentation to the council on the department's progress at its Sept. 5 work session.

"I knew it would take time," Geer said. "You just can't expect people to adjust to change overnight. ... The fact remains, it has to be done, and we have to keep moving forward. Our firefighters' safety is at stake."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 20:11:17]


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