By Katie Hall
The Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — Delegates from the labor union representing firefighters across the country voted in favor of censuring Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr on Wednesday.
It is the second time in two years that the International Association of Fire Fighters has voted to censure Kerr. The city’s fire union first called to censure Kerr during the association’s convention in 2014 based on problems in the Austin Fire Department’s hiring process, which led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into discrimination allegations.
This year, the union took issue with proposed policies pertaining to employees’ physical qualifications, recent reprimands and sought-after fire station bathroom upgrades that have been delayed. During a vote last month, 490 Austin firefighters out of the 563 who participated expressed their disapproval of Kerr. The city’s firefighter union has about a thousand members, officials said.
“This censure gives formalized concerns that are vetted through hard evidence,” Bob Nicks, the union’s president, said Wednesday. “We’d like to see reform, or we would look forward to (having) a new fire chief.”
Kerr declined comment via a spokesperson Wednesday, though she has previously said in a statement that the way the union is framing their greivances is “seriously misinformed.”
She has accused Nicks of offering “unworkable mandates” instead of reasonable solutions and of “only giving you the parts of the story he wants you to know.” She has declined to elaborate.
The union listed four grievances when they voted in July. First, union members disagreed with a policy Kerr is considering adopting that would require all firefighters and fire officials, including those working in desk jobs, to be physically qualified to work at a fire scene. Union members fear the policy would prohibit an injured firefighter from seeking a desk job at the Austin Fire Department while he or she recovers.
But Kerr has said she refuses to apologize for “having high standards, holding the work force accountable, and making sure they’re fit to do their job.”
The second grievance expresses dissatisfaction with the fire department’s Professional Standards Office, which serves as its version of Internal Affairs and investigates complaints against firefighters and fire officials. The third grievance argues that Kerr has imposed overly harsh punishments when officials are accused of violating policy, with no ability to appeal the accusation to the Civil Service Commission. Most suspensions were 15 days or less under the previous chief, but Kerr has suspended officers for 16 to 90 days with no right of appeal, the grievance says.
In an open letter to the fire union Monday, City Manager Marc Ott took issue with this characterization, pointing to the collective bargaining agreement the city had crafted with the union and approved in 2015. But Nicks said the due process elements in that contract have since been removed, and his union has filed a complaint with the fire department about this issue.
The final grievance says Kerr has not worked to improve fire station bathrooms in a timely manner, even though the work can be paid for with a bond that voters approved in 2012.
In response, Ott, who said he has asked two assistant city manager to come up with a plan to expedite the construction, wrote: “Chief Kerr and I agree with you on the issue of inadequate bathroom facilities. … The construction work does not lie exclusively in the chief’s control.”
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