CLEARWATER - Another chapter in the ongoing feud between the City of Clearwater and its firefighters and paramedics was written last week. Responding to a complaint filed with the State of Florida Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) by Clearwater's firefighters union , Hearing Officer John Showalter ruled that the City violated Florida law by "threatening employees with adverse employment action and lawsuits for engaging in protected activity."
The "protected activity" Showalter referred to included the conduct of a no-confidence vote in Fire Chief Jamie Geer by the union, Local 1158 of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). Union membership had agreed in July 2005 to conduct the no-confidence vote.
According to Showalter's report, three members of Local 1158's executive board, President John Lee, Vice President Jim Carino, and Secretary/Treasurer David Hogan drafted the ballot along with three shift representatives. The ballot contained an introduction stating that city firefighters "have no confidence in the ability of Fire Chief Jamie D. Geer to safely lead Clearwater Fire and Rescue." The ballot went on to describe seven issues that Local 1158 and its members had with Geer.
Voting was conducted by mail in early September 2005; 87 members voted no confidence in Geer and 34 voted that they had confidence in him.
On September 1, just before the vote was to be taken, Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne and Fire Chief Jamie Geer issued emails directed at the union leadership trio of Carino, Hogan and Lee.
Horne's included a statement that the three found threatening; "I hope that you and your board are prepared to accept the internal and public unintended consequences that are sure to come during and after the vote."
Chief Geer's email was sent to all fire department employees. It said, "I have believed all along that Lee, Carino and Hogan would commit one last desperate act." The three interpreted Geer's later statement as a threat to their continued employment; "We can not advance to the next level until we cleanse our organization of the disgraceful and incompetent behavior of these representatives," Geer had written.
Showalter concluded that both Horne's and Geer's emails "contain unambiguous unlawful threats." He wrote, "The emails were directly in response to the upcoming no confidence vote, and I believe indirectly in response to all of the prior actions taken by Local 1158 challenging the many changes Geer was trying to make. I believe that the no confidence vote was the last straw and caused Geer and Horne to write their emails attacking and threatening Local 1158's leadership and the unit members."
Finding that the City violated Florida Statutes, Showalter's recommendations included ordering the City to cease and desist from threatening employees for engaging in legal activities, to pay Local 1158's attorney's fees and legal costs, and to post notices of its agreement to comply in City firehouses.
But the City disputes Showalter's findings. City Manager Bill Horne wrote, "We disagree with the PERC interpretation of the law as it applies to my email, but there is no point in debating the issue much further. We are prepared to move forward and comply with the PERC Order with one exception. We will appeal payment of legal fees."
The City had made two offers to settle the union's complaint several months before the hearing, and now claims that it should not be required to pay legal fees because of those offers. Local 1158 rejected both offers because they failed to include any admission of guilt by the City.
Asked his opinion of the outcome, Mayor Frank Hibbard said, "I can understand how the emails could be perceived as threatening." But he stopped short of agreeing that the City violated Florida law. Hibbard refused to disclose his opinion of Horne's actions; "My philosophy is to praise in public and deal with other issues on a one-on-one basis," he said.
But Hibbard says that he has given Horne some guidance; "My direction to the City Manager is that we always want a healthy work environment where employees can reach their full potential," he said.
The text of Showalter's report, including his findings and recommendations, can be read online at www.iaff1158.org/ulp62706.pdf.
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