Suspension of five U City fire fighters threatens public safety in already undermanned department

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RUSHING TO THE RESCUE, University City fire fighter pulling hose to get water to a house fire.
RUSHING TO THE RESCUE, University City fire fighter pulling hose to get water to a house fire.

Political retribution alleged as mayor used on-duty policeman in her own campaign

By ED FINKELSTEIN

Publisher

University City - The suspension of five of six fire fighter members of Fire Fighters Local 2665 for three months without pay over a political issue here leaves the fire department seriously undermanned, creating a real public safety concern for University City (U City) residents.

With a manpower requirement of 40 fire fighters, U City will now be operating with a compliment of 30 putting the department at 75 percent capacity. For most of the year, the city was already at a reduced capacity of 90 percent as only 36 fire fighters were available for duty.

This latest reduction creates serious issues for response times. To provide coverage, the department now will require mandated overtime, which means in case of a multi-fire incident, you could have dangerously tired and overextended fire fighters responding to the emergency.

In addition, the financial impact of the forced overtime to cover for the wrongful suspension will far surpass what was planned in the city budget.

GOING TO COURT

PROCTOR
PROCTOR

Fire Fighters Local 2665 is going to court to fight for the rights of its members who were suspended last week for three months for appearing on their own time and not in uniform in a political brochure. The union contends the city’s actions are a violation of its members’ First Amendment rights and Missouri law.

According to City Manager Lehman Walker the fire fighters were suspended for violating a state law that prohibits first responders from participating in politics if they are in uniform. The fire fighters posed for photos with two candidates wearing their personal protective gear, which is not defined as an official uniform under U City guidelines.

“This is nothing more than political retaliation against our fire fighters and worse yet, it’s complete hypocrisy,” Local 2665 Business Manager Jeff Proctor said.

CONTROVERSY

The controversy in U City has been smoldering since before the election, with the six fire fighters – and the city’s police union – supporting opposition candidates to incumbent aldermen and the mayor.

Just before the April 8 vote, in which all of the fire fighters’ supported candidates lost, one of the fire fighters was told by Fire Chief Adam Long they all would be terminated by the end of the week. With the help of social media, a public firestorm erupted forcing the city administration to back off, deny such a threat was made, and launch an “investigation” into whether the six fire fighters were on- or off-duty and whether or not they were in “uniform” when they posed for the photos in the brochures.

Walker, the city manager, conducted the “investigation” and handed out last the suspensions last week.

REAL CONUNDRUM

What makes the situation particularly unfair is that two political campaigns, including that of U City Mayor Shelly Welsch, have used uniformed first responders in their campaign literature without any political repercussions:

• Welsch used an on-duty police officer, in uniform, in her campaign literature for her just completed successful re-election campaign. And she did it without the officer’s permission. (See separate story on Page????).

• In Nov. 2009, St. Louis County had a one-cent sales tax on the ballot to upgrade emergency 911-radio equipment. In that campaign, fire fighters and police officers, in uniform and on-duty, were asked to campaign for the Proposition E-911 ballot proposal and not a single question about the propriety of that was raised. Ironically, one of the fire fighters in photos for that campaign is one of the five currently suspended in U City.

Quite a conundrum for University City! When the mayor does it against the city’s own rules, it’s okay? But when the fire fighters do it in accordance with the rules, they are subject to punishment? Something’s amiss here.

One U City alderman told the Labor Tribune: “I don’t think anyone should be fired for participating in the political process.”

AGAINST COMMUNITY VALUES

“The action by the city manager to discipline the fire fighters for exercising their free speech and political voice… goes against the values of this community and will have a chilling effect on any public servants to voice their opinion,” Proctor said.

That point was driven home by IAFF 2nd District Vice President Mark Woolbright who told the Labor Tribune that other communities are closely watching the outcome of the case.

“If U City is successful in quashing the right of fire fighters to express their opinions on critical political issues like electing public officials, it won’t be long before it will be applied to not only fire fighters, but public employees everywhere. And that would be a tragedy for democracy.

“The IAFF is committed to supporting Local 2665’s efforts to see that their rights as American citizens are protected and that cities simply can’t make rules to suit their own political agendas.”

“We will begin the necessary legal action against the city to make sure these employees have their rights protected and have a fair and legal due process hearing. It is unfortunate that the city has decided to waste taxpayer dollars defending their political retaliation efforts instead of providing services to the public,” Proctor added.

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Mayor used on-duty police officer for own campaign flyer

U CITY HAD NO COMPLAINTS when Mayor Shelley Welsch used an on-duty, in uniform police officer in her re-election campaign brochure in direct conflict with the city’s own regulations. Yet fire fighters, working off-duty and not in uniform are suspended for three months without pay. Where’s the justice here?!
U CITY HAD NO COMPLAINTS when Mayor Shelley Welsch used an on-duty, in uniform police officer in her re-election campaign brochure in direct conflict with the city’s own regulations. Yet fire fighters, working off-duty and not in uniform are suspended for three months without pay. Where’s the justice here?!

 

Because University City has disciplined fire fighters for participating in a political campaign even though they were off-duty and not in an official uniform, the issue of the mayor using a police officer on-duty and in uniform in her just-completed successful re-election campaign has raised the ire of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15, the union representing the city’s police officers.

 

In a strongly worded letter to the city, Lodge 15’s attorney Greg Kloeppel made it clear, “In light of recent actions taken by University City against its fire fighters, I want to make it perfectly clear that in no way was (the officer) engaged in any political activity regarding the above-mentioned campaign literature.”

 

Kloeppel noted that, “liability issues arise when someone's name, likeness, or other personal attributes are used without permission for an exploitative purpose. (This officer's) photograph was used without his permission or knowledge… Perhaps most troubling, at no point did (the officer) consent to the use of his likeness … or was asked his permission to use said photograph.”

 

The city has not responded.

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Fire fighters broke no law

 

“We believe there has been a misreading of the state law governing this issue and as a result, everyone is focused on the wrong issue,” said Local 2665 Business Manager Jeff Proctor discussing the current controversy with University City over six fire fighters appearing on campaign literature of two opponents of incumbents in the April 8 election.

 

Typical of the error was a report on a local TV station that reported, “According to state statute, first responders are allowed to participate in political campaigns as long as they are not on-duty and not in official uniform.”

 

“That is not how we interpret the state law,” Proctor said. “The state statute – Chapter 67.145 – gives local political subdivisions the right to craft rules regarding campaigning but says that if they do so, the rules cannot prohibit first responder political activities while they are off duty and not in uniform.”

 

NO RULE BROKEN

 

The simple fact is University City has no such administrative rule relating to off-duty and uniform issues, period, Proctor said.

 

“Our members broke no rule and do not deserve to be treated as if they did something wrong,” Proctor stressed.

 

While the city’s charter does have a section about campaigning, it says that no one can participate in politics, period. There is nothing about their free speech rights to do so on- or off-duty or in or out of uniform. The charter also says that employees have the right as a citizen to express themselves.

 

What rules the city does have relating specifically to uniform specifications, none were broken.

 

TRIED TO FIX PROBLEM

 

The irony is that the fire fighters, during failed negotiations last year over a new contract, did come to tentative terms with the city over language that would clarify the issue, language that City Manager Lehman Walker insisted on and was agreed to by the fire fighter negotiators. Negotiations ended when the city walked out.

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