By Jeff Gallatin
A memo to the Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association about the probable regionalization of four Westshore fire departments is scheduled to be discussed for possible action at the police organization’s September meeting.
Bay Village police Chief Dave Wright was suspended for three days last week by Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland after she learned of the memo from Wright, which was critical of the plans to regionalize the Bay Village, Fairview Park, Rocky River and Westlake fire departments, had been circulated among cities with members in the police association.
“It contains inaccurate, inflammatory and misleading information which is causing problems for the cities involved in the regionalization process,” Sutherland said last week when asked about her action.
However, Robert W. Bruckner, executive director of the chiefs association, said Monday the organization has the memo on the agenda for the group’s September meeting.
Asked if the organization could take any action about the memo, such as approving a resolution supporting Wright or other actions in support of the Bay Village chief, Bruckner replied, “That’s up to the membership.”
Bruckner said he has seen similar situations where a police chief had disagreed with political leaders in the community he or she works for, and the chiefs group listened to the affected chief about the situation.
Wright could not be reached for comment.
In her memo to Wright about the suspension, which was from July 16-18, Sutherland lists the subject as insubordination. In it, she cites civil service regulations and said the reasons for the suspension included “insubordination to the appointing authority” and malfeasance by willfully and irresponsibly distributing inflammatory misinformation via the city’s computer.”
Sutherland’s memo concludes by citing Bay Village civil service codes saying the disciplinary action cannot be appealed.
Wright and Bay Village fire Chief Chris Lyons, as well as both departments’ unions, have been critical of a proposed amendment to the Bay Village City Charter that would take the police and fire chiefs out of the civil service system. After much discussion, including hearing criticism of the proposal from all the safety forces, the Bay Village Charter Review Commission unanimously approved having the proposal placed on the November general election ballot for consideration by city voters.
The two chiefs and the unions have all expressed concern that if approved, the amendment could leave the chiefs’ positions open to political pressures. Leaving them in the civil service would help ensure the positions’ integrity because the posts would be filled through the civil service process.
Sutherland said the proposed charter amendment will help make the process of regionalizing the fire department easier.
“If the chief belongs to a regional fire organization, then he can’t be covered by a city civil service code,” she said, adding that the charter review panel has specifically taken out language it thought could affect other employees covered by civil service.
In his memo, Wright said in discussion of the regional fire proposal at the June meeting of the Westshore Council of Governments attendees were told “all of the firefighters affected (@110-120) will no longer be municipal employees, but employees of COG, and as such will be at will employees.” He adds they were told no firefighter will be automatically a part of the new regional fire district, but will have to apply. Current Westshore firefighters will have priority in the hiring process, he said. He also alleges in the memo they were told all firefighters would no longer be covered by the Ohio Police and Fire Disability and Pension fund, but would be switched over to the Social Security system.
“As you can see, this will (potentially) have a devastating impact upon employees, (especially those who do not have (15) years of service, and therefore are not ‘vested’ in the current pension system, families and the pension fund,” Wright said in his memo.
Wright said Bay Village Law Director Gary Ebert said he and his law firm have researched the issue and that because the cities are involved are charter cities, they can do this and that this could be a template for cities all over Ohio to use to regionalize police and fire service.
“Most politicians on the west side were supporters of (Senate Bill) SB5(but wouldn’t go on the record). This is nothing more than an attempt to to ‘backdoor’ SB5.
“I see no benefit as presented above,” Wright concludes.
Both Sutherland and Ebert said the memo was inaccurate with its assorted contentions, saying nothing has been decided and that the process is still evolving.
Sutherland again noted that if the city joins a regional fire organization, the firefighters could not be covered by a municipal civil service.
“We would need a regional civil service organization or something like to cover and take care of the firefighters,” she said. “I’m not trying to leave them without protection.”
She also characterized her relationship with Wright as “strong.” In recent months Sutherland has led efforts to preserve police department staffing levels when City Council discussed laying off or terminating one to three younger officers.
“The chief is a fine police officer and leader, and I’ve never had to do anything like this before,” she said. “But we can’t have inaccurate and inflammatory information being put out there like this.”