Portland City Manager Jon Jennings ordered a brick bearing his name to be removed from the site of a memorial to fallen firefighters, amid an ongoing feud over the city budget.
Jennings said in a radio interview Wednesday morning that his order was given to the fire chief in response to a “political campaign” waged by the union in opposition to a budget proposal to decommission a fire engine on Munjoy Hill and assign those firefighters to other roles in the department.
Firefighter union President Chris Thomson publicly opposed the move in front of the City Council and firefighters knocked on doors and dropped fliers throughout Munjoy Hill ahead of the council vote. Saving Engine 1 became a rallying cry for activists calling on the city to pass a “moral budget.”
Jennings was asked about the feud and his order to remove the brick during an interview Wednesday on WLOB radio. Jennings said the brick was placed in the plaza after he raised more than $20,000 as the president of the Maine Red Claws to help finance the memorial. The inscription on the brick says “special thanks Jon Jennings,”
The $30,000 memorial had been 15 years in the making before being unveiled in 2012. The tall slab of Indian black granite next to Central Station lists the names 20 firefighters who have died in the line of duty. It rests at the end of the brick plaza.
Jennings said his order to remove his brick had nothing to do with the names on the memorial or the rank-and-file members of the Portland Fire Department.
“This had to do everything with what I saw as something that was beneath our responsibility as city employees to go out and incite fear in people and cause a great deal of anxiety in our community,” Jennings said. “My commitment to the Fire Department is complete and total. … My problem really rests with the union and the leadership of the union.”
Thomson, president of the Local 740, which represents about 226 firefighters, alerted local news outlets Tuesday about the impending brick removal. That night, News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) reported that city workers decided not to remove the brick due to the presence of TV cameras.
The brick was still a part of the memorial Wednesday afternoon. It’s unclear whether it will be removed. Jennings said Wednesday he doesn’t really care.
Engine 1 was decommissioned on July 1. The Munjoy Hill Fire Station’s Facebook page memorialized the occasion with a series of posts, including a photo of Engine 1 with the words “DECOMMISSIONED” stamped across it in red lettering.
The station remains open with a ladder truck and an ambulance. And the 12 firefighters assigned to Engine 1 were reassigned to other tasks, including to administrative support for EMS billing and a labor pool to cover leaves of absence and reduce overtime costs.
Thomson said he doesn’t understand why Jennings is so upset. The union had presented an alternative plan to reduce overtime by hiring more firefighters, which they said would save the city $500,000. But they never got the chance to sit down with city finance staff and the fire chief to see if they were right.
“I don’t think the Fire Department said anything that was negative or fear-mongering,” Thomson said.
The tensions between Jennings and the union also come on the heels of City Council’s approval of a one-year contract. The two sides are expected to begin negotiations on another contract in the coming months.
Jennings and Thomson touted their relationship after agreeing to a contract in 2016. A four-year deal was reached after a two-year stalemate that began before each took their leadership positions.
Before supporting the manager’s budget in May, City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones described Thomson as a “class act” and a “standup guy who advocated well for his membership.” At a subsequent meeting, Mavodones alluded to the lingering tensions between Jennings and Thomson.
“A one-year contract is often a bridge to a longer contract,” Mavodones said on June 3. “With the exception of a bit of a hiccup we’ve had from a relationship perspective – and some would say it was more than a hiccup during the budget process – we have had very good relations with the city manager’s leadership and the leadership of the fire union.”
He added, hopefully, “I’m sure that will continue as this successor agreement is negotiated.”