You're Fired!

Chris Parsons, secretary of Local 21, worries that layoffs may be coming

Chris Parsons, secretary of Local 21, worries that layoffs may be coming

St. Paul firefighters are trying to oust their boss. Next week, the department's two unions will announce the results of a "no confidence" vote on Fire Chief Doug Holton.

"I've got two testicles says it passes," boasts Pat Flanagan, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21, which represents some 400 employees. "I've been on the department for 24 years and I've never seen morale this low."

The vote, while merely symbolic, is the culmination of years of acrimony between firefighters and Holton, who stood silent while former Mayor Randy Kelly enacted cuts to the department in 2003.

"That will never be forgotten," says Flanagan.

Recently, relations have taken a turn for the worse. Since July, members of Local 21 have filed 43 grievances against the department. And a survey conducted by the union in October found that 86 percent of firefighters feel that the department is headed in the wrong direction, while 93 percent are dissatisfied with Holton's leadership.

The dispute comes as the department braces for what could be a significant shakeup. Next month will see the release of a comprehensive audit of the department's staffing levels and equipment by Tri-Data, a national consulting firm.

"We have some concerns over it," says Chris Parsons, secretary of Local 21. "They have gone into other cities and suggested cuts."

For his part, Holton plays down the significance of the vote.

"I've had some challenges here coming in from the outside," says the chief, who previously worked in Milwaukee. "I came in as a change agent. That's very difficult when you're used to doing things a certain way."

Yet Holton says that the vote—however it turns out—won't dissuade him from doing his job.

"I have a six-year term," he says. "My term ends in 2009."

Indeed, it would be extremely difficult to remove Holton before his contract expires.

"To fire a fire chief through the city charter is almost impossible even if we wanted to do that," says St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry.

The unions' biggest complaint is the department's practice of forcing firefighters to take unscheduled vacation days. In recent months, extra personnel have been sent home and docked a vacation day when staffing levels exceeded the city's required minimum force of 111.

Holton insists that the practice is necessary to control costs. Last year, the department ran a $750,000 deficit, in large part due to overtime expenses.

"I think this is a very small sacrifice they can make to show the taxpayers that we're all on the same team and we're trying to give you an efficient and effective service," he says.

Nonetheless, Holton agreed to suspend the practice last month. In return, Local 21 promised to resume negotiations with management. But after just one session, the union broke off talks when Holton once again sent a firefighter home on forced vacation.

Union members also complain that they're being scheduled to fill in for their superiors. If there is an insufficient number of captains scheduled, for example, a rank-and-file firefighter must assume those duties with no additional pay.

Holton insists the practice is rare, noting that it happened just 13 times in January out of 1,612 scheduled shifts.

"That is consistent throughout the year," he says. "I really don't see it as a problem. It's something that is done in fire departments across the country."

Holton argues that Flanagan is simply upset because he's twice been investigated in recent years for harassing co-workers.

"I think he has felt that I've been headhunting him a little bit as an employee," the chief says.

At one point Holton attempted to ban Flanagan from visiting fire stations, but that policy was eliminated after protests from the union.

"That just shows you the depths that they'll go to silence any dissent," Flanagan says.

Perhaps the only thing the two sides agree on is that there's little hope of reaching an amicable resolution.

"I kind of take it as they're filing for divorce," Lantry says. "There are many of us that would like them to stay in therapy."