After a lengthy discussion and three amendments, Fort Wayne City Council passed an ordinance Oct. 7 that revamps the city’s fire merit commission.
The commission has been a source of tension between the firefighters’ union, Fire Department leadership and Mayor Tom Henry’s administration. The merit commission has oversight over hiring, firing, promotion and disciplinary actions.
Specifically, the composition of the merit commission has caused tension. Two members are elected by firefighters, one Republican and one Democrat, and three are appointed to the mayor. Firefighters see this board composition as favoring the mayor.
Jeremy Bush, union president, told council members he had “hopes of having a fair and balanced merit commission.”
Councilmen Michael Barranda, R-at-large, and Russell Jehl, R-2nd, crafted an ordinance that would have created a merit commission comprised of two people chosen by the union (one Republican and one Democrat), one person appointed by the mayor, one person appointed by City Council, and the fifth chosen by an agreement between the mayoral and City Council appointees.
A non-voting member of City Council also would be on the commission to listen and provide feedback to the other council members.
In the end, an amendment by Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, was approved. The merit commission will consist of two mayoral appointees, one Republican and one Democrat, two union appointees, one Republican and one Democrat, and one City Council appointee. A non-voting member of City Council also will sit on the commission.
Fire Chief Eric Lahey was amenable to the change in composition to the board. Referring to a past incident, he also took the opportunity to say, “I’ve never improperly applied merit rules.”
Lahey also acknowledged past tensions between the union and Fire Department leadership, but seemed to imply that was in the past, noting that when he came into the meeting, he shook hands with Bush.
The ordinance passed unanimously. Selections for the new merit commission appointees are due within 30 days.
A companion resolution withdrew Barranda’s original ordinance and stated that the Fire Department Administration, in conjunction with the firefighters’ union and the Fire Department Command and Merit Commission, “will provide revised procedures reflecting limited promotion discretion and deviation from the top-rated candidate” by the end of the year. The resolution also states that by the end of the year the Fort Wayne Fire Department Administration “will present updated rules and procedures for recommendations on disciplinary actions for members of the Fire Department with a rank of chief, assistant chief, or deputy chief.
The resolution passed unanimously.