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Union, manager again at odds

The firefighters union files a complaint against Zephyrhills in response to the city manager terminating a meeting.

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Zephyrhills Professional Firefighters Union members and City Manager Steve Spina are butting heads again, this time over a January meeting that turned sour.

The union this week filed an unfair labor practice charge against the city with the state Public Employee Relations Committee in Tallahassee.

The complaint alleges that Spina violated the union members' right to free speech when he ended a meeting after a comment offended him.

At question is a Jan. 8 meeting in which Spina asked for a written list of requests from the union.

Union vice president Jim Kuhn said the firefighters' demands already had been discussed at previous meetings, and making a list would be like starting over.

He then said the meetings were turning into a "circle jerk."

Spina took offense to the comment, called the meeting off and asked the negotiators to leave, according to the formal complaint.

The next day, Kuhn received a written reprimand from fire Chief Robert Hartwig. That sparked the controversy, said union president Shawn Baptist.

"We're entitled to say what we want to say," Baptist said. "He flat out just didn't want to discuss things with us, so that was his way of (calling it off). Steve Spina is not God. You have a right to free speech."

Spina offered no apologies.

"I stand by my actions," he said. He added that union members became belligerent after he asked them to leave, which isn't mentioned in the complaint.

"This is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard," Spina said. "Every organization has to have standards of conduct. He made reference to a crude sexual activity.

"I don't think any of us should talk in that manner. We weren't out having a beer; We were in my office having a discussion."

As part of the complaint, the union members will seek to have Kuhn's reprimand removed from his disciplinary record. They also want the city to be ordered not to interfere with, coerce or restrain the union's speech in the future.

They also want the city to post a notice for 60 days saying it was found guilty of the charge. And they want the city to cover all legal fees, expected to be $5,000 to $9,000.

PERC is a quasi-judicial agency, meaning it acts like a real court even though it doesn't have the power to award monetary damages. If the agency finds the union's claim valid, it will assign a hearing officer to the case to act as judge.

Paul Donnelly, a Gainesville attorney who represents unions statewide, said he agreed to represent the firefighters because they have a strong case.

"I wouldn't have filed it if I didn't think they did," he said. "The city manager has interfered with their right to express themselves in negotiations.

"They have to be free to express their views. You never want the right to speak your mind to be chilled."

Since its inception last year, the union has tangled constantly with Spina over raises for firefighters. Most recently, the union sought a 3 percent raise, retroactive to October, for drivers at the new fire station.

They eventually received a 2 percent raise, retroactive to August, based on recommendations by Spina and Hartwig.

Donnelly said he expected PERC to rule within a month on whether to hold a hearing on the unfair labor practice complaint.

Baptist can't wait.

"Hopefully this ordeal will send a message." he said. "We aren't going to put up with this."

Spina is hoping PERC sends a different message.

"I hope (the complaint) is dismissed," he said. "I hope PERC recognizes the need to have a reasonable code of conduct. We were bending over backwards to be accommodating as it is.

"They have become a caricature of what I think professional firefighters should be."

- Brady Dennis covers the city of Zephyrhills and police news in east Pasco. His phone number is (352) 521-5757, ext. 23. His e-mail address is dennis@sptimes.com.

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