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City fires Pinellas Park firefighter

Barac Wimberly says he was targeted because he is a Jehovah's Witness.

By ANNE LINDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 5, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- A firefighter who twice slept through alarms and later filed religious discrimination charges against the city was fired Monday.

In a three-paragraph letter, City Manager Jerry Mudd gave Pinellas Park firefighter Barac Wimberly the bad news.

"After reviewing the report of the administrative hearing, I conclude that Fire Chief (Ken) Cramer's recommendation to terminate your employment is the appropriate course of action," Mudd wrote. "Accordingly, your termination from employment with the city of Pinellas Park is effective today, July 3, 2000."

Mudd declined to comment further, saying, "I'd just as soon let the letter speak for itself."

Wimberly declined to comment, but added, "It's not over yet. I'll just continue through what processes are available and see what happens."

His father, James Wimberly, however, was upset that the information had apparently been released to the newspaper before his son received it.

"We'll be contacting our attorney to see what's going on," the elder Wimberly said.

Fire union President Jerry Lubick said he had not spoken to Barac Wimberly and was unsure if the union would help him appeal the matter.

"We'll follow Barac's wishes," Lubick said.

Wimberly, 28, had worked for the Pinellas Park Fire Department for 5 1/2 years. He earned $29,382 a year.

Wimberly's problems began soon after he joined the department.

Other firefighters said he was not a "team player" and he began getting low evaluations and a reprimand for being late to work. His problems increased last year when he received a written reprimand for sleeping through an alarm because he was wearing earplugs to drown out other firefighters' snoring. Soon after, he was again reprimanded and suspended for half of a 24-hour shift for leaving medical waste, such as needles and bandages, a blood pressure cuff and other equipment in someone's home after a medical call.

Shortly after, he slept through another alarm. Fire officials gave him a three-day suspension without pay that Wimberly appealed to Mudd. Mudd partly sided with Wimberly and restored two-days' pay to him.

Last December, he received an evaluation that was "significantly below expectations," according to fire officials.

Lubick, his immediate supervisor, set out an improvement plan and gave Wimberly six months to improve. But fire officials say that little changed.

"His performance and conduct vary widely from shift to shift, sometimes from morning to evening. At times he performs as expected; more frequently he requires close supervision and strong direction," Lubick wrote in a report on Wimberly.

Lubick added, "He continues to place blame for conduct and performance on other things."

Lubick did not think Wimberly should be fired, but asked that he be transferred to another supervisor.

But Lubick's supervisor, Art Winquist, disagreed. Winquist thought Wimberly should be fired, and fire Chief Cramer agreed.

The city held a hearing last week and Mudd made the final decision Monday.

Even if Wimberly decides not to appeal his firing, it's likely the city will be dealing with issues stemming from his employment for a while.

After his December evaluation, he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging his problems arose from religious intolerance.

Wimberly, a Jehovah's Witness, said in that complaint, "I believe if I were not a Jehovah's Witness, I would not be subjected to derogatory comments about my religion. I also believe that I am being harassed and subjected to disciplinary action because of my religious beliefs."

Among his charges of religious intolerance:

Co-workers often asked why Wimberly doesn't celebrate holidays, such as Christmas. One acting supervisor allegedly asked him why he accepts a Christmas bonus if he doesn't celebrate the holiday.

Co-workers joked about Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on doors, calling them Saturday morning streetwalkers.

After arguing with one firefighter/paramedic about his religion, the man asked Wimberly why Jehovah's Witnesses were coming to his door. He also told Wimberly that he disagreed with Jehovah's Witness' interpretation of the Bible. Shortly after, the man allegedly began filing complaints against him that could not be substantiated.

He refused to take the fire union oath as written and was accused of "elevating myself above everyone else. I also was accused of trying to get the oath changed."

He declined to help decorate the fire truck during the winter holidays because of his religious beliefs. An acting supervisor "accused me of using my religion to get out of job duties. He told me to leave my religion at home."

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