“Tonight was a tough night.”
Fort Wayne City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd District, summed up the feelings of several council members at the Jan. 14 meeting. Geoff Paddock, D-5th District, said it was the toughest vote he’d faced in eight years on council.
They were referring to a vote to override Mayor Tom Henry’s “pocket veto” of a bill that addressed and tried to correct problems within the Fire Department that have led to strife among union members, the Fire Department administration and the mayor.
The vote to override the veto, agreeing with the mayor would have required six “yes” votes. However, it got only four votes. Tom Didier, R-3rd; Tom Freistroffer, R-at large; Glynn Hines, D-at large; and Jehl all voted yes.
Voting no were Jason Arp, R-4th; Paul Ensley, R-1st; Michelle Chambers, D-at large; Sharon Tucker, D-6th; and Paddock.
So on the second meeting of the new year the issue was right back where it started.
Henry, deputy mayor Karl Bandemer and Fire Chief Eric Lahey were in the audience — a rarity for the mayor — and several council members thanked him for being there and for his willingness to work with council and the other parties involved.
The failed attempt to change the ordinance detailing how city firefighters advance as well as hiring and disciplinary procedures was in part a result of tensions that arose last year when the firefighters’ union criticized Lahey for passing over two top candidates for the rank of battalion chief.
At issue was how much of the final decision of who gets promoted rests with the fire chief, who is appointed by the mayor. The union wanted decisions based on a merit system but made concessions in the process, while wanting to ensure that a recourse existed in the decisions in hiring, discipline and advancement. The union wanted to make sure that such decisions didn’t rest in the hands of the chief, who might cite safety concerns over a firefighter’s suitability, without some form of appeal.
The ordinance amending procedures for Fire Department promotions, probation and disciplinary actions passed 7-2 at council’s Dec. 17 meeting, but the mayor never signed it, hence the pocket veto.
Arp proposed putting together a group of people to represent all sides of the issue and having some kind of resolution within 90 days. “Mayor, the buck stops with you,” he said, to which the mayor nodded his head yes.
Ensley said, “If we do revisit this it needs to be in the context of all our public safety departments.” He sees it as a personnel issue, not a political issue, and he believes a solution can be reached.
Hines used words like “good old boy network” and “hostile work environment” to describe his perception of the current state of the department. “As I talk to firefighters, morale is low,” he said.
Jehl described the ordinance as a little “heavy-handed” and further said adjudicating a personality conflict between the union chief and administration is a “horrible tool” for resolving the problems.
Paddock’s emphasis was on moving the process forward. “It’s obvious there are a lot of hurt feelings,” he said, adding firefighters feel they aren’t getting the respect they feel they deserve.
He volunteered to be part of any group formed to take another shot at correcting problems through new legislation. And like Arp, he said he wanted it to be done within 90 days.