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Fire reinstatements raise brows

When top city officials held a newsconference Oct. 12 announcing nine firefighterswere being fired or allowed to resignbecause of their roles in a growingdepartmental scandal, they were resolutein their message: Misbehavior willnot be tolerated.

Two days later, Sacramento's firechief and city manager sent letters to fiveof those same employees with a differentmessage – their jobs were safe.

Rather than being terminated, the fivefirefighters were suspended without payfor breaches that included drinking onduty, giving joy rides and attending thePorn Star Costume Ball.

The timing of the turnaround – disclosedthis week along with details ofthe firefighters' misconduct – hasprompted a host of questions from a concernedpublic about the city's commitmentto cleaning up the department, itsfiring procedures and its ability to communicateits standards.

"The handling of this makes it looklike the city doesn't have a clue," saidBarbara O'Connor, director of the Institutefor the Study of Politics and Mediaat California State University, Sacramento.

"It makes real people wonderwhether those in government get treateddifferently."

Chuck Bader, who retired as a deputySacramento chief, said other firefightershe's spoken to have expressed conflictingfeelings about the reinstatements,looking at them as signs of false threats,or at the men as troublemakers who givefirefighters a bad name.

A question that comes up for many,Bader said: "What does someone haveto do to get fired?"

Deputy City Manager Rich Ramirezsaid he understands the city's actionsmight be criticized. But there were compellingreasons for the abrupt reversal,he said. He stressed that Sacramento continuesto move ahead with changing thedepartment's culture.

"The standard for misbehavior hasnot been lowered, it's been raised,"Ramirez said.

In the future, firefighters likely will face tougher discipline, he said.A city investigation into the departmentbegan after complaintssurfaced about firefighter behaviorat an unauthorized visit to thePorn Star Costume Ball on July 3at the Addison Hotel.

After the party, a 24-year-oldwoman called police alleging firefightershad sexually assaultedher on a city fire truck outside thehotel during the event. Investigatorssubsequently uncovered allegationsof firefighters drinking onduty, cruising bars and giving joyrides to women in fire vehicles.

As the investigation proceeded,city officials said they feltthe need to speak publicly. Theycalled the October news conferenceto signal the city's determinationto the community, to theemployees in question and totheir powerful union, Ramirezand Mayor Heather Fargo saidThursday.

The city's get-tough approachled to a union-blessed "plea bargain"of sorts with five lower rankingfirefighters, Fargo said.An evaluation of the men's personnelfiles showed otherwiseclean records, Ramirez said.

Based on that, City Manager BobThomas and Chief Julius "Joe"Cherry determined they were"salvageable employees."

The five signed "last chance"agreements in which they wereput on five years' probation andwaived their right to appeal futurediscipline.

The city would be sparedcostly legal battles – fights theunion made clear it was readyfor, Ramirez said.

Fargo said she believes thedeal helped ease what could havebeen a tense situation with theunion, and made progress on departmentalchange easier.

The two captains who were terminatedwere not offered thedeal, Fargo said, because the citywanted to hold those in authorityaccountable. The captains are appealingtheir firings.

Some City Council memberssaid Thursday they were not informedimmediately about the decisionby Cherry and Thomas toreverse course on the five firefighters.City Councilman RayTretheway said he learned of thechange more than a month later,in November, when Cherry gavehim a heads-up about The Bee'splans to publish a story about thereinstatements.

Fargo said she is satisfied thecity acted correctly, though shesaid she does not condone any ofthe firefighters' behavior. But shesaid she also wants city officialsto explain the timing of the decisionnot to terminate five of thenine firefighters.

"What happened during thosetwo days?" Fargo said."How didthis happen?"

Councilman Steve Cohn saidhe wasn't privy to the process,but said had he been involved, hebelieves he might have beentougher.

"They're lucky I wasn't the onemaking the decision," Cohn said.The termination letters, requestedby The Bee, were releasedthis week after SacramentoSuperior Court JudgeThomas M. Cecil rejected a requestby the union to stop the lettersfrom becoming public.

The letters detailed repeated instancesof misconduct, informationnot then public in Octoberwhen city officials announcedthe results of the investigation ata news conference.

Cherry said 24 firefighterswere disciplined. Nine lost theirjobs, including two who quitrather than be fired.

Paul Ostroff, a Portland, Ore.,attorney who practiced labor andemployment law in California for19 years, said that while the behaviorof the five firefighters appears"pretty extreme," it is notunusual for a public agency to initiatea notice to terminate, then afterreassessing the situation, reinstatethe employee.

"There's certainly nothing outof the ordinary in that occurring,"Ostroff said Thursday.

Last-chance agreements noware common in public agencies,he said, particularly when oddsmay appear poor of winning acourt case. The quick turnaroundsuggests some type of negotiationswas taking place, mostlikely between the union and thefire chief, Ostroff said.

Kimberly Esbach, a professorof management at UC Davis'Graduate School of Management,said the soundness of adisciplinary action typically isjudged on the process of the decisionor the outcome.

When an employer makes a disciplinarydecision that doesn't appearto outsiders to be fair, it is importantthe decision-making processis communicated, she said.

"They need to be really carefulto make sure that the process isseen as fair and transparent," Esbachsaid. "In this case, if theydidn't follow a careful or legitimateprocedure, it is going to behard to explain it to the public."

The Bee's Terri Hardy can be reached at 916-321-1073 or