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Officials clarify reversal on firings

Sacramento Fire Chief Julius "Joe" Cherry and City Manager Bob Thomas apologized Thursday to Mayor Heather Fargo and the City Council for "not setting the public record straight" when giving five firefighters their jobs back two days after announcing the men had been fired.

The written apology was the latest twist in a tangle of embarrassing events surrounding the Sacramento Fire Department. The scandal has involved drinking on duty, cruising bars, picking up women in fire equipment and attending events featuring X-rated entertainers.

"I think it was also very appropriate that they apologized not only for the difficulties they caused for the mayor and City Council but also for the confusion that has been created in the community by not keeping us informed on the decisions they were making," Fargo said.

The letter from Thomas and Cherry referred to a City Hall press conference Oct. 12, when Fargo and several City Council members stood by as the fire chief and city manager announced their plans to terminate nine firefighters.

But the dismissals were not so simple.

Two firefighters resigned before the termination letters were mailed. Five more firefighters were sent letters two days after the press conference, saying they would not be losing their jobs after all, that they were only being suspended, provided they vowed to avoid trouble for the next five years.

Two captains who supervised the disciplined firefighters challenged their own firings. Appeals for the captains are pending.

Some City Council members accepted the apologies, with reservations.

"Don't ask me to come to another press conference if you are going to turn around and change your mind," said Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, adding she still has faith in Cherry's leadership.

Councilman Robbie Waters said he wished Cherry and Thomas had followed through with the firings. Waters saw the lighter punishment as a missed opportunity for Cherry, who had taken over the department months before the scandals became public.

"Not only did I feel it was not the right punishment, but in addition it was an opportunity for a new fire chief to send a message that this type of behavior was unacceptable and would not be tolerated," Waters said.

Thomas and Cherry explained their decisions publicly for the first time Thursday in Thomas' City Hall office. They knew a civil service appeals process would follow the terminations, Thomas said, with the firefighters possibly saving their jobs.

"We made an error in not clearly explaining in a lot more detail the process," Thomas said. "I think we've learned from that and in the future we will not announce the discipline until it has passed the first appeal to the chief."

The first appeals were made to Cherry three days after most of the termination letters were sent, Thomas said.

"I think that the press conference and the level of investigation made the union and the employees understand we are serious," Thomas said.

Cherry believed firefighters and their union would negotiate rather than gamble with a civil service battle that could end in dismissals or reinstatements.

Cherry began to consider several factors, he said, including the aggregate discipline of 24 firefighters, their ranks, history of discipline and how long ago the misconduct took place. Thomas said the city is holding firm on firing the two captains because of their leadership roles. The captains are responsible for supervising crew members' activity during the 24-hour shift.

The remaining five had no disciplinary actions on their records, which Cherry believed would weigh on a civil service appeals committee, he said.

"There was no cookie-cutter action," Cherry said. "I think it was unfair to say we weren't doing what is right."

Thomas and Cherry denied being threatened with legal action by the firefighters' union. Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522 President Brian Rice said there were no legal threats.

"We never threatened anybody with a lawsuit during this investigation," Rice said. "We quietly played a role in this, including counseling people who needed to walk away to walk away."

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