U City board recommends reinstating suspended fire fighters

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City manager refuses to meet with union officials

ANGRY CITIZENS made their voices heard at the University City June 16 council meeting protesting an effort by some council members to eliminate the public input sessions before the council deliberations begin, thus silencing residents’ voices on controversial issues before any council action might be taken.  – Fox 2 News photo
ANGRY CITIZENS made their voices heard at the University City June 16 council meeting protesting an effort by some council members to eliminate the public input sessions before the council deliberations begin, thus silencing residents’ voices on controversial issues before any council action might be taken.
– Fox 2 News photo

University City – A unanimous decision by the city's Civil Service Commission has recommended re-instatement of five fire fighters suspended without pay for three months for exercising their free speech rights in the run-up to the April election. Six fire fighters were originally suspended, but one has since left the city for another department with higher pay.

The final decision on the fire fighters’ fate rests with City Manager Lehman Walker, who initiated the suspensions in what many city residents consider political retribution after the six members of Fire Fighters Local 2665 posed for photographs featured in two brochures for candidates challenging incumbents in the April 8 election.

Walker had earlier endorsed the incumbents in the city’s newsletter.

No decision had been reached at Labor Tribune press time.

Walker told a local TV reporter “he would think about the (Civil Service) recommendation.”

“We don’t think the city manager is sincere in wanting to resolve this,” said Fire Fighter Local 2665 President Jeff Proctor.

Walker rejected two proposals from the union to resolve the issue without legal action, offering no explanation for his decision, and has steadfastly has refused to meet with Proctor to discuss a solution.

Councilman Terry Crow, who said Walker would sit on the decision and likely never to implement the Civil Service board’s recommendation, backed Proctor’s assertion.

Proctor said the Fire Fighters’ International Union is considering legal recourses.

“They’ve made it clear that they are intent on protecting the rights of our fire fighters,” he said.

CONTROVERSY HEATING UP

RECORD CROWD of more than 250 U. City residents protested the city council’s efforts to gag the public input session before the normal order of business. Most were new faces that seldom, if ever, attend the meetings. Efforts by the five anti-fire fighter majority on the council hoped they could get by with this gag attempt but failed. – STL Today photo
RECORD CROWD of more than 250 U. City residents protested the city council’s efforts to gag the public input session before the normal order of business. Most were new faces that seldom, if ever, attend the meetings. Efforts by the five anti-fire fighter majority on the council hoped they could get by with this gag attempt but failed.
– STL Today photo

The controversy grew even hotter when the city council majority, which supports Walker, met in a hastily called special session June 16 and attempted to kill citizen input prior to the council’s weekly meetings.

Citizens have been outspoken in recent council meetings in their condemnation of the city’s actions and critical of the controlling faction of the council led by Mayor Shelley Welsch.

Despite the efforts of the council to keep the meeting quite, more than 250 enraged citizens showed up to voice their concern. (See separate story on Page 6.)

Crow said it was the largest turnout he’s seen since being elected.

CITIZENS ANGRY AT GAG ATTEMPT

The heated crowd made clear they would not stand for the council’s effort to try to gag city residents.

“Shame on any council member who votes to eliminate the opportunity for members of this community to stand before this council and provide input on his or her opinion,” noted one citizen.

Another told council members “enjoy your seat while you can,” implying that voters would reject them in the next election or that city residents might initiate a recall election.

Gene Roth, the grandson of a former U. City mayor, was so frustrated and angry that he offered a $5,000 matching challenge grant towards a campaign to defeat incumbent Mayor Welsch and the council majority (the Welsch Cabal), who are siding with Walker, supporting the illegal discipline of the fire fighters and trying to kill public discourse at council meetings.

CIVIL SERVICE RULING

In its ruling, the Civil Service Commission came to several conclusions:

• The city manager was wrong to suspend the fire fighters and should reinstate them with full back pay, benefits and a clear record.

• The city’s rule about what constitutes a “uniform” is “ambiguous.” This is the central issue as to whether the fire fighters were in “uniform” when they were photographed with an opposition candidate.

• The city’s uniform rule, which as used as the basis for the suspensions, was illegal because state law trumps it.

• The city was lax approach to re-writing its uniform regulation after passage of the state law. The city attorney told city officials the regulation had to be revised, but it never was.

In conclusion, the commission found that “to …restrict political activity protected by the First Amendment of the kind (the fire fighters) engaged in, the City must, at the very least, maintain valid regulations (that) make clear the dividing line between permissible and impermissible conduct. This, the City failed to do…”

In addition, the commission said the political activities for which the fire fighters were suspended “…involves political activity in the context of elections for public office, which lies at the heart of what is protected by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.”

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Citizen action thwarts council’s gag effort

University City – A social media effort by concerned citizens of University City prevented Mayor Shelley Welsch and her cabal on the city council from gagging public input at council meetings.

MAYOR SHELLEY WELSCH
MAYOR SHELLEY WELSCH

The council called the special meeting June 16 with only 48 hours public notice – the minimum legal requirement – by posting a notice on a bulletin board at City Hall, where few would be likely to see it.

On the agenda:

• A change to council proceedings to stop public comment before council meetings so council members would not have listen to citizens’ concerns on issues to be acted on.

• An administrative rules change to require three council members to introduce a resolution instead of the current. Since the seven-member council has only two truly public-oriented members – Terry Crow and Paulette Carr – the rule change would have stifled Crow and Carr from presenting positive resolutions, which they have consistently offered only to be ignored by the five other members of the council, whom Crow calls the “Gang of Five.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: Given their actions, we call them the Mayor Shelley Welsch Cabal.)

ONLINE CALL TO ACTION

When Councilman Crow received the official notice on June 12 for the June 16 meeting, he was alarmed enough at the potential damage that could be done that he posted a YouTube video announcing the meeting.

Some 2,000 views later, more than 30 residents showed up to get a quickly prepared flyer to distribute throughout their neighborhoods. Within days more than 5,000 flyers went out.

“We’ve never tried to change council proceedings in this manner,” Crow said. The process is to introduce a change at a council meeting, appoint a working group of two to three councilpersons to review the issue and make recommendations, then conduct a study session, followed by an open council meeting for discussion and then a vote.”

OUTRAGEOUS’

COUNCILMAN TERRY CROW
COUNCILMAN TERRY CROW

“This was outrageous,” Crow said. “They hoped to have this almost secret meeting with no one there so they could impose a gag on our citizens. It’s very sad. So many people have told me, ‘This is not the U City I know.’”

More than 250 residents, many of who seldom come to a council meeting, showed up and let the council have it.

The elevators were so crowded they couldn’t handle the throngs.

Crow noted one 80-year-old grandmother was so determined, she hiked up six floors to the council chambers.

The issue was “tabled” by a 5-to-2 vote; Mayor Welsch and Councilman Rod Jennings voted “no.”

In an effort to determine some of the discussions, the Labor Tribune went to the city’s website to view the meeting’s minutes. Not only were the minutes not posted a week later, the last set of council minutes posted were from May 12.

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