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City ordered to rehire paramedic

An arbitrator finds a series of shortcomings in Clearwater's decision to fire Trevor Murray after he failed to answer a 911 call last year.

Published September 19, 2006

CLEARWATER - City officials denied former paramedic Trevor Murray "basic notions of fairness and due process" when they fired him for not responding to a call, a federal arbitrator has ruled.

Arbitrator Martin O. Holland ordered that the city rehire Murray into a similar job, give him back pay and help him get his paramedic's certification reinstated.

In a 35-page decision, Holland outlined a series of shortcomings in the city's decision to fire Murray:

- Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer apparently withheld a report that did not support firing Murray from human resources officials.

- The city's Human Resources Department did not conduct its own investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident, nor did the department's director view all of the evidence before firing Murray.

- Despite having more than 215 employees, Clearwater Fire & Rescue does not have a written policy or procedures to investigate violations of its rules or policy.

"The discharge of (Murray) is the labor equivalent of capital punishment," Holland wrote. "After 10 years of 'excellent service to the city,' Murray just can't move and resume his paramedic's career."

Murray, 40, was fired in May 2005 for not responding to a 911 call, city officials said.

Murray, who worked 10 years as a Clearwater paramedic, was thankful that the decision went his way.

"God is good," Murray said. "I prayed over this. I feel that I have been vindicated. I made a good-faith error in judgment. Anyone who knows me knows I never tried to avoid work. I made an error in judgment. But I've been humbled by this experience."

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said he was surprised by the arbitrator's decision based on the city's understanding of the facts. He said the city will take this week to consider its next step.

"We are reviewing the whole thing," Horne said. "I'm not going to make any comments until we can review it. If I make any comments now, I'll be speculating."

On March, 26, 2005, Murray and co-worker Mike Jones didn't leave the fire station when a call came in for a woman claiming that she was raped.

Recognizing the caller's address as that of a woman who often reported false claims of sexual assaulted, Murray told the dispatcher to make them "available" for the next call and to alert them if police got there and decided that they needed assistance. The woman, who was not raped, was taken to a mental hospital.

Murray and Jones were fired May, 12, 2005. Jones is still awaiting the outcome of a separate hearing on his firing.

Despite Murray's poor judgment, Holland wrote, his mistake did not warrant termination.

After the incident, Randy Bacher, who was then Fire & Rescue's deputy chief of operations, conducted an investigation in which he spoke with all parties, including their supervisors, and received information from the police. Bacher recommended that Murray review policy and be counseled.

"I don't think that (firing) was the appropriate action based on the circumstances," Bacher said Monday of Murray's firing.

But Geer conducted his own investigation and sent his findings to Joe Roseto, the city's human resources director. He apparently did not, however, pass along Bacher's report, Holland said.

"It appears Chief Geer decided to conduct his own investigation when he apparently felt Chief Bacher was too favorable" toward Murray, Holland wrote.

Moreover, Holland concluded that Geer improperly withheld the 911 dispatch tape of the March 26 incident as well as "substantial Clearwater Police Department documentation" showing the caller's abuse of the 911 system.

On Monday, Geer said he did give Roseto Bacher's report.

"The entire file was shared with Human Resources from the very beginning," Geer said. "When termination notices are recommended, the entire packet goes to HR. That's why it's imperative that we go back and study this with our legal team."

Roseto testified in Murray's hearing that he never listened to the 911 tape nor did he read any of the dispatch reports before making the ultimate decision to fire Murray.

Roseto said Monday that just because he didn't listen to the tape or read Bacher's report doesn't mean that someone on his staff didn't view the materials.

"My staff does very, very thorough research on any (disciplinary) matter," Roseto said. "My staff may have looked at it and made the recommendation. I didn't, but my staff did and gave me their perspective."

David Hogan, secretary-treasurer of Local 1158, the union that helped Murray through his appeal, said it's inexcusable that an employee's entire file is not viewed.

"Like Harry Truman said: 'The buck stops here,' " Hogan said. "If you are going to make a recommendation to terminate somebody and take away their livelihood, you should be ready to make a personally informed decision."

Holland's decision is the latest in a series of recent decisions that have found that the city wronged Fire & Rescue employees in personnel matters.

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 that Geer violated the rights of union members in unfair labor practice complaints filed by the union. The city settled a fourth unfair labor practice complaint by the union alleging that Geer was arbitrarily denying union members leave time for union meetings, as per the bargaining agreement.

"We got a federal arbitrator, two separate law hearing officers and the three PERC commissioners, all of them finding that there have been grave and fundamental mismanagement decisions in the city of Clearwater," said Paul Donnelly, the attorney who has represented Murray and other union members against the city.

"We are hopeful that the elected officials and the city manger will turn over a new leaf and accept the union Local 1158 request to work positively and cooperatively to have a labor management retreat, to meet, to discuss to be positive and to restore good relations," Donnelly said.

[Last modified September 18, 2006, 23:06:55]

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