Hannibal may look at contract changes after the president of the firefighters’ union sent a political request to members using a city-provided e-mail address while he was on duty.

 


  Hannibal may look at contract changes after the president of the firefighters’ union sent a political request to members using a city-provided e-mail address while he was on duty.
   Had Capt. Charles Paxton worked for another city department, he could have been disciplined. But a contract between the city and International Association of Firefighters Local 1211 allows such conduct.
   St. Louis labor law attorney Larry Kaplan said Paxton’s actions did not appear to violate state or federal law, but the incident is the latest in series of controversies that have surrounded the department for more than a year.
   The e-mail was obtained by the Courier-Post and authenticated by multiple sources. It was sent by Paxton at 9:30 p.m. March 22 while he was on duty.
   Paxton sent it to 35 firefighters from his city-provided e-mail address, and reminds recipients that “volunteers are needed the next two Saturdays to help with” City Council candidate Doug Green’s door-to-door campaign.
   While city employees and unions are free to campaign for candidates on their own time, city personnel code bans “political activity during work hours” and prohibits the “use of city equipment or property for personal reasons or (for) other organizations.”
   However, the union’s three-year contract approved by the city in 2008 says a “union official or his delegate may be granted time to perform their union functions” without loss of pay “at the discretion of the chief.”
   Another provision gives the union use of a fire station for meetings. Most significantly, any activity that isn’t specifically addressed in the contract cannot be implemented until a new agreement is approved.
   Paxton declined to comment.
   Bill Madore, who is serving as head of the fire department during the suspension of Chief Tim Carter, said he had discussed the e-mail with Paxton, but declined to elaborate because he considered the matter a personnel issue.

Revisions ahead?
   City Manager Jeff LaGarce would not talk about the e-mail, either, but said discussions about on-duty political participation should be addressed when contract negotiations begin next year.
   “I’d like to look at those political activity clauses,” LaGarce said. “I would like a good labor attorney to tell us where the line is and where it’s not. Anything you can put in black and white terms is superior to ambiguity.”
   City Councilman and Fire Board Chairman Barry Louderman agreed.
   “I’m sure that’s something we’ll need to discuss,” Louderman said. “At this point in time, it’s something I don’t know how I would vote on.”
   Hannibal deals with two other unions. The Board of Public Works negotiates with its own workers. While police officers have representation, they do not have a collective bargaining agreement with the city, LaGarce said.
   The 2008 contract talks between the city and firefighters centered on issues the two sides wanted addressed, and didn’t include political activity.
   “There was no point in modifying anything the firefighters had no interest in exploring together,” LaGarce said.
   City Councilman Jason Janes, the only remaining Fire Board member who was part of the 2008 negotiations, said he thought it was “inappropriate” for any city worker to do political activity while on the clock, but added “firefighters are unique personnel” because “they’re on duty for 24 hours straight.”
   “You can’t tell them they can have their (union) meetings on (city) time but then tell them they can’t talk about politics,” agreed Louderman. “You can’t do that.”
   Madore, who also was part of the 2008 contract talks, said he “would have to hear discussions on both sides” before considering changes to the agreement.
   He said it would be very difficult to keep politics out of union discussions because the subjects sometimes go hand-in-hand.
   “That’s just the nature of the beast,” said Madore, who added that he is a union member but does not participate in activities or vote on issues due to his supervisory role.
   Policies in other places are much clearer, however.
   Fire departments in Quincy, Kirksville and Lincoln County, which all have union representation, specifically ban firefighters from any political activity or using publicly-funded equipment for such matters while they’re on the clock.
   In Quincy, even off-duty firefighters have to be careful.
   “You cannot try to influence someone to vote one way or another by wearing a city name badge or driving a city vehicle or something else even if you’re off duty,” said Quincy Director of Human Resources Doug Olson.

More of e-mail
   Paxton was on duty when, later in the e-mail, he listed six items he termed “what I have heard” about City Council candidate Mike Dobson.
   Dobson and Joe Lyng are competing with Green for the 2nd Ward council seat in the April 6 election.
   It was unclear whether Paxton’s comments violated a fire department regulation that members “refrain from being a party to any malicious gossip, rumor, report or activity that would tend to disrupt department morale or bring discredit to the department or any member.”
   The listed items were that:
   *Dobson was “talked into running for council” by Carter.
   *Carter “has offered to help with (Dobson’s) campaign.”
   *Dobson had “already sent a letter to put Chief Carter back to work.”
   *Dobson “wants to serve on the fire board.”
   *Paxton had “heard that (Dobson) wants to do away with the fire board.”
   *Paxton had “heard (Dobson) wants to combine (the) Hannibal city and Hannibal Rural (fire departments) as one big district.”
   Dobson, who has been chief of the all-volunteer Hannibal Rural Fire Department for 16 of his 26 years with the agency, said he was “surprised” by the e-mail.
   Dobson said he and Carter have been good friends for years and that the chief had offered his support to Dobson’s campaign.
   As for the other allegations, Dobson denied that Carter asked him to run for office or that he had written a letter to the city advocating that Carter be returned to duty.
   Dobson said he would accept a Fire Board appointment if it was offered based upon his experience, but labeled as absurd charges that he wants to disband the panel or that he wants to combine the city and rural departments.
   “The last thing I want this election to do is put a strain on the relationship between our two departments,” he said.
   Paxton also wrote the following in the e-mail:
   “Usually one councilman wouldn’t have that big of an impact on us. However, if Mike Dobson is elected that could change. Not that he is that important in itself but if you combine him with the Hannibal Courier Post, it is a recipe for disaster.”
   Dobson said he didn’t “know where they’re coming from” in using the “recipe for disaster” statement.
   Dobson says he does advocate a charter change that would give oversight of the fire department, Board of Public Works, library and visitors bureau to the city manager.
   Green said in response to a Courier-Post candidate survey that he is against such a charter change, but  “would accept the people’s decision” if voters approved revisions.
   In response to the e-mail, Courier-Post Publisher Jack Whitaker and Editor Mary Lou Montgomery released a joint statement that said: “The Courier-Post has taken an editorial stand on two occasions calling for a public vote on whether all city departments, including the fire department and the Hannibal Convention and Visitor¹s Bureau, should be placed under the umbrella of the city manager. While the news coverage of Tim Carter¹s suspension, his request for an administrative hearing and the impeachment
proceedings are ongoing, the newspaper has not taken a stand on the merits of the charges against him. The newspaper¹s editorial stand is based upon a pending lawsuit involving a former HCVB employee, and the potential for liability regarding the actions taken by the Fire Board against the fire chief. The Courier-Post is taking a stand which we believe is in the best interest of the citizens, who support city services via their tax dollars.”

Carter reaction
   Janes and Louderman have filed impeachment charges against Carter and a hearing has been set for 8 a.m. June 29 in New London.
   Carter declined to comment Friday, but his attorney said he found it “disconcerting” that Green may have made up his mind about the allegations.
   “That’s the implicit suggestion in (Paxton’s) e-mail,” said the attorney, Neil F. Maune.
   Green replied “absolutely not” when asked if he had decided how he would rule on the impeachment if elected.
   Green said he had “no thought one way or the other” on the allegations and added he would have an “open mind” on the matter.
   “Let the facts take care of it,” he said.
   Green said he was told that firefighters planned to campaign for him, but that “they volunteered to do (so) of their free will” and that he had not requested the assistance.
   The impeachment accuses Carter of acting unprofessionally and being derelict in his duties for alleged fraud, dishonesty, insubordination and oppression of others in the department.
   The allegations, which Carter has refuted, deal mostly with his purported actions on asbestos removal at Fire Station 3 and a former television studio that was being converted to a Fire Department administrative office. Carter also was accused of not following Fire Board directives.
   The firefighters’ union recently completed a no confidence vote on Carter, but the results have not been released. However, sources have told the Courier-Post the vote was overwhelmingly against Carter.
   Mayor Roy Hark, a former fire chief, and the city council will decide whether to fire or retain Carter. Janes previously announced that he would not seek re-election, so his only role in the hearing will be the possibility of being called as a witness.
   Louderman, who is unopposed for re-election April 6, can also testify, but city charter prevents him from voting on the impeachment.
   Carter, 39, has been a Hannibal firefighter for 17 years and was appointed chief in September 2006. He continues to receive more than $5,700 a month in salary and benefits.
   Under terms of his administrative leave, Carter would be paid through Dec. 1, 2010, then resign and receive a full pension starting two years later.
   If he is impeached, he will be fired immediately and lose his pension. Carter has asked for a separate administrative hearing before Judge David C. Mobley, but the judge said Wednesday that a date had not been set.

The full e-mail
   Following is the unedited e-mail as sent by Paxton. No grammatical corrections have been made and paragraphs are split exactly as they are in the original:
   “I want to remind everyone that volunteers are needed the next two Saturdays to help with Doug Greens door to door campaign.
   Anyone that can help need to meet at Station 1 at noon.
   I would also like to explain the importance of helping.
   As a Union we haven’t been too involved politically in the past. Fortunately we haven’t had to be. This year is different and what happens at this election could effect us for years. Usually one councilman wouldn’t have that big of an impact on us. However if Mike Dobson is elected that could change. Not that he is that important in itself but if you combine him with the Hannibal Courier Post, it is a recipe for disaster.
   I know there’s been a lot of talk but I will share some of what I have heard.
   a. He was talked into running for council by Chief Carter.
   b. Chief Carter has offered to help with his campaign.
   c. Dobson has already sent a letter to put Chief Carter back to work.
   d. He wants to serve on the fire board.
   e. I have also heard that he wants to do away with the fire board.
   f. He wants to combine Hannibal City Fire and Hannibal Rural as one big district.
   Many of these items came from reliable sources while others may be just rumor. We need to make up our minds if we want to take that chance.
Thanks
Charles”