Published May 31 in the Big Sandy News
Prestonsburg firefighters accuse mayor of 'retribution' over federal lawsuit
PRESTONSBURG � Tensions are mounting between Prestonsburg firefighters and Mayor Jerry Fannin and council regarding a federal lawsuit filed by 12 union firemen in December 2000, claiming civil rights violations.
The firefighters claim the mayor and some current and former city council members retaliated against them because they supported four candidates Fannin and other council members opposed in the November 7, 2000, general election. Three of the firefighters who filed suit were fired the day after the November 2000 election, firefighters received a cut in pay and the department was merged with the police department after the election, the lawsuit says. The city also discontinued ambulance service, which was staffed by the fire department.
One of the key issues of the suit is that the firemen claim the mayor has imposed a gag order on them which prohibits them from talking about public safety issues which resulted from the reorganization. They also claim Fannin and council are trying in impede union activities.
The firefighters who sued are William R. Callihan, Kenneth Crisp, Michael Mays, Timothy Johnson, Thomas Cooley, John Bryant, Ronnie Burke, Chris Gulick, Katrina Gulick, James Hager, Stephan A. Parker and Darrell Sparks. The defendants in the suit are Fannin, current councilmen Hansel Cooley, Danny Hamilton, Billy Ray Collins and Robert Allen, plus fire chief Mike Wells. Former council members named are Trent Narin, Estill Lee Carter, Gormon Collins Jr., and Ralph Davis.
International Association of Fire Fighters president Harold Schaitberger, the group who filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of the firemen, sent Fannin a letter last week, claiming the city is continuing its acts �of revenge� against the fire department.
Fannin said Thursday the union is just trying to get �ammunition� against the city for its suit and said the claims are baseless. The city has filed a counter suit against the firefighters, he said.
In his letter, Schaitberger said recent reprimands of firemen for a fire truck running out of gas and for damaging fire trucks �in two minor accidents� are continuing �retribution� against the department.
�What makes these reprimands so unusual is that the city has historically taken no formal action against other employees who committed more serious infractions,� Schaitberger said. �In the meantime, the IAFF will not stand for this conduct and will continue to educate the public about the continuous hardships imposed on their fire fighters because they chose to speak out on matters of legitimate public concern.�
George Burke, spokesman for the union, said Thursday that the city�s recent harassment of firefighters could be made part of the pending suit and Schaitberger wanted to inform the city the union is standing by their members.
�The real issue is the mistreatment, maltreatment and violations of their civil rights,� Burke said. �It is an absolute outrage. This union is not giving up and will there until this is resolved. We will see this process through to the end.�
Fannin said Thursday there has been no gag order imposed on members of the fire department and is accusing the firefighters of taking city funds and putting them in the union�s bank account to be used in political campaigns. Firemen raised money through vending machine sales which was used for special operations in the fire department, he said.
�They were on city time and used equipment to fill and empty those vending machines,� Fannin said. �When they used the money for the right thing for the city it was okay. When they use it to campaign, it�s illegal.�
Burke said Fannin�s claims are not true.
�Prior to forming a union, some firefighters took out loans to buy vending machines to fund a dive team,� Burke said. �They also used that money to pay for their Christmas party and to have a benevolent fund. The mayor said the dive team was dissolved because the team would not be covered under the city�s insurance.�
The firefighters sold the vending machines and paid back a loan they got from the union, Burke said.
�The mayor is pulling out some petty issues to divert attention from the real issues,� Burke said. �Those issues are violations of their constitutional and civil rights. They treat the firefighters like a bunch of serfs. The mayor needs to learn there�s a constitution in the country and he has to operate within it like everyone else.�
Fannin also said that there were no pay cuts in firefighters pay. He said members of the department were put on eight hour work shifts because under the 24 hours on duty schedule, the city was paying them to sleep. Fannin said he feels the firefighters are just trying to get money.
�I think it�s a way for them to get money from the citizens of Prestonsburg,� Fannin said.
Fannin added the city decided to discontinue the ambulance service because it was costing the city money and �knocking business of the private ambulance services� operating in the city.
As for Schaitberger�s letter, the mayor said, �I�d say there will be several more between now and November.�
A status conference in the lawsuit is set for next month.