Civil-service disputes can be treacherous for local politicians who dare wade into the quagmire. However, few refuse to listen when members of the public-safety forces whisper in their ears of injustices real or imagined.
The current City Commission, which on its very first day in office went behind closed doors to discuss personnel concerns that might have (but did not) lead to firings, has dealt recently with an ordinance governing promotions in the police and fire departments. Because requested changes in the text were incomplete, commission members voted 3-2 to delay promotional exams that were to have taken place last Thursday.
This decision apparently upset lots of people in the fire department, including some who weren’t even up for promotion. Sgt. Brad Kays presented a petition this week signed by 60 firefighters, saying they constituted “pretty much a majority” of the department. He acknowledged the promotions ordinance could be improved but maintained it has served the city well over 12 years.
Sgt. Brad Durr, who previously filed a grievance against promotion guidelines he considered ambiguous, submitted a letter this week signed by other firefighters who supported his contention. He argued it made no sense to test applicants under a faulty system.
This left commissioners in the awkward position of supporting changes in the ordinance while sympathizing with firefighters who got psyched up for competition and now have to go through it all over again. The commission thus voted unanimously to move ahead with the testing process – it’s possible the exams could be rescheduled for March 20 – while remaining committed to improving the ordinance. Among the changes under consideration are slightly de-emphasizing written exam scores while assigning more weight to performance assessments.
Some commissioners took the opportunity to vent their frustration at staff foot-dragging on revisions to the ordinance. It’s not the first time this commission has accused department heads of poor communications with the city’s elected leaders.
Commissioner Katie Hedden, who admitted she’d have been “pretty devastated” if she were in the same position as firefighters whose testing was called off, lashed out at a “real failure to communicate” by the department head. (Chief Wallace Possich is the department’s commander-in-chief.) Commissioner Sellus Wilder defended the commission’s prior stand against allowing the promotional exams to proceed under a flawed ordinance.
It’s hard to tell where this blow-up could end. Decades ago, disgruntled members of another public-safety agency, the police department, organized themselves and persuaded city leaders to oust the police chief. His successor had only the briefest of honeymoons, after which City Hall relented to pressure from the ranks to send him packing, too. His successor also enjoyed a period of stability before the epidemic of disenchantment broke out anew. But the commission refused to play along. The storm blew over and the chief went on to complete his career years later with an honorable retirement at a time of his choosing.
The City Commission has the power to make heads roll. That doesn’t necessarily mean everything works out as intended.