Pensacola, Florida
Friday April 20th 2018

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The Tale of Two Fire Chiefs

By Rick Outzen

Since January 2016, two Pensacola fire chiefs have been accused of retaliatory attacks on a firefighter. One chief, Matt Schmitt, along with his deputy chief, was put on administrative leave, investigated and later fired. The other, David Allen, endured no repercussions.

Last month, the Florida Professional Fighters Association accused Ed Sisson, the City of Pensacola’s chief human resource officer, Fire Chief David Allen and Assistant Fire Chief Greg Redding of retaliatory attacks against Nathan Edler, president of the Pensacola Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 707.

“President Edler provided several documented cases involving discipline or being singled out by the city and/or the fire chief,” wrote District Vice President Mike Bellamy in a letter dated March 22. “These actions appear to interfere with and restrain President Edler from performing his duties as an elected union representative.”

Bellamy’s letter came after Donnelly and Gross attorney Jim Brantley, general counsel for IAFF Local 707, had written a letter to Sisson outlining Edler’s case.

On Feb. 20, the city issued Edler a written reprimand for not following the fire department’s chain-of-command in his communications with city officials. The attorney asserted that Edler’s communications were done on behalf of the bargaining unit members he represents and, therefore, were protected by law.

“The Florida Public Employee Relations Commission has consistently held that union representatives have the right to address these matters directly with city official without the need to proceed through an inner-departmental chain-of-command,” wrote Brantley. He said that disciplining union officials for protected activities constitutes an unfair labor practice.

The February reprimand wasn’t the only attack on Edler by Chief Allen and city officials.

“President Edler has documented no less than six occasions in which he has either received verbal warnings, been threatened with discipline or been singled out for workplace retaliation by the city and/or the fire chief,” said Brantley. “It is clear that President Edler is being singled out.”

The attorney accused Chief Allen of having animus against Local 707 and Edler, and the fire chief had Sisson’s “full support in his retaliatory attacks.”

IAFF Local 707 demanded that the written reprimand be rescinded and removed from Edler’s personnel file. The union also asked that the retaliatory attacks on its president cease.

Brantley wrote, “Should this activity continue and/or if the city refuses to rescind this most recent discipline, the union reserves the right to file and prosecute an unfair labor practice charge against the city with the Public Employees Relations Commission.”

Inweekly reached out to Edler for comment. He said he was not able to discuss the matter because the February reprimand was still open, and the union is waiting to see what the city does. However, he said, “Harassing and retaliating against the union president is a matter that the IAFF takes very seriously.”

Edler filed a grievance with the City of Pensacola, as per the collective bargaining agreement. Inweekly asked city officials for the status of the union’s request. City Public Information Officer Vernon Stewart replied, “The appeal process is ongoing, and in fairness to Captain Edler, we would refrain from making any comments at this time.”

The grievance process has four steps before the case is assigned an arbitrator. First, the fire chief has 10 days to review it. That period ended March 10. If the appeal is denied, Edler had 10 more days to appeal Chief Allen’s decision to City Administrator Eric Olson. At the latest, Olson had to make his decision by April 4. The next step will be for Edler and a union representative to meet with Olson.

The last time a Pensacola fire chief was accused of retaliation, Mayor Ashton Hayward hired Beggs & Lane attorney Russell Van Sickle to investigate the matter. The city didn’t follow the grievance process before launching the investigation. When the findings were released, the mayor fired not only Fire Chief Matt Schmitt but also Deputy Fire Chief Joe Glover.

In January 2016, Chief Human Resource Officer Ed Sisson filed a complaint that the chiefs retaliated against Fire Lieutenant Edward Deas for filing a complaint regarding Glover and other senior department leaders five months earlier.

Deas was upset that he had resigned as president of the black firefighters’ fraternal organization, Pensacola United Fire Fighters Association (PUFFA), in the fall of 2014 after Glover and other members questioned how Deas was handling the fraternity’s finances.

He wrote, “In my opinion, Captain Streeter, Captain Cobbs and DC Glover tries (sic) to intimidate and coerce people with their authority in the fire department to get what they want when things are not going their way, even if it’s something not connected to the PFD, such as PUFFA.”

PUFFA has no more official standing with the City of Pensacola or the Pensacola Fire Department than Five Flags Rotary or the Pensacola Federation of Garden Clubs. It is not a collective bargaining unit, and Deas admitted in his complaint that PUFFA was not connected to the Pensacola Fire Department.

Deas cited no specific instances where the dispute regarding the black firefighters’ fraternity impacted his job, which is standard in an employment complaint. Deas did allege that Glover and the same members might be trying to intimidate the new PUFFA president.

However, Deas did not state who he wanted to be investigated and what specific acts of the rambling narrative he provided that he wished to the chief to review. He simply ended his complaint, “I would ask you to please investigate this matter.”

Following the city’s Fire Department policy manual, Chief Schmitt reviewed the complaint and ruled on Sept. 15, 2015, that Deas had used the fire department and the city as a means to retaliate for what he perceived to be unfair treatment on an external issue, meaning PUFFA.

“Deas’ enlistment of others to side with him has caused consternation and division which has interfered with and adversely impacted fire department operations,” Schmitt wrote at the time. “The extreme nature of Deas’ acts, his malicious intent and covert attempts to subvert superiors by making libelous statements throughout the department makes his actions a serious breach of discipline.”

The fire chief demoted Deas to professional firefighter and reduced his pay by 10 percent. Instead of following the union grievance process, Deas went to Sisson. The HR director didn’t notify Chief Schmitt that he was investigating the matter. Instead, Sisson broke the chain-of-command and overruled the demotion. When Chief Schmitt filed an EEOC complaint against Sisson, the HR director went after the fire chief and his deputy. Both Schmitt and Glover have filed lawsuits against the city.

Two fire chiefs, Allen and Schmitt, accused of retaliation. The city handled the grievances very differently. Maybe the depositions from the lawsuits will provide answers as to why when they are made available.