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. ••