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City forced to honor firefighter's promotion

A Columbus firefighter's grievance against Chief Jeff Meyer has been upheld, forcing the city to honor a promotion the chief did not have the authority to grant.

Firefighter John Thomas, now a sergeant, was passed over for a fire inspector/lieutenant promotion despite having the highest score in the interview process. When Thomas threatened to file a grievance because he had been told by one of the interviewers the job would go to the highest scoring of the five applicants, Meyer offered Thomas a newly created fire recruiter job, according to documents obtained by the Ledger-Enquirer through Georgia's Open Records Act.

The problem was the recruiting job, though it had been previously discussed by Meyer and Mayor Jim Wetherington, had not been authorized by Columbus Council.

Shortly after completing paperwork for the promotion in October, the Fire and EMS was notified by the city's Human Resources Department the slot didn't exist. Meyer said Wednesday he was not aware of that notification.

Thomas continued to work in the recruiting position without a pay increase or the sergeant's rank. The firefighter filed a grievance in March. Two weeks later, City Manager Isaiah Hugley temporarily approved the new recruiting position until council can incorporate it in the 2009 fiscal budget next month. Thomas was also granted more than $1,600 in back pay.

Wetherington said this week the chief's actions in this case are "not acceptable."

"I intend to call Jeff in the next few days and talk to him about this matter," said Wetherington, also the city's Public Safety director. "... The head of an agency can't afford these kinds of mistakes."

Meyer said he agrees with the mayor that the mistake was unacceptable.

"I think when we look at pay issues and/or safety issues — those things that affect the employee directly — we need get those things right," Meyer said this week.

Hugley said he was he, too, was troubled by the situation.

"I don't like the way that employee situation was handled," Hugley said. "I think there is much room for improvement. I have asked Human Resources to work with Fire and EMS regarding hiring and employment practices to make sure we don't have this happen again."

OTHER ISSUES

This is one in a series of departmental issues in recent months.

-- The Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services is currently under investigation by the Columbus Police Department Office of Professional Standards for the handling of a firefighter's positive drug test while operating an emergency vehicle. That investigation, which was launched in December after the Ledger-Enquirer reported Firefighter Zachary Allen wrecked a truck during a 2006 emergency run and tested positive for cocaine in a post-accident drug test, is expected to be completed soon, Wetherington said.

-- Capt. Mary Simonton filed a complaint late last year about the promotional process. She was one of five candidates to apply for a deputy chief's job that went to Lang, who was promoted from fire marshal.

The city's Human Resources Department found her complaint had no merit, but did express concerns about the manner in which the interview was conducted.

Simonton was interviewed by Meyer and Assistant Chief Jerry Fountain after a leadership class at the department's training center. The interview was conducted outside while Fountain and Meyer smoked cigarettes and the smoke blew in her face, Simonton wrote in her complaint.

-- A firefighter was fired last month for looking at objectionable images on a city computer while on duty. Joshua Alford was originally disciplined by his supervisors and put on probation, but was later fired by the chief. That termination is being appealed to the city's Personnel Review Board.

"We have had a series of issues in the fire department," Wetherington said. "I am waiting on the Zach Allen investigation. (Police) Chief (Ricky) Boren said they are close to completing that and I should have it shortly."

When asked if he would take disciplinary action, Wetherington said, "I don't want to speculate on what I am going to do. All of these things I will consider at the same time I do the Allen report. There have been too many incidents happen in the fire department recently."

Meyer said these kinds of incidents have happened before.

"These types of issues seem to be cyclical, there's peaks and valleys to the timing of these issues," Meyer said. "As far as I know, throughout my almost 27 year career we have had these types of personnel issues that have arisen."

THOMAS’ COMPLAINT

The issue involving Thomas began in September when he applied for a fire inspector's job that would have made the nearly 18-year veteran a lieutenant.

Thomas interviewed for the position with a three-person panel that included then Deputy Chief Randall Phillips, then Fire Marshal Greg Lang and Capt. Eric Reeves. Thomas was one of five people who applied for the job, and at the time of the interview, Thomas said Lang told him that the highest score would receive the promotion.

Thomas emerged from the interview process with the highest score, according to Meyer and the a post-complaint investigation completed by Human Resources Director Tom Barron.

Darrell Bryant was promoted to the fire inspector job.

"The person who got the job was the most qualified person," Meyer said this week.

Meyer said Thomas was "mistakenly told" that the high interview score would get the inspector's job.

After his interview, Thomas said he was instructed by Deputy Chief David Starling to obtain a medical release from his personal physician "to be considered for the job." Thomas, who was on light duty for an undisclosed medical issue, did that. He claimed he was the only candidate required to provide such a release.

In his complaint, Thomas describes what happened next in a meeting with Meyer, Phillips, Lang and Reeves when he was told he would not get the fire inspector job: "I then asked to file an official grievance, which is the right of every City Government Employee. I was advised to do so by Chief Meyer being that it was my right. In the same sentence Chief Meyer asked me to consider a new position that was coming open which would be Fire Department Recruiter.

"He said he was thinking of giving it to someone else but then he suddenly thought that I would make a good Recruiting Sergeant. However, the catch was that I had to give an answer right then and I had to reconsider the grievance that I was about to file. After stating that he was putting me on the spot, he agreed to give me a couple of days at to which time if I hadn't filed the grievance he knew that I had accepted the job."

Meyer did not dispute Thomas' basic claims, but said he had a problem with his use of the word "suddenly."

Thomas accepted the recruiter's job and on Oct. 11, Meyer sent a memo addressed "To Whom it May Concern" stating Thomas was promoted to sergeant. That memo was to allow Thomas to get a swipe card to enter the Public Safety Center.

The Fire and EMS processed a personnel action report to the city's Human Resources Department requesting Thomas' promotion. It was rejected by Human Resources because the department did not have authorization to reclassify a firefighter position to sergeant.

"From the documentation reviewed and acknowledged by Chief Meyer, Firefighter Thomas has performed the duties of Recruiter Sergeant since October 8, 2007," the human resources investigation concluded.

Thomas filed his complaint on March 7. He said he had been discriminated against for medical reasons. Meyer said that is when he first became aware that Thomas had not been promoted and was not receiving the appropriate pay.

"I had been assured the whole time it had been worked out and he was being compensated," Meyer said.

One of Thomas' charges was the Fire and EMS had held two promotional ceremonies since October and he was not officially promoted at either one.

"Since being denied the job for which I initially applied for, nor receiving the appropriate promotion or compensation for the job that I was assigned to do, I have undergone unnecessary stress and anguish," Thomas wrote.

On March 18, Meyer and Barron met with Columbus Council in a closed session to discuss a personnel matter. A more specific reason for the meeting was not disclosed.

Meyer promoted Thomas on March 20. In a certified letter to Thomas, Meyer apologized.

"You are absolutely right in not liking the way we handled your appointment to the Recruiter/Sergeant position," Meyer wrote. "Please accept my personal apologies and thank you for making me aware of the situation. It was an administrative lapse that was not addressed for too long."

Since gaining his promotion from the city, Thomas has filed an a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleges discrimination.

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