PINELLAS PARK, FL – Five Pinellas Park firefighters were reprimanded last month for taking an active part in political activity while on duty.
The offense involved a photo that was posted on the political website for Pinellas Park City Council candidate Eddie Kosinski. While two received only written reprimands for the part in the photo, three of the firefighters in the picture were suspended from work without pay for varying amount of days.
“I don’t think the punishment was fair. I think it was a little harsh,” Kosinski later said, adding: “The fire chief had to do what he had to do. Rules are rules, and they got broken.”
According to the city’s internal investigation that began after the photo was posted the following month, Kosinski stopped by Station 34 on Jan. 21 to pick up a promised endorsement letter from Firefighter/Paramedic William Dallam, the president of city’s firefighter union.
The photo taken that morning shows Kosinski shaking Dallam’s hand, surrounded by four other firefighters on duty at the time: Lt. Andrew Dezso, Firefighter/Paramedic Andrew Lusher and Firefighter/EMT Daniel Swinger and Richard Dudley. All five were in uniform and posed in front of the station’s engine and rescue truck.
While the union endorsement was within their right, no city employee is allowed to take an active part in politics during work hours, according to the city’s rules and regulations and state law.
The photo wasn’t posted on Kosinski’s website until three weeks later. And according to Kosinski, the photo wasn’t posted on his website for long, “eight to 10 hours at the most,” he said. After posting the photo the morning of Feb. 9, Kosinski received a call from Brett Schlatterer, the union vice president, Kosinski said. The photo on Kosinski’s website – and particularly the fact that the firefighters were clearly on duty – was a “no-no,” he told him.
“They knew it. I didn’t know it,” Kosinski said. “They said they should have said something to me.”
The next morning, Kosinski stopped by City Hall. He found Pinellas Park City Manager Michael Gustafson in his weekly meeting with Fire Chief Doug Lewis and asked to speak with them both, according to an interoffice memo written by the chief.
“I didn’t know I was getting anybody in trouble by putting the picture on my website,” he told them, according to the memo.
The picture was immediately removed. The fire engine was out in front of the station because the firefighters had just washed it, Kosinski added.
The chief asked if the trucks had been moved for the picture. Kosinski said that they had been “repositioned for a good picture.” He also told the chief that he had commented, “This would be a great picture to go along with (the) endorsement letter on my website.”
According to the firefighters’ statements during the ensuing investigation, only Dallam heard Kosinski say that. But Dallam explained to his superiors that if Kosinski had asked if he could put the photo on his website, Dallam would have said no.
Only Dallam had known about Kosinski’s visit in advance, and it was Kosinski who asked for a photo, the firefighters said. In their respective interviews, Dallam and Dezso admitted to asking the firefighters to move the vehicles at the station for the picture. None of the firefighters said they were coerced or pressured into posing for the picture.
In his report, Lewis took into account previous offenses for two of the firefighters. Dallam, the union president, had a written reprimand in regards to an arrest in July 2011. For his latest offence, he was suspended without pay for 14 12-hour workdays, a total of 168 hours. Dudley, who had two previous written reprimands for carelessness, was suspended without pay for one 12-hour workday.
Dezso, as the company officer, received a reprimand of six workdays without pay, a total of 72 hours. Lusher and Swinger received only written reprimands.
Kosinski said he didn’t feel the offense warranted the reprimands they received.
“I can only call it as I see it,” he said. “When you got half the city council backing your opponent … you see the fine line you walk as a politician.”
Kosinski said there were no hard feelings between himself and the firefighters union. Union members have continued endorsing him and have helped distribute as many as a third of Kosinski’s door hangers to residents, he said.
Kosinski also said he didn’t think the incident had an adverse effect on his campaign.
“As a matter of fact, it’s made it better,” he said.
Because the Pinellas Park union members relayed the story of the political photo to the state organization, Kosinski received the endorsement of the Florida Professional Firefighters. A photo of Dallam, out of his firefighter uniform, presenting that endorsement to Kosinski is currently posted on his website.