CLEVELAND, OH – The recent revelation that a full-time Cleveland firefighter has been living in California should come as no surprise to Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration.
Joseph Coneglio gave his superiors a form on Sept. 26, 2010, changing his address to San Diego, The Plain Dealer has discovered. And Coneglio’s lieutenant and battalion chief signed off on the form, which should have been forwarded to the office of Safety Director Martin Flask.
But Flask said in a recent interview that he doesn’t recall seeing a copy of the form or learning of Coneglio’s new hometown until nearly a year later, when the firefighter suffered a job-related injury.
The oversight by Flask — or the failure by fire officials to forward the change-of-address to the director — raises still more questions about the administration of a department already reeling from allegations of lax supervision and payroll abuse.
City auditors released a scathing report last November citing firefighters getting paid without working, failing to record their sick time and violating policies regarding funeral leaves.
An earlier city audit found that department supervisors failed to follow policy, resulting in eight firefighters being paid a total of nearly $90,000 they were not entitled to while on active military duty between 2005 and 2009.
The Jackson administration requested the audits, but the mayor has thus far absolved Flask and Fire Chief Paul Stubbs, instead blaming the supervision problems on Stubbs’ subordinates, all of whom are members of the same union as the firefighters they oversee.
Administration officials said this week that they are troubled by a fulltime firefighter living on the other side of the continent. But they have yet to introduce legislation they say would be needed to prevent firefighters from living out of state.
The contract that the Jackson administration negotiated with the firefighters’ union allows membersto trade their 24-hour shifts with each other as long as they repay the favors within 12 months.
Coneglio used trades to live with his family on the West Coast for four or five months at a time, then perform a year’s worth of 24-hour shifts in the remaining months, department records show.
He declined to comment this week, but officials said Congelio suffered the job-related injury in July 2011, and has been on medical leave ever since.
The city’s medical director wanted him to stay close to Cleveland during his recuperation, according to union and administration officials. But the union challenged that order and the city backed down.
Flask said the city’s Law Department told him he would need legislation to prevent other firefighters from moving out of state. City lawyers said they believed state law would allow the city to require police, emergency medical workers and firefighters to live within a multi-county area.
Rather than introduce legislation on behalf of the administration, Flask mentioned Congelio’s situation to City Councilman Kevin Conwell, chairman of council’s Public Safety committee in late October or early November of 2011.
But Conwell said in an interview that he was not told of the administration’s interest in crafting legislation to deal with firefighters living out of state. He said he also was not told until a Nov. 30 committee meeting that two other firefighters lived out of state.
Shawn Holian changed his address to Jamestown, Pa., in July 2004, and in January 2009, Michael Ashworth reported moving to Louisville, Ky. Both were hired in 1981, making them exempt from the city’s now-defunct 1982 residency law.
Month’s before Flask’s conversation with Conwell and even before Coneglio’s move, the administration sought legislation restricting how far outside Cleveland city employees can live.
The conversation came soon after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in June 2009 that the city did not have the right to require employees to live in the city. Jackson personally asked Council President Martin J. Sweeney for his support in requiring firefighters and other city employees to live within a multi-county region.
But Sweeney said in a recent interview that he balked at the suggestion. “I didn’t want to make a snap decision. We needed to study the impact and consequences the residency ruling by the court would have on the city of Cleveland,” Sweeney said.
Jackson rekindled the conversation multiple times, but Sweeney did not draft legislation.
“We were asked to hold off because council didn’t want to be perceived as having a knee-jerk reaction,” said Andrea Taylor, spokeswoman for the mayor. “We are in no way saying council should have done something different.”
Sweeney said that when his conversations with Jackson took place, he was not made aware of firefighters living out of state. Since he became aware of the issue in November, several council members have expressed support for some type of residency restrictions.
Conwell has said his committee will discuss possible restrictions this month.
Coneglio would be grandfathered in under any new residency law. But the administration and union officials are negotiating a possible change in the shift-trade policy. Such a change could impede Coneglio’s ability to commute from California.
“Without the abuse of the shift-trade policy, the opportunity to live out of state in cities like San Diego would have not been possible,” Flask said.
But union representatives said Coneglio’s situation is being blown out of proportion.
Coneglio made the move to follow his family. His wife had lost her job in the area, couldn’t find another here, but received an offer too good to pass up in California, fire officials said. They said Coneglio completed the appropriate change of address form and paid back all of the shifts he owed other firefighters.
“It got a lot of attention because it’s such an anomaly,” said union Vice President Michael D. Norman, pointing out that this is one firefighter out of nearly 800.
Not everyone is taking the issue so calmly.
Councilman Zack Reed said there is no way a firefighter could live in San Diego and do his job in Cleveland and the Jackson administration should have addressed the move months ago.
“This firefighter’s move and the way it was handled by the administration clearly shows a lack of leadership,” Reed said. “The administration should have notified the council. They should have addressed it with legislation, policy changes or something ASAP.”