Fire Dept. reform committee falls apart

5 from union quit in rift with chief

Email|Print| Text size + By Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / December 14, 2007

The latest push to overhaul the Boston Fire Department dissolved in acrimony yesterday, spelling trouble for Mayor Thomas M. Menino's efforts to adopt changes such as random alcohol and drug testing.

Just two days after Menino formed a special committee to implement changes at the department, the president of the firefighter's union announced he was quitting the panel in a bitter dispute with the fire commissioner. Four firefighters immediately followed suit, eviscerating the 13member committee.

The resignations upended the mayor's efforts to bring random testing and other long-sought changes at the department after the deaths of two firefighters in a West Roxbury blaze in August.

Edward Kelly, Local 718 president, said he resigned from the committee because he believed Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser, a former Navy commander, was trying to seize control of the process and dictate terms to the union.

"This is not a ship!" Kelly wrote in a letter to Fraser posted on the union website. In the letter, which misspelled the commissioner's name as "Frazer," Kelly said he lacked confidence in Fra ser's leadership.

In a sign of how hard feelings are running: Kelly accused Fraser of excluding union leaders yesterday from the mayor's annual Christmas party for fire officials.

Menino formed the special committee on Sunday, following the recommendation of a three-member panel that had said the Fire Department needed to quickly implement changes, including the introduction of random alcohol and drug testing of firefighters.

"I'm very, very disappointed that the union president has withdrawn from the committee and forced others to withdraw," Fraser said yesterday in a telephone interview. "I guess this shows that the union leadership is really not committed to change."

Menino's spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said last night that the mayor "supports the fire commissioner, and it is his hope that this committee can move forward with all of the Fire Department's support."

The Fire Department has been under intense scrutiny following the autopsy reports on firefighters Paul J. Cahill and Warren J. Payne, who died in the Aug. 29 fire. The results showed that Cahill had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts, and that Payne had traces of cocaine in his system, according to two government officials who described the results to the Globe.

The roots of the current dispute lie in a disagreement over whether the union could appoint members to the special committee.

When he announced the formation of the committee, Menino said it would be led by Fraser and would include four fire chiefs, a medical officer, two City Hall representatives, the union president, and four firefighters "appointed by the commissioner." Fraser had the authority to appoint all members except for the City Hall representatives.

At the time, the mayor said the committee would make sure that recommendations from the outside panel would be implemented. The Globe reported in October that 50 of 82 recommendations from three earlier outside reviews of the department had not been implemented, and city officials said union opposition had stymied their adoption.

Formation of the new committee - and the union's participation in it - had been seen as a tangible sign that city and union officials were committed to overhauling the Fire Department this time.

Kelly, however, said Fraser should have consulted union leadership on the four firefighter appointments. In his letter to Fraser, Kelly contended that appointing the firefighters without input from the union exhibited "an underlying disrespect for the membership of Local 718, which spawns doubt in my confidence of your ability to lead this Department."

Kelly said in an interview yesterday that when the new panel's recommendations were announced at City Hall on Nov. 30, the fire commissioner began dictating to them what was going to happen rather than "partnering" with union leadership on the overhaul.

"I don't think he has any true desire to work with the union to move forward," Kelly said.

Fraser said that as chairman of the committee, he had the authority to appoint whomever he wanted. He responded to Kelly in a letter of his own yesterday.

"Just as I do not dictate to the Union who should be appointed to various Union roles, I find it inappropriate for President Kelly to demand the appointment of certain persons to this Department's committee," Fraser wrote.

Fraser said Kelly had demanded that the makeup of the committee be subject to collective bargaining, something that could delay its formation for months. Fraser refused, but said he offered Kelly two seats on the committee.

"I find these attacks to be, not only unproductive but very unprofessional," Fraser said. "We should be working together." The remaining members of the committee are scheduled to meet next week, with or without union participation, he said.

The commissioner also said union officials were invited to yesterday's holiday party for the Fire Department with the mayor, but they didn't show up.

Donovan Slack can be reached at

'I guess this shows that the union leadership is really not committed to change,' Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser said.

Bitter dispute

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