By Mara H. Gottfried
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The international union representing St. Paul firefighters voted to censure St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler at its convention Wednesday, publicly airing the rank-and-file union’s long-simmering frustration with his leadership.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21, which represents about 400 St. Paul firefighters, states in the censure resolution that these factors contributed to the move:
Butler “has adopted a hostile and aggressive tone when dealing with” the union.
He has made staffing moves that lead to understaffing of firefighters on the streets.
His budget decisions “had negative implications on response time and the safety of the citizens of St. Paul.”
Butler is halfway through his second six-year term as chief and said Thursday that he intends to continue on in his role. He said he’s proud of his accomplishments, including adding 18 firefighters to the department’s ranks and increasing the number of ambulances.
“The job of fire chief — the job of all senior executives in public service — is a difficult job, demanding the weighing, balancing, and merits of a lot of competing interests,” Butler said in a statement. “Fire chiefs make tough decisions, and not all of them make everyone happy. I have focused my efforts on improving firefighter safety, improving services to St. Paul residents and visitors, building a more inclusive workforce, and treating firefighters and their families with dignity and honor.”
The censure is intended to broadcast that front-line firefighters are unhappy with Butler’s leadership, said Mike Smith, Local 21 president.
“This is about our frustration with the fire chief’s leadership,” he said. “We’ve got grievances that should be settled, he’s been unwilling to work with us, and his anti-union attacks on the chair officers continue. … It doesn’t mean the city’s going to do anything, it doesn’t mean anything’s going to happen, but (Butler) will know our displeasure with his leadership.”
EIGHT CENSURED AT CONVENTION
Butler was one of seven fire chiefs and a mayor who nearly 1,900 delegates unanimously censured at the International Association of Fire Fighters convention in Las Vegas, and it signified more than 300,000 members are standing behind Local 21, Smith said.
Butler said he takes the action seriously, “but with the understanding of what it is: a political tool designed to exert pressure on a fire chief who ‘the union’ isn’t happy with.”
“A lot of great fire chiefs around the nation have been censored by the International based on unsubstantiated complaints from their local chapter leadership,” Butler said in his statement. “These complaints are not vetted for truth, offer no opportunity to present ‘the other side of the story,’ in many cases do not reflect the true feelings within the fire department, and they cast aspersions on the great work and accomplishments that those fire chiefs and the members of fire departments have achieved together.”
Mayor Chris Coleman’s spokeswoman, Tonya Tennessen, noted that the city celebrated Butler in 2014 when the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association named him Fire Officer of the Year.
“The mayor would not have appointed the chief if he didn’t think he was up to the task,” she said Thursday. “… City employees are represented by 25 labor unions, so there will always be that push and pull between management and union leadership, and that’s a benefit of a strong union system. … The mayor remains absolutely committed to public safety, including significant investments in the fire department.”
A union representing 14 St. Paul fire supervisors is also part of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and they say they were not consulted about the censure and wholeheartedly disagree with it.
Smith said IAFF sends members the resolutions a couple of weeks before the convention, but Fire Supervisory Association President Stuart Bestland said he was unaware of the one against Butler and would have spoken against it.
Bestland called the censure an attempt by Smith “to smear Chief Butler.”
“What occurred here is a few disgruntled employees attended a conference in Las Vegas, provided their distorted version of reality, and persuaded a committee to go along with them,” Bestland said in a statement. “No facts were checked, and our union was not contacted for comment. These resolutions are common at this conference. They have no teeth, mean nothing, but often are a union tool to try to discredit someone. The resolution contained partial truths at best.”
RESPONSE TIMES QUESTIONED
Local 21 asserts in the censure resolution that Butler has put firefighters into unfunded special-duty assignments, which Smith said has led to fewer firefighters to respond to calls and slowed response times.
“These special-duty positions do very good work for the department, but at the cost of running short of staffing on the street,” Smith said. “It’s about prioritizing, and he’s not.”
Butler responded Thursday that there is “a combination of reasons why we don’t have people in sufficient numbers to staff a full deployment of our department.”
In Mayor Coleman’s budget address last week, he announced that his 2017 budget includes $100,000 to analyze demographic and population shifts in the city, first responder response times, outcomes for patient care and more.
During his tenure, Butler said he has increased staffing on fire units and brought daily staffing to the highest level in years.
“We’ve enhanced citizen safety and firefighter safety,” he said. St. Paul has seen some of the lowest fire death rates in its history during Butler’s term, according to Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.
HISTORY OF TENSION
Historically, there have been rocky relationships between St. Paul fire chiefs and Local 21.
In March 2007, Local 21 approved a “no confidence” resolution in the leadership of Butler’s predecessor, Doug Holton. An external audit released that month found relations between rank-and-file and management was “in a state of crisis.” Holton left two months later to become Milwaukee’s fire chief.
When Butler became chief in November 2007, he said his priority was “healing the rift between labor-management from the past.”
Local 21 leaders initially gushed about Butler as chief, but the union says the relationship has grown tense. Butler said in an interview Thursday that, like any relationship, there have been ups and downs.
For Local 21 leaders, the last straw came a year ago, when firefighter Shane Clifton had a heart attack while on duty and was rushed to the hospital, Smith said. Fellow firefighters who had tried to revive Clifton were awaiting word of Clifton’s condition, and Butler was not at the hospital when they found out the 38-year-old had died, Smith said.
“This is the hardest time we have ever dealt with in my (18-year) career and he was … down at headquarters,” Smith said. “When we needed a leader, he wasn’t there.”
Butler said Thursday that the comments about how he handled Clifton’s death are “a low blow.” He sent two assistant fire chiefs to the hospital “to make sure that everything was being done for Shane and the firefighters around Shane,” while he was at headquarters to notify Clifton’s next of kin, Butler said.
“I sent the best representations in my department to the hospital,” he said. “Every need the firefighters identified was supported. We took $100,000 from our budget to make sure the funeral planning, memorial service, family support and firefighter support was there. I was there throughout that whole process.”
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