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Enough legal fighting with Fire Department

By TIMES EDITORIAL
Published March 25, 2007


The message from the courts and from arbitrators could not be more clear: Clearwater officials are not acting properly when they fire or discipline city firefighters.

Those officials may feel their actions are perfectly justified, but it is time for the city to stop defending itself, stop wasting tax dollars on those defenses, and get to work developing the proper procedures and staff resources to win future disciplinary cases.

Just last week, the St. Petersburg Times reported two more losses.

The city's firing of Duanne Anderson, a fire prevention inspector, in 2005 went to binding arbitration after the city denied a grievance filed by Anderson.

The city's complaints against Anderson were substantial. He was accused of repeated incorrect application of fire codes, for example, and using his fire department position to influence the outcome of an eviction case against his former sister-in-law.

The arbitrator actually agreed with the city that Anderson, 48, had acted improperly in some cases. The arbitrator called Anderson's employment record "spotty."

Yet the arbitrator decided that if the city handled the situation properly, Anderson could be a valuable employee. He ruled that Anderson should be suspended for 60 days without pay instead of being fired and that he should now be reinstated to his former position with back pay.

Why? In part because the city failed to give Anderson a required pre-termination hearing. The city also failed to sufficiently investigate and prove all of its charges against Anderson, he said.

Also last week, the city lost an appeal of a different arbitrator's decision in the case of firefighter/lead paramedic Trevor Murray. Murray, a 10-year employee with an unblemished record, and paramedic Mike Jones were fired in May 2005 after they decided not to roll out of the firehouse in response to a 911 call from a woman known to make unfounded calls to 911.

Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer said at the time that it was inappropriate for rank-and-file employees to decide not to respond to a 911 call, no matter what the reason - a position with which we agree. Yet an arbitrator ruled that one mistake did not justify termination and that Murray should be reinstated.

The city appealed the arbitrator's decision to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. Last week, Judge Douglas Baird confirmed the arbitrator's decision.

A different arbitrator earlier ruled that Mike Jones should be reinstated, too.

In case after case in which the city and fire union Local 1158 have gone head to head, the city has lost. Sometimes the city's decisions were judged to be too harsh or in violation of fair labor practices or the union contract. Sometimes, the city failed to give employees proper due process.

That these cases all involve the Fire Department gives rise to charges by union officials that City Manager Bill Horne has a vendetta against the department or that Chief Geer or Human Resources Director Joe Roseto are inept or hostile. Union officials now have called for changes in the city's top leadership.

Residents of Clearwater want competent, trustworthy employees in the city Fire Department, and the city government acts on the citizens' behalf when it metes out discipline to firefighters or paramedics who don't do their jobs properly.

However, city officials need to be realistic. The courts and federal arbitrators are not supporting their efforts. Furthermore, the arbitrators and the union are picking apart the city's policies and procedures. Those victories are costing city taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Horne and Geer need better leadership from Human Resources and the legal department to help them navigate without hitting the rocks when they discipline an employee.

And City Council members have enough budget challenges ahead of them; they don't need the financial drain of expensive and ultimately unsuccessful legal battles with the fire union. They should instruct Horne to fix the problems.