The Journal Gazette
Thursday, July 30, 2020 1:00 am

As 2 leave, fire merit panel at crossroads

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

The Fort Wayne Fire Merit Commission voted Wednesday against Fire Chief Eric Lahey's recommendation not to hire a firefighter recruit who failed to pass an advanced EMT test under department regulations.

The commission voted 4-1 to hire Pvt. James House, with commission chairman and retired Allen Superior Court Judge Stanley Levine voting with the three pro-union representatives.

Levine then announced his resignation at of the end of the meeting, saying he wanted to spend more time with family and to pursue opportunities in music, not because of any frustration with the board.

Commission member Sharon Peters, an attorney and former board of safety member who voted remotely via Zoom, told The Journal Gazette on Wednesday she also intends to resign from the commission.

She said her reasons stem from the lack of transparency that has come with the board makeup of two former firefighters – Tony Ridley and Dennis Maxwell – and Lloyd Osborne, a local union official, whom she said normally vote as a block when it comes to discipline and the chief's recommendations.

Peters said she is “uncomfortable” with the board makeup.

“Once you're on (the commission), you're serving a larger community, you're not there just to protect the fire department,” Peters said. “It's a troubling situation.”

Peters said that with Levine gone, she wants to see what changes a committee made up of Lahey, union representatives and City Council members will recommend to an ordinance that governs fire merit commission business.

The recommendations are expected by mid-August, Lahey said. The recommendations will not include who is chosen to serve on the Fire Merit Commission.

The five-member commission consists of two representatives from the Fort Wayne Fire Department, a City Council appointee and two mayoral appointees. The commission has the final say on promotions as well as the power to review disciplinary procedures.

In October, the City Council changed the way board members are chosen. It used to consit of three mayoral appointees and two from the fire department.

Lahey said since January, the commission has voted down four of his recommendations, including one calling for unpaid status for Marcus Ridley, a first cousin of board member Tony Ridley.

Marcus Ridley was charged with driving while intoxicated in March and was to wait out a year's suspension without pay until his driver's license reinstated. His case involving drunk driving and his suspended license are pending.

Peters said Tony Ridley's vote supporting his cousin in March had “the appearance of impropriety,” even though attorneys could find no legal reason to prohibit the vote.

On Wednesday, Lahey recommended not hiring House for permanent employment after he did not pass an advanced EMT test in accordance with department regulations. Privates have two opportunities during one year to become certified in advanced EMT. House failed the test twice but passed the third time he took the test during his probationary year, which ended in June.

Levine said that due to the coronavirus pandemic, probationary firefighters had not been able to obtain clinical hospital instruction and go on EMT ride-alongs. Because of these two factors, Levine said he did not believe departmental rules were broken by hiring House but warned that the decision Wednesday should not be considered a precedent.

Peters disagreed. She said she believed the chief “had the authority to set the rule limits,” even if the local rule is not the same as the national one.

For this class, eight out of nine candidates passed the test under the two-test limit, for an 89% passing rate. Last year, before the pandemic, 16 of the 17 probationary firefighters passed, for a passing rate of 94%, Peters said.

Ridley, also voting remotely, said the $30,000 in training costs would be lost if House weren't hired, but Peters countered that the fire department always expects to lose some recruits after such an investment.

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