Demoted firefighters testify before City Council

De­moted: Phil­adelphia Fire Lt. Joseph Pos­piech stands in City Coun­cil cham­bers hold­ing a plaque that mem­bers of his unit gave him to com­mem­or­ate his pro­mo­tion to cap­tain. The city later res­cin­ded the pro­mo­tion. WIL­LI­AM KENNY / TIMES PHOTO

Be­fore join­ing the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment, Joseph Pos­piech served in com­bat with the U.S. mil­it­ary dur­ing the Vi­et­nam War.

When he re­turned stateside, he went to col­lege and gradu­ated with a 3.55 grade point av­er­age. He also be­came a mil­it­ary re­serv­ist and rose to the rank of ma­jor. In the mean­time, he passed the Phil­adelphia po­lice Civil Ser­vice ex­am, gradu­ated from the academy and began patrolling the streets of his be­loved city.

When the op­por­tun­ity to join the Fire De­part­ment arose, he jumped at it and ex­celled. Even­tu­ally, he earned the rank of lieu­ten­ant and joined the staff of Deputy Com­mis­sion­er John Devlin. He took the test to be­come a cap­tain and passed that, too.

On June 10, his name reached the top of the pro­mo­tions list. Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers swore him in­to the new rank and as­signed him to a coveted po­s­i­tion with En­gine 36 at Frank­ford and Har­tel av­en­ues. By all ac­counts, he fared well in the job, des­pite be­ing trans­ferred to an­oth­er North­east Philly unit, En­gine 22 at Academy and Comly roads.

But after just four months as a cap­tain, the Fire De­part­ment ab­ruptly bumped him back down to lieu­ten­ant, claim­ing that his pro­mo­tion was al­ways con­sidered a tem­por­ary one and con­tin­gent upon an on­go­ing leg­al fight between the city and the uni­on that rep­res­ents its 1,900 act­ive fire­fight­ers and para­med­ics, along with some 2,100 re­tir­ees.

The same thing happened to 13 oth­er re­cent Fire De­part­ment pro­motees.

On Oct. 30, Pos­piech and nu­mer­ous oth­er fire­fight­ers, para­med­ics and their fam­ily mem­bers test­i­fied be­fore City Coun­cil about how the Fire De­part­ment and the ad­min­is­tra­tion of May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter hurt them pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally with the de­mo­tions.

Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers and Nut­ter’s dir­ect­or of pub­lic safety, Mi­chael Res­nick, also test­i­fied dur­ing the heated ses­sion of Coun­cil’s usu­ally sed­ate Com­mit­tee on Labor and Civil Ser­vice, of­ten trad­ing verbal barbs with at-large Coun­cil­man and com­mit­tee chair­man James Ken­ney.

“You didn’t have to do it,” Ken­ney shouted dur­ing one ex­change with Res­nick.

The pub­lic safety dir­ect­or re­spon­ded in kind: “Well, we didn’t have to go to court and be made to do something that we did not want to do, be­cause we had dis­cre­tion not to.”

Ken­ney replied: “You could have changed the cli­mate. You could have changed the at­mo­sphere. You could have done the right thing, kept them in place and pro­moted every­body else. But you didn’t do it be­cause you have to push their face in the dirt.”

The dis­pute over the 14 de­mo­tions is the latest in a series of re­cent leg­al battles between the city and Loc­al 22 of the In­ter­na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Fire Fight­ers. Uni­on lead­ers have said that the on­go­ing dis­cord has eroded mor­ale among the rank-and-file to an all-time low.

The pro­mo­tions fiasco grew out of a law­suit filed by the uni­on last spring seek­ing to force the city to fill nu­mer­ous va­cant su­per­visor po­s­i­tions in the Fire De­part­ment from an act­ive pro­mo­tions list. The city ar­gued that pro­mo­tions should re­main at the sole dis­cre­tion of the Fire De­part­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion and that it was plan­ning to fill the va­cant po­s­i­tions later in the year after the post­ing of a new pro­mo­tions list.

A Com­mon Pleas Court judge ruled in the uni­on’s fa­vor, so the ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­moted nine fire­fight­ers to lieu­ten­ant as well as five lieu­ten­ants to cap­tain. The 14 pro­motees were each sworn in in­di­vidu­ally in the com­mis­sion­er’s of­fice, then again weeks later dur­ing a group ce­re­mony be­fore a crowd of fam­ily and friends.

The city main­tains that it no­ti­fied each pro­motee in a type­writ­ten form let­ter that their pro­mo­tions could be re­trac­ted were the city to emerge vic­tori­ous in its leg­al ap­peal, which it did. In court and dur­ing the coun­cil hear­ing, many of the de­moted fire­fight­ers test­i­fied that the ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­tially had down­played the con­tent of the let­ter and, in at least one case, told a fire­fight­er that it would be “in bad taste” to de­mote him re­gard­less of the out­come of the leg­al fight.

Last month, fol­low­ing the de­mo­tions, the de­part­ment pro­moted dozens of oth­er fire­fight­ers from the newly pos­ted list.

“There was a need for of­ficers. Why would the Fire De­part­ment de­mote 14 lieu­ten­ants and cap­tains when there was such a need?” Loc­al 22 Pres­id­ent Joe Schulle test­i­fied.

Mem­bers of the coun­cil com­mit­tee were sym­path­et­ic to the de­moted fire­fight­ers.

“Just from a com­mon sense per­spect­ive, why would there be two very high-pro­file, cel­eb­rated pro­mo­tion ce­re­mon­ies that these in­di­vidu­als were in­vited to when (the ad­min­is­tra­tion) knew there was ad­min­is­trat­ive prerog­at­ive that they would ex­er­cise four months later?” Coun­cil­man Bobby Hen­on asked. “We’re talk­ing about vin­dict­ive­ness and un­settled mor­ale in the Fire De­part­ment.”

Coun­cil­man Den­nis O’Bri­en noted that the city’s Civil Ser­vice test­ing pro­cess is in­ten­ded to pre­vent the ad­min­is­tra­tion from pick­ing and choos­ing who to pro­mote and when to pro­mote them as long as budgeted po­s­i­tions are va­cant.

“(The pro­motees) went through the pro­cess,” O’Bri­en said. “This is an ab­er­ra­tion of everything we’re sup­posed to be. … The ad­min­is­tra­tion tried to do an end-around the Civil Ser­vice sys­tem.”

Res­nick stated that Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Le­on Tuck­er “said that the Civil Ser­vice reg­u­la­tions do not ap­ply in this situ­ation.”

Ken­ney apo­lo­gized re­peatedly to the fire­fight­ers and their fam­il­ies on be­half of the city for com­ments at­trib­uted to Nut­ter’s of­fi­cial spokes­man, Mark Mc­Don­ald, in a Daily News art­icle pub­lished on the morn­ing of the hear­ing. Mc­Don­ald said that the Fire De­part­ment didn’t want to pro­mote from the older list be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion knew that the new list would in­clude fire­fight­ers who had scored high­er on their pro­mo­tion­al ex­ams than those who re­mained on the older list.

“What we have here is a uni­on sup­port­ing the low per­formers as op­posed to the high per­formers, and ap­par­ently Coun­cil­man Ken­ney sup­ports that concept, too,” Mc­Don­ald said, ac­cord­ing to the Daily News.

In his testi­mony, Pos­piech noted that no two pro­mo­tion­al ex­ams are the same, so com­par­ing scores from one test to an­oth­er is dif­fi­cult. 

Schulle noted that merely mak­ing it onto a pro­mo­tion­al list in­dic­ates that a fire­fight­er is a high per­former. Many don’t pass the ex­ams. Oth­ers pass it only after mul­tiple tries. The 14 de­moted fire­fight­ers all fin­ished in the top half of those who passed the pre­vi­ous test two years ago. 

“We are as ap­palled as the Coun­cil mem­bers are. These are all su­per­i­or em­ploy­ees,” Schulle said.

The Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­tially turned down Ken­ney’s re­quest for Ay­ers to testi­fy. But when he threatened to sub­poena the fire com­mis­sion­er, the ad­min­is­tra­tion made Ay­ers avail­able. The com­mis­sion­er spoke only briefly and left City Hall be­fore most wit­nesses test­i­fied.

“What we ac­com­plished was to give the ad­min­is­tra­tion the abil­ity to ex­plain them­selves, which they didn’t do very well,” Ken­ney said.

Coun­cil has not pro­posed form­al meas­ures to ad­dress the de­mo­tions or modi­fy Civil Ser­vice reg­u­la­tions.

“Hope­fully, this will lay the ground­work to le­gis­la­tion be­ing passed so this nev­er hap­pens again,” Schulle said. ••

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