Many of the two dozen or so Fort Wayne firefighters present at Tuesday’s City Council meeting left the room unhappy when council members failed to override Mayor Tom Henry’s pocket veto of an ordinance that would change the composition of the city’s Fire Merit Commission.
The changes, which would have given the commission more discretion over promotions, were approved in a 7-2 vote Dec. 17.
Council members, up against the end of the term, attempted to find a way to end conflict between the local firefighters’ union and the department’s administration, led by Fire Chief Eric Lahey.
Henry did not sign the bill, nor did he issue an outright veto. Instead, the bill returned to City Council without the mayor’s signature, triggering a pocket veto. Henry was present but did not speak.
Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, and other council members described the options on the table Tuesday as equally bad. Jehl voted to override the veto.
Jehl said City Council was being asked to referee a squabble between Lahey and the union.
“This is a horrible tool to use to resolve personality conflicts,” he added.
The issue stemmed from a dispute between Lahey and the union after two firefighters were passed over for a promotion to battalion chief.
Union leadership contended the firefighters, who were not identified, were skipped over because of a difference of opinion with Lahey, despite receiving high scores on required testing and positive assessments from supervisors. Lahey, in turn, said the firefighters were not selected for the promotion for safety concerns.
Under the amended ordinance, the fire chief would recommend whether to promote a firefighter, but the final call would have been in the hands of the Merit Commission. The Merit Commission consists of two mayoral appointees, two union appointees and one member appointed by City Council.
Council members Jason Arp, R-4th; Paul Ensley, R-1st; Geoff Paddock, D-5th; Sharon Tucker, D-6th; and Michelle Chambers, D-at large, voted to uphold the veto.
Explaining his vote, Arp said he’s had several conversations with Lahey, as well as union members. New information came to light, Arp said, that influenced his decision to uphold the veto.
Arp didn’t provide details but said upholding the veto gives the fire administration, the union and City Council an opportunity to craft comprehensive legislation to address the issue.
Arp said he and Henry agree that the current situation between the fire department administration and the union is untenable. Arp said he’d like to see a new bill in front of City Council within 90 days. If no compromise can be reached, the December ordinance could be reintroduced, Arp said.
“I don’t think the body wants to wait anymore,” he added. “They want to see action yesterday.”
In his remarks, Ensley acknowledged Tuesday’s decision was difficult because it required taking a complex issue and distilling it down into a simple yes or no vote.
“I am very reluctant, very hesitant, to make public policy based on folks who are serving in those positions now, rather than what is appropriate for the entire office,” Ensley said. “Frankly, I think that if we do revisit this, it needs to be in the context of all of our public safety departments, not just the fire department.”
When casting his vote, Paddock said it’s obvious there are a lot of hurt feelings, especially among the fire department’s rank-and-file. However, Paddock said he’s had conversations with Lahey in which the chief indicated he plans to meet soon with union representatives and allow council members, one Democrat and one Republican, to attend those discussions.
“To me, that is a sign of wanting to move this issue forward,” Paddock said. “If we decide on the merit issue only, we really don’t move forward on the other issues that have been so hurtful and divisive to the firefighters. There is also a feeling that if … we don’t put your feet to the fire, we’re not going to get this done.”
Paddock stressed that he doesn’t want to add to the stalemate but wants to foster productive conversations moving forward.
Jehl was joined by Councilmen Tom Didier, R-3rd; Tom Freistroffer, R-at large; and Glynn Hines, D-at large; in favor of the override.
Hines said as he was campaigning last year, he was surprised to hear how many firefighters expressed issues with fire department command.
“This legislation is dearly needed and required because you cannot have management creating a hostile work environment with employees who actually … are in the business of life and death, of saving people,” he said.
Hines said he’s listened to many stories detailing inappropriate or hostile conduct from fire department command.
“I think that whatever comes out of this, best-case scenario, we need to have a work environment that is not hostile, where morale is not low,” he said.
A request for comment from Jeremy Bush, president of the local firefighters union, was not immediately returned late Tuesday. Lahey, who attended the meeting with Henry, did not make any public comments regarding the issue.