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Firefighters again file appeal over letter

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 5, 2001


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Members of the Zephyrhills Professional Firefighters Union hope the third time is a charm.

The union last week filed its third plea -- and its second appeal -- asking the state Public Employee Relations Commission to hear an unfair labor practice charge against City Manager Steve Spina.

So far, the union has had no luck.

In April, an attorney for the commission, a quasi-judicial agency, rejected the original unfair labor practice charge, citing a Florida law that says employees can choose only one method of filing a complaint.

The union amended its complaint and refiled it. Commission attorney Stephen Meck again rejected the appeal in May.

Last week, the union filed another appeal, this time asking the full commission to overturn Meck's decision and hear the case.

If the appeal is rejected, the union can no longer appeal to the commission. It would either have to seek arbitration or take the case to a state appellate court.

The complaint grew out of a Jan. 8 salary negotiation between the union and Spina.

Union vice president Jim Kuhn was so frustrated with the proceedings that he called the meeting a "circle jerk."

Spina, offended by the comment, ended the meeting and told union leaders to leave. The next day, Kuhn received a written reprimand for his comment.

The union later filed a grievance with the city over the reprimand, arguing that Kuhn had a right to free speech, but the complaint was rejected.

The commission attorney's denials didn't criticize the merits of the case. Instead, he said that by filing the grievance, the firefighters had chosen their one remedy allowed by law.

Not so, said union attorney Paul Donnelly.

In his appeal, Donnelly argues that "the decision to file a grievance . . . does not preclude or waive a union's right to file and process an unfair labor practice charge."

Donnelly said past cases support the union's argument, and that the commission's denials represent "a sea change in this commission's policy and precedent."

No matter what the commission decides, union members say they will argue their case until there is nowhere left to argue.

"We are not going to drop this," said union president Shawn Baptist. "If we thought we were wrong, we wouldn't have gone this far. They are wrong."

Baptist said all the union wants is for Kuhn's reprimand to be removed from his record. It also is seeking for the city to pay for attorney's costs and to post a notice saying that Spina was wrong.

Spina says he will do no such thing, not until he is ordered to do so.

"I think it's time to let it go," he said. "It's a waste of time and effort. I think it's ridiculous."

- Brady Dennis' can be reached at (352) 521-5757, ext. 23.

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