LARGO — The city is searching for an arbitrator to decide if what five firefighters did to prepare for a test was cheating, after an assistant city manager reduced most of their suspensions but did not exonerate them.
The five men were suspended from eight to 40 hours after an April internal affairs investigation found they shared an old copy of a test they were preparing to take to become certified as squad drivers.
The men said studying old tests is common practice at Largo Fire Rescue. Fire Chief Mike Wallace disagreed.
Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert reduced some, but not all of the suspensions, which cost the firefighters between $100 and $700, depending on their length of service and pay rate.
Largo Professional Firefighters Local 2427 disagreed with Schubert's ruling, and now the two sides will search for an arbitrator, which could cost the city several thousand dollars.
The arbitration hearing will probably take place in the next few months, according to Schubert. The loser pays for the arbitrator.
Wallace said he thinks the men's opinions are being shaped by their peers.
"These are five good, young firefighters," he said. "If any of them had been told by the school that their children had done what they did, they would absolutely agree the behavior was inappropriate."
The firefighters — Josh Arney, Ben Gebo, Josh Larkin, Todd McCarthy and Jerry Nguyen — have argued through their union that using past copies of tests to study has been condoned at Largo Fire for years. During a Sept. 19 grievance hearing in front of Schubert, the union presented a 2003 memo from Wallace they claim proved he knew old tests were used to study.
The union also claimed Wallace used intimidation to try to convince the men not to appeal, by making "statements that the misconduct would be communicated to the press and that public reaction could result in them losing their jobs."
Wallace says he was just educating the men on the pitfalls of a predisciplinary hearing, a kind of appeal in which the employee disputes the punishment before serving it. In a predisciplinary hearing, the findings of an investigation become public record and the person appealing can potentially get a more severe punishment.
The firefighters did not ask for predisciplinary hearings. They accepted their suspensions and then filed grievances. They cannot get worse punishments through the grievance process.
"I was trying to educate them on the process after an IA (internal affairs investigation)," Wallace said. "We don't do these often."
Regardless of how Wallace explained it, the firefighters were intimidated, according to Macho Liberti, the union's secretary-treasurer.
"The guys were nervous . . . We had to reassure them through a consultation with our attorney that they could file a grievance," Liberti said.
Schubert disagreed with the union's accusation of intimidation, but said Wallace should avoid such conversations in the future, as it is the union's job to explain the appeal process to its members.
"If the chief's comments were meant to deter these employees from exercising their grievance rights," Schubert wrote, "he was obviously not successful."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.