By Liset Marquez
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
LA VERNE, Calif. — Firefighters best known for passing out candy to children at Christmas are embroiled in a battle with the city of La Verne and their department’s management. The feud is so fierce, it’s resulted in two lawsuits and has prompted the cash-strapped city to spend money on an outside lawyer.
La Verne Firefighters’ Association, Local 3624 alleges Fire Chief Peter Jankowski has targeted union members in retaliation for supporting the mayor’s opponent during the 2017 campaign. First they took the step of issuing a vote of no confidence against him. Then they sued.
The initial 44-page suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Dec. 4. It was amended Feb. 22 with 55 more pages, asking the case go to a jury trial. The union is seekingin excess of $1 million for mental and emotional injuries, distress, anxiety and humiliation.
La Verne disputes the claims. The attorney representing the city, Scott Grossberg, filed a 25-page answer to the plaintiffs’ amended complaint on March 15. The document responds paragraph by paragraph to the union’s claims.
“We deny any wrongdoing and we stand by the answers we have filed,” Scott Grossberg said. “We’ve done our due diligence.”
Grossberg declined to answer specific questions about the case because “we’re in the midst of litigation.” He referred to court documents that have been posted on the city’s website for any questions, adding the city is being transparent about the dispute.
“Ultimately, the city and its defendants are confident we will prevail,” Grossberg said by phone Friday.
Not one but two lawsuits
La Verne’s fire crews are far better known for their seasonal generosity than public controversy.
The department’s Christmas-morning deliveries date back to 1925, according to department’s Facebook page. Back then, firefighters delivered food to needy families on Christmas morning. As the years went on, the custom evolved into an early-morning tradition during which thousands of bags of treats are delivered to children across the city.
The department’s feud with the city is drawing a different kind of attention.
The Dec. 4 lawsuit became the first of two the union has filed against the city. On Feb. 27, 23 firefighters sued the city anew, this time saying it violated fair labor laws by forcing them to work overtime without the proper compensation.
At its March 19 meeting, the council authorized a retainer agreement with San Francisco-based Renne Public Law Group as well as tapping $50,000 from its general fund. The firm specializes in labor issues.
The union’s amended complaint alludes to an ongoing rift between fire management and the union that began shortly after Jankowski became fire chief in 2013. The two sides reportedly disagreed over whether the department should upgrade its aging equipment.
The differences between the city and the association bubbled to the surface after an April 27, 2017, meeting between members of the union and La Verne City Manager Bob Russi. The union had requested the meeting to share what members believed were cases of Jankowski’s “escalating mismanagement and his abusive retaliatory treatment of fire personnel,” the complaint alleges.
At Russi’s suggestion, the two sides agreed during the April meeting to meet in the future with Jankowski and all of the union members present. The parties initially selected May 10, 2017, as that date, but by the end of that first meeting, the union had canceled the arrangement, the city stated on its website.
Jankowski allegedly had taken issue with the association for backing the opponent of Mayor Don Kendrick during the March 2017 election, according to the lawsuit. The strife began during the election cycle in late 2016. Kendrick held onto his seat by just seven votes.
On May 8, 2017, the union issued a vote of no confidence against him. The 26-1 vote was necessary to communicate the morale problems at the department, union officials said.
Despite Russi’s attempts to meet again with the union – once in which the chief would have attended and another time without him – the association declined.
A month after the vote, the firm Brown, White and Osborn sent La Verne a cease-and-desist letter, claiming union members believe the city was retaliating against them because of the no-confidence vote.
La Verne, in its March filing, denied the claims.
Examples of retaliation cited
Union members alleged they endured the city “initiating frivolous disciplinary investigations, imposing unwarranted and excessive discipline, refusing to fill vacant positions and terminating active promotion lists.” The city denies the allegations.
For example, the association alleges Jankowski concocted an infraction against David Bonanno during a disciplinary investigation in May 2017. The infraction reportedly occurred when Battalion Chief Michael Thompson “secretly removed Bonanno’s badge from his uniform shirt, and then Jankowski (with full knowledge and ratification of Thompson’s action) disciplined Bonanno for not having his badge,” the claims states.
La Verne’s response acknowledges that Thompson removed the badge, but it was done for security purposes because Bonanno’s uniform shirt was unattended.
The allegations ranged from individual acts of retaliation, such as when a union member was denied overtime shifts, to a firefighter claiming his superiors had used racial slurs, calling him “asada” or “quesadilla” instead of his last name, Quezada. In its legal papers, the city said it doesn’t have “knowledge or information sufficient to admit or deny” that the slurs happened.
The union also alleges the city used a sewage overflow as an opportunity to punish its members. In July 2017, raw sewage had seeped into the showers in Station 1 after a plumbing failure, and the firefighters requested a professional cleanup from a service company.
Jankowski reportedly ordered the firefighters on duty to clean it themselves, claiming it was only gray water, according to the union’s lawsuit. During the cleanup process a firefighter got liquid in his face and had to file an exposure report.
The lawsuit contrasts the LVFD’s reaction with that of the La Verne Police Department. According to the union’s claim, the PD’s building shares plumbing with Station 1. Officers on duty that day were told to immediately leave their lockers until the situation was resolved.
In La Verne’s filing, it acknowledges the department’s policy manual “provides that firefighters shall not clean up ‘raw sewage incidents'” and that a firefighter filled out an exposure report. But again the city denied the claims.
“The city contracted with an outside company for the specific purposes of cleaning up the sewage problem,” the city stated.
With the case in federal court, jurors must reach an unanimous decision. Both sides will meet April 30 for a scheduling conference, Grossberg said.
Copyright 2018 Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
McClatchy-Tribune News Service