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After appeal, demoted Clearwater firefighter to get rank back with back pay

CLEARWATER — Noting a litany of city failures, an arbitrator has ruled that a city of Clearwater firefighter was wrongly demoted and must be restored to the rank of fire lieutenant.

Nelson DeJesus, a city firefighter since 1989, was demoted from fire lieutenant to fire medic Aug. 5, 2006. There had been no prior notice or opportunity to respond to the charges against him, he claimed. DeJesus appealed the demotion. An arbitration hearing was held on the matter April 29-30.

In an Aug. 13 decision released this week, arbitrator Philip A. LaPorte of Decatur, Ga., said the city had "no just cause" and "did not offer credible evidence to prove" the charges made against DeJesus.

"The city would be well served to examine their actions and to ensure that they comply with the just cause and due process requirements of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in taking disciplinary action," LaPorte said.

In addition to reinstating DeJesus to the rank of fire lieutenant, the city must pay him the difference in wages he received as a fire medic from the time he was demoted and an annual rate of interest on the total back pay amount of the three years he was "unjustly" demoted, LaPorte said.

At this point, it's unclear how much money DeJesus will receive.

DeJesus also must be made whole for all seniority and accrued benefits he would have received as a fire lieutenant, LaPorte decided.

The ruling marks the fourth arbitration case since September 2006 to go against the city involving discipline of firefighters.

Separate arbiters ruled that the city wrongly fired veteran paramedics Trevor Murray and Mike Jones in May 2005 and ordered the city to rehire them with back pay. In March 2007, fire inspector Duane Anderson had to be rehired with back pay after an arbiter decided the city violated his due process by not conducting a proper investigation when they fired him in August 2005.

Questions to city officials about the ruling were referred to Joelle Castelli, city communications director.

"We don't necessarily agree with the arbitrator's ruling," Castelli said. "But that's the process we have been given and we work within that process. We will abide by the decision and move on."

Gerard Devivo, president of the IAFF Local 1158, said he's hopeful the latest ruling will mark an end to the ongoing battle the union has had with the city in recent years.

"We are not out to fight for the sake of fighting," Devivo said. "We should be worried about our members' wages, benefits and safety conditions. It's not productive on both sides, but we do have to look out for our members' rights."

The latest case started July 31, 2006, when fire Chief Jamie Geer called DeJesus to his office and gave him a notice of demotion to take effect Aug. 5, 2006. The notice, which was approved by the city's Human Resources Director Joseph Roseto, alleged "recurring performance issues related to his supervisory abilities that began during his probationary period as a fire lieutenant in 2001."

But LaPorte found the city's case to lack credibility.

For example, the city accused DeJesus of not properly supervising Darren Keith, a former paramedic who was arrested and resigned after it was discovered that he was stealing narcotics to feed his personal habit. But DeJesus was never Keith's supervisor, according to testimony during the arbitration.

"This situation raises the question of why the city would seek to discipline (demote) the grievant for failing to properly supervise an employee that is not under his supervision while not disciplining or even counseling the troubled employee's immediate supervisors," LaPorte said.

While the DeJesus case is settled, the city and union still have not reached a labor contract, and the last two years firefighters have worked without one. Devivo said that since he became president in June, "it seems like we've opened up some lines of communication" with the city's leadership.

"We have had some movement on both sides," Devivo said. "We are down to the core issues that are out there. Some of the things don't cost the city a dime and are morale boosters. We just hope we can work out some of language."

Castelli said that the city has "already moved forward."

"We hope we will continue to move forward," she said.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4147.

After appeal, demoted Clearwater firefighter to get rank back with back pay 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 8:02pm]
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