By Kevin Kelley
Mayor Dennis Clough said a law passed by city council earlier this year is preventing him from naming another provisional fire chief to lead the Westlake Fire Department.
Dale Kraus, who retired Friday, was the second provisional fire chief to retire since former Chief Rick Pietrick was suspended and demoted by the mayor in 2007.
The mayor told West Life that, for now, Assistant Fire Chief James Hughes will have to handle the duties of both assistant fire chief and fire chief.
An investigation by outside legal counsel found that Pietrick had asked city employees to make mechanical repairs on city time to vehicles owned by Pietrick or members of his family. Pietrick has appealed the suspension and demotion in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, where the case is still pending.
Clough said he never expected Pietrick’s appeal to take this long.
“I don’t know what the holdup is,” he said. The mayor said his office, not the law department, is handling the appeal. Attorney Gary Johnson is dealing with the appeal.
Clough said the city should not hold a civil service fire chief’s test until the Pietrick case is settled.
“The worst thing I could do is put in a chief and then have the judge say Mr. Pietrick gets his job back,” Clough said.
The city’s civil service commission had approved Clough’s appointments of Kraus and Ron Janicek, Kraus’s predecessor, as provisional fire chiefs.
This summer, council passed three ordinances to discourage “double-dipping,” the practice in which a retired government worker collects a pension while simultaneously working at a second public-sector job.
Under the legislation, if a retired government employee is hired by the city, his or her pay is reduced by the dollar amount of that pension. Social Security and military pension payments are exempted from the restriction. The reduction in pay can be waived when requested by the mayor and approved by Council.
Clough opposed aspects of the laws and at one point threatened to veto the legislation. He allowed the laws to go into effect, but without his signature. Council would have overridden his veto, he said. The mayor said he continues to have doubts about the constitutionality of the laws.
If the laws were not in place, Clough said, he would most likely seek to replace Kraus with another retired chief or other fire department officer.
“The person that I would probably hire would be a double-dipper,” Clough told West Life.
“How can I look?” Clough asked. “I’m not supposed to do it.”
Asked about the provision that the double-dipping pay reduction can be exempted by the request of the mayor and approval by Council, Clough replied that it’s solely the mayor’s responsibility to hire any provisional directors.
“Council doesn’t even confirm fire chiefs,” Clough said.
Ward 1 Councilman Ed Hack, the double-dipping law’s strongest advocate, said he is disappointed the mayor is not considering the appointment of another provisional chief.
“It’s my take that the mayor’s not happy with the legislation so he doesn’t want to come before council,” Hack said, noting that the mayor could seek an exemption of the payment reduction. Hack acknowledged that few experienced fire department veterans would want to take the Westlake job with such a salary reduction.
During the debate over the ordinance, the case of Kraus’ appointment was identified as one instance in which hiring a governmental retiree would make sense, Hack said.
One source on council acknowledged that rumors that the Westlake Police Department would hire a retired Cleveland police officer dubbed “supercop” contributed to discussion of the double-dipping legislation.
James Simone retired in March after 38 years with the Cleveland Police Department. During his career, he killed five suspected felons in the line of duty. Simone told The Plain Dealer he wanted to work part time with another department following his retirement. Rumors that he would wear a Westlake Police Department badge appeared on an online forum.
Westlake Police Chief Richard Walling told West Life his department never offered Simone a job.
Simone has since taken a part-time job with the Grand River, Ohio, police department.