Court Backs Cleveland FFs’ Demand To Oust Chief

CLEVELAND, OH—Two court decisions involving Cleveland’s civil service laws appear to support a demand by Cleveland’s firefighters union that fire Chief Angelo Calvillo be dismissed.

In each case, both heard by the Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals, the court ruled that Cleveland’s elections, although non-partisan, are essentially political campaigns and as such, are off limits to civil service employees.

Cleveland’s unionized fire personnel demanded last week that the chief be fired for violating that charter provision and said they will go to court if the city doesn’t act quickly.

Angelo Calvillo Cleveland Chief(OH)

Cleveland Fire Chief Angelo Calvillo.CLEVELAND FIRE DEPARTMENT

Calvillo has admitted to helping circulate nominating petitions for Mayor Frank Jackson’s re-election campaign in 2017. But Law Director Barbara Langhenry, in a statement, said last week the chief had not violated the charter’s prohibitions.

“The Civil Service Commission’s Rules do not prohibit a city employee who is a member of the classified service from circulating a candidacy petition in a nonpartisan election,” Langhenry said. “Cleveland’s mayor is nominated in a nonpartisan primary election. The Charter gives the Civil Service Commission the authority to adopt rules.”

What does the charter say?

The charter states that civil service employees may not “act as an officer of a political organization or take part in a political campaign, or serve as a member of a committee of any such organization, or circulate or seek signatures to any petition provided for by primary or election laws, or act as a worker in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

The charter says anyone who violates the provisions could be charged with a misdemeanor crime, fined up to $1,000, jailed for up to six months and “shall immediately forfeit his office or employment.”

Calvillo, in a deposition given in 2017, acknowledged he helped circulate petitions for Jackson’s re-election that year.

In letters sent last week to the law director, the chief assistant prosecutor and the secretary of the Civil Service Commission, the Association of Cleveland Fire Fighters, Local 93 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, demanded Cleveland enforce the rules in the charter and fire Calvillo.

What did the courts say?

Union attorney Joseph Diemert has said the issue is well litigated and the law is on their side. As proof he points to two cases, both of which he said stand as controlling case law.

In one, from 1988, the appellate court upheld the firing of a city employee who sought election to the City Council. The court noted then that the charter makes no distinction between partisan and non-partisan races.

Cleveland offices, although nonpartisan contests, may still be ingrained with partisan politics, such as political endorsements, the court said.

In the 2017 mayoral race, the Democratic Party of Cuyahoga County endorsed Jackson’s re-election.

In a case from 1940, a city employee fought his dismissal after participating in a campaign against a tax issue. The court said that all elections are political in their purpose.

“When an employee … takes part in the campaign preceding such an election he is taking part in a ‘political campaign’ contrary to the prohibition” in the city charter.

The 1988 case noted that voters approved the charter sections barring political activity by civil service employees at the same time they voted to eliminate partisan political primaries and made city offices non-partisan.

“Presumably, the drafters of that charter amendment, and the voters who approved it, recognized the relationship between these provisions,” the court said. “It is hard to believe that they intended to restrict political activity elsewhere by their civil service employees, but not in the city that employs them.”

What do the civil service rules say?

Langhenry, in her statement, noted that the Civil Service Commission can adopt its own rules.

A section of the civil service rules says that circulating petitions to place a candidate’s name on the ballot is prohibited. But it makes an exception for non-partisan elections.

Langhenry specifically noted that the mayoral election was a non-partisan contest.

But that same section on prohibited activities suggests the prohibition may remain for city elections.

It defines restricted elections as “any election which is a partisan election, and any election for any public office with authority over any territory within … the city of Cleveland, including but not limited to elections for mayor. …”

The rules were adopted in 2006.

What happens next? asked the administration to lay out the process. What is the next step for the city in response to the demands from the union?

Dan Williams, a Jackson spokesman, said that Langhenry took that step when she decided that the chief’s actions did not violate the charter.

If nothing changes, the next move is up to the union. The question is will it follow through, as Diemert said it would last week, and go to court to force the city to act.


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