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Fire union airs gripes before the City Council

Calls reports of abuses 'offensive and unwarranted'

Email|Print| Text size + By John C. Drake
Globe Staff / February 7, 2008

Reeling from a series of reports about alleged wrongdoing in the Fire Department and locked in a protracted labor dispute with the mayor's office, the Boston Firefighters Union found a friendly audience yesterday among city councilors.

"What can we do to help?" Councilor Michael F. Flaherty asked after union leaders complained that the reputation of firefighters had been unfairly tarnished.

Aides to Mayor Thomas M. Menino criticized the gathering at City Hall, attended by seven of 13 councilors, calling it a distraction from the key point of contention in negotiations, which is requiring random drug testing for firefighters.

Edward A. Kelly, president of Local 718, told councilors that recent news reports suggesting broad substance abuse, cheating on civil service exams, and pension fraud among firefighters were "offensive and unwarranted."

He also criticized the mayor's office for not providing adequate hazardous materials equipment and training and cited a lack of health and wellness services.

"Since the fire in August, we have been on a tumultuous roller coaster ride with the press," Kelly said.

The union's statements went unchallenged at the meeting, because Council President Maureen E. Feeney did not allow a representative of the mayor's office to participate and prevented council members from discussing the ongoing contract negotiations.

"We are disappointed we weren't invited to speak," said John Dunlap, the city's director of labor relations, who observed the meeting.

Feeney, who scheduled the public meeting at the union's request, cut off a line of questioning by Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who sought to press Kelly on why the city and union had not been able to reach agreement on random drug and alcohol testing.

Feeney said the council, which by city ordinance cannot be involved in collective bargaining, was only able to hear the firefighters' general concerns.

"I think it was important for us to listen and hear from Local 718 to sort of clear the air and correct some issues," she said in an interview. "We thought it was best not to have this be a contentious meeting."

She said the council has invited the mayor's office to send representatives to address councilors. "We're happy to meet with them, as we always are," Feeney said.

LaMattina said in a telephone interview after the meeting that he would have liked to hear more from union representatives about what they are demanding from the city in exchange for agreeing to random drug testing.

"All of us on the council support our Fire Department," he said. "They risk their lives every single day, and on that point they should be supporting mandatory drug and alcohol testing for the safety of everyone who works in the Fire Department.

"I wish I knew what was going back and forth" between the city and the union, LaMattina said, "and unfortunately we're not privy to that information."

City and union negotiators today will go before a state labor panel, which the city has asked to intervene in the stalled talks.

Also today, Samuel E. Zoll, chairman of the state's Joint Labor-Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire, could decide whether to mediate and whether random drug and alcohol testing can be part of negotiations.

Menino and city negotiators have said the union is insisting on substantial pay increases in exchange for submitting to random drug and alcohol testing. Kelly said the union is willing to negotiate a testing program that exceeds the current one, in which a test is conducted only when a supervisor suspects abuse.

The recent push for mandatory, random drug and alcohol testing began after autopsy results indicated that two firefighters were impaired when they died fighting a restaurant fire in August, raising questions about the extent of substance abuse in fire stations.

Seated across from union representatives at a conference table at City Hall, councilors showered the union representatives with praise and did not ask about any of the recent allegations.

Councilor Sam Yoon said it was good for council members to hear directly from union representatives.

"There is a public perception out there that has been created by the media that you are somehow the enemy," Yoon said to union representatives.

The union's complaints about press coverage began after the Globe reported that between 2001 and 2001, 102 firefighters received increased accidental disability pensions after reporting on-the-job injuries while substituting for superiors at higher pay.

Also, state officials are investigating whether city firefighters cheated on a civil service promotional exam by taking turns going to the bathroom and sending text messages to their colleagues.

John C. Drake can be reached at jdrake@globe.com.

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