Sunday, December 24, 2006

Fire Dept Shake Up

1/10
Favre explores Bay fire dept. controversies
By MARY G. SEILEY
Jan 10, 2007, 09:07

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre is holding one-on-one interviews with everybody in the Fire Department, launching an investigation he said is largely based on concerns revealed in a recent Sea Coast Echo story. And when he's done with the Fire Department, Favre said he plans on top-to-bottom interviews throughout all the other city departments as well.The Fire Department interviews come in the wake of a story describing turmoil among personnel there that has left the department highly demoralized.
The controversy swirls around promotions, demotions and reported threats of dismissals, in accounts gathered by the Echo from numerous sources. It also involves accusations that some in the department were kept on the payroll full time after Hurricane Katrina, but rarely showed up for work over a period of several months.
Fire Chief Bobby Gavagnie said any discontent in the department is a natural outcome of personnel shuffles to expand the department. He said he refuses to employ the "good ol' boy" system or mere longevity to promote within the ranks, but rather taps the most qualified personnel to elevate.
It is not clear at this point exactly what criteria is being used for promotions in the Bay Fire Department. Gavagnie suspended the department's official promotion process indefinitely, in a June 2004 memo recently obtained by the Echo.
Favre said he was aware of that action, and Gavagnie was within his rights to repeal the promotion process that was in the department's handbook. All department heads, he said, develop their own promotion policies and operating rules – but subject to the mayor's approval.
The June 14, 2004, memo, said Favre, was issued because fire fighters were upset over new rules and standards that had been imposed in the department at that time. As recently as December 2006, Gavagnie approved a reorganization proposal involving three firefighters, but he gave his deputy chief, Pam San Fillippo, full authority to amend it or implement it. The chief said he's following standard military-style command in such matters.
Even as the investigation is underway, Favre repeated his previous stand that no personnel changes will be in effect until he personally approves them. That includes three recent "promotions" to the rank of lieutenant which occurred last week, Favre said.
So far, no complaints, appeals of personnel actions, or requests for promotions have come to Favre's personal attention, he said Monday. Neither have there been any complaints filed through the city's Civil Service system, Favre said. But the mayor said he's hopeful that all the concerns will be aired with him this week, leading to a full understanding of what's going on inside the department. What happens next depends on "what comes out" in the interviews.He said he's promising total protection to the personnel, with "no retaliation" possible. "There never has been and never will be any retaliation."
He said he would deal quickly with "whatever" the situation that comes to light. Meanwhile, the internal discontent has escalated to the point that up to half the department's personnel were, this week, said to be ready to resign unless the internal problems are resolved.
Favre indicated a deep concern overt the situation on Monday, and his hope that the personnel will be candid with him.. The mayor also said he plans to hold such interviews in coming weeks within the other departments, hoping to produce a clear picture of the state of the city's personnel and any concerns that may need to be addressed within the municipal workforce.
"The key is just to sit down with these (employees), all the way through, from top to bottom and bottom to top, and see what their concerns are. Strictly one-on-one. Hopefully, all will feel free to talk."
There has been unrelated controversy in recent months concerning doings within the city's Building Inspection Department. In that matter, the chief building official resigned in the face of an uproar over his "moonlighting" for the county while on the city staff full time.
Questions concerning that department have been forwarded by City Council and the mayor to the Attorney General, State Auditor, State Ethics Commission and the state Real Estate Commission for investigation.

Bay F.D .employee shake-up under fire
By MARY G. SEILEY
Dec 22, 2006, 14:51
The Bay St. Louis Fire Department is ablaze with internal strife. The mayor said Thursday he's aware of the problems involved and is investigating the situation.
Sources tell the Sea Coast Echo that a series of developments within the department – dating from the wake of Katrina to as recently as last week – have created serious demoralization in the ranks of the department.
Mayor Eddie Favre said he's aware of most of the controversies mentioned in an interview for this story, and has an investigation underway to get to the root of the problems. He said the last thing the city wants to have happen is to lose experienced firefighters.Troubles within the Fire Department are the third significant departmental difficulty the administration is having to address.
The city has lost two of the top three high-level experienced police officers in recent months, but those resignations are attributed to better paying offers from state law enforcement agencies.
A fourth significant resignation is said to be pending, but its status is not clear. And the police chief has confirmed he's considering retirement, but said it's due to his age rather than the loss of some top officers.
Earlier this year, the city also saw the resignation of its chief building officer and some of that department's employees, in a swirl of controversy that quieted only after council agreed to ask for state investigations of the issues involved there.
The unrelated Fire Department controversy concerns promotions, demotions, threats of demotions, the fairness of disciplinary actions and a supposed breakdown in the general chain of command within the department.
There are also allegations from several sources that at least two personnel within the Fire Department showed up for work only sporadically for months in the wake of Katrina – but remained on the payroll as full time employees.
Meanwhile, Favre said none of the personnel promotion or demotion actions at issue have been finalized, because they have not crossed his desk, and there have been no formal protests filed through him or to the Civil Service System in place. There is a lot of verbal protesting otherwise, however. Some who were willing to confirm the internal doings of the department did so only by relaying their information through others, for fear of retaliatory actions.
Aside from the concerns inside the department, there is worry afloat that if the situation escalates and drives seasoned fire department personnel from the force, the city's fire insurance rating could be damaged.
The controversy swirls around not only who's getting promoted or demoted, but whether the city's own rules are being followed in that process.
Some say Fire Chief Bobby Gavagnie has offloaded too much responsibility, turning it over to his immediate subordinates. In a Dec. 7, 2007 memo obtained by the Echo, Gavagnie effectively gave Deputy Chief Pam San Fillippo a free hand to deal with several specific controversial personnel matters as she sees fit.
The chief said he accepted the pertinent recommendations of Fillippo and Assistant Chief Louie Prendergast, made in November, with no changes.
But later in the memo, he also told Fillippo: "Should you wish to amend the proposal in any way, or implement it as submitted, you have my full support." Two promotions to the status of lieutenant recently were awarded by Fillippo, with a salary boost of some $5,000 each, passing over more seasoned firemen who thought they were in line for the jobs.
Neither of those who were promoted had fulfilled the city's traditional three-year probationary period, sources say.
Meanwhile, the fire fighters have witnessed a "couple of very unfounded demotions," according to one source. The uproar comes as the department is realigning internally to expand services to the newly annexed area. Now with a staffing level of 21, the department will be growing in upper- and lower-level positions, to fully staff shifts in the new and old city departments. Who gets promoted, and what criteria is being followed, is part of the controversy. In addition, some firemen who are seasoned veterans of the force reportedly have been threatened with demotion, outright dismissal, or probationary status. "We all fear for our jobs," said one in the middle of the mess. "But we've got to stop this. It's getting out of hand."
Another said the strife is "ripping us apart." Some say minor infractions of general protocol have been blown out of proportion for certain personnel, while similar or worse infractions by others have been totally ignored or forgiven.
Favre said some of the internal shift changes to accommodate creating another station in the newly annexed area is causing regrettable but necessary upset among firefighters.He said the departments' employees are like a "family" that does not give in easily to splits. He said there will need to be new lieutenant positions created, but not new captain slots to staff the new station.
"This has caused some concerns and I can understand that...The whole department is a family."
Favre said that has caused some – but not all – of the morale dip in the department.
"We are looking into it," the mayor said of the concerns outlined to him by the Echo.
"Once we find out what the concerns are, we will address them"
Favre literally lived in the fire Department for three months after Hurricane Katrina, forming what he said was a close link with the personnel. Several within the department acknowledged that bond, and had praise for the mayor.
© 2005 Bay St. Louis Newspapers, Inc.

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