At issue: Can fire fighters participate in the political process on their own time?
University City – The jobs of six union fire fighters here are at stake after they exercised their free speech rights to participate in the political process on their own time.
Fire Fighters Local 2665 and the Police Officers Association jointly endorsed two candidates for alderman in the April 8 election.
To support their candidates, the fire fighters created several flyers in which six fire fighters, on their own time, were standing with teach of the candidates in front of a fire truck from another fire department, some wearing personal protective equipment. Others were in police blue shirts and black trousers with a generic badge so that the flyers’ intent was clear: the fire fighters and police are backing this candidate.
On the Monday prior to the election, Fire Chief Adam Long called one of the six fire fighters and told him they all faced termination at the end of that week for publically supporting political candidates.
State law clearly allows such efforts as long as the fire fighters are not in uniform and on their own time.
The threat did not deter the union; they had off-duty fire fighters, not in uniform, at all of the polls on April 8.
The threat to the fire fighters’ jobs sparked a public firestorm.
Facebook and other social media lit up in a backdraft, prompting City Manager Lehman Walker to deny that any fire fighters were going to be fired at the end of the week.
However, on April 9, the day after the election, all six were called into a meeting by Human Resources and told that there would be an investigation into the matter. There was no discussion of anyone being fired pending the outcome. The investigation that is expected to take a week or two.
“We find it hard to understand why there is even an ‘investigation’ of the six fire fighters since the state law is explicit that first responders can participate in politics as long as they are not in uniform and on their own time,” said Local 2665’s new Business Manager Jeff Proctor. “Our members certainly have the right of free speech to support anyone they so desire, a right that’s clarified by Missouri statute. For the fire chief to threaten that they will be fired for exercising their rights is outrageous.”
CHARTER IN CONFLICT
The city’s charter, “Section 60: Prohibited Acts,” however, appears to be in conflict with the state statute but also contradicts itself. The charter says that no city employee can make “any contribution, direct or indirect, to any candidate for councilmember or mayor of the city or take part in the political campaign of any candidate for councilmember or mayor of the city.”
It then appears to contradict itself: “Nothing in this section shall prohibit an individual from exercising the right as a citizen to express his or her opinion or to vote.”
“If the city is relying on this section, it’s clearly trumped by state law,” Proctor said.
City Manager Walker told the Labor Tribune that the investigation is focusing on whether or not the fire fighters were in uniform and on their own time. He said a photo of the fire fighters with a candidate appears to have them in uniform.
As to the timing of the threat just before election day, Proctor said: “I won’t speculate as to the chief’s motives or who might have asked him to intervene, but it was certainly inappropriate.”
In a letter to Mayor Shelley Welsch, who won re-election last week, Fire Fighters 4th District Vice President Kurt Becker called for the mayor to demand a retraction from the chief clearly stating that the fire fighters would not be fired “or receive any other discipline or retaliation…for their participation in this election.”
When the threat became public, Mayor Welsch allegedly said it was nothing but a rumor.
“I can assure you that the conversation (between the fire chief and a fire fighter) did indeed take place,” Becker said, adding that those involved were willing to sign an affidavit attesting to it.
FOLLOWING THE LETTER OF THE LAW
“Before making the flyers, we carefully reviewed all the appropriate statutes to make sure we were within our legal rights,” Proctor said. “The men were wearing their own clothing that was close to their uniform colors because we certainly wanted them to be viewed as fire fighters who were endorsing two very qualified candidates. However, there was absolutely NO indication that they were University City fire fighters.”
Becker, in his letter to the mayor, reaffirmed that: “…they were off duty, not in University City, not in front of a UCFD fire truck, not in uniform, and not identifiable in any way as employees of University City.”
The two candidates endorsed by the fire fighters and police were not successful.
City needs to follow its own guidelines
If they did, it’s clear that the personal protective gear shown in the photos (which is used when responding to alarms) is not covered by their guidelines. In their own Operational Bulletin S-1, they define the gear used in the photos as “personal protective clothing.” Nowhere is it described as a “uniform.”
In the city’s Administrative Regulation 17, the city very specific about what constitutes a uniform: “The initial set of necessary uniforms shall include two pairs of trousers, two long-sleeved shirts, two short-sleeved shirts, four sheets, two pillowcases, and required badges and patches.” There is nothing in the regulation about protective clothing being a uniform.
In fact the regulation refers to protective clothing as “equipment.”
The regulations also talk about the placement of badges and patches on uniform sleeves. The protective gear worn in the photos has absolutely no patches or badges anywhere. The badges on the police officer stand-ins are generic badges.
"We were careful to strictly follow the regulations," University City Shop Steward Jennifer Stuhlman said.