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East Lake Fire Rescue tries to move on from harassment accusations

EAST LAKE — While still dealing with infighting and an independent discrimination investigation, East Lake Fire Rescue is trying to move past the alleged racial slurs and erratic governance that earned the department negative headlines and landed it in legal hot water.

All department employees, from the top brass to rank-and-file firefighters, are taking classes online and at the fire station on issues like harassment, ethics and conflict in the workplace.

Even fire commissioners — elected officials who oversee the department — are getting training on discrimination, diversity and the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Meanwhile, the department has expanded its discrimination policy.

"I am very proud of the work our chief has done to create an action plan to address the harassment and discrimination complaints that have been filed," Commissioner Paul Ferreri wrote in an email. "These actions, through education and restated policy, are a proactive way of reinstating the values that the department holds so dearly."

The effort to turn things around follows several months of turmoil at the small department involving accusations of harassment, discrimination, racist text messages and, oddly, a set of hot-pink, eight-pound dumbbells.

Several people at public meetings have wondered out loud whether fire Chief Tom Jamison would be fired.

The upheaval so far has resulted in attorney involvement, several internal inquiries and an investigation by the Pinellas County Office of Human Rights, which protects people in discrimination cases.

The drama began when Fire Commission chairman Mark Weinkrantz accused Lt. Bill Figueredo of making a Nazi salute. No witnesses were present, but Figueredo, the department's only minority, was demoted.

Figueredo criticized his superiors for demoting him without proof of wrongdoing while ignoring what he said was known racial harassment from Weinkrantz and firefighter James Finley.

He pointed to Finley's racist texts and accused Weinkrantz of delivering hot-pink dumbbells to the fire station and referring to him with a homosexual slur.

Finley and Weinkrantz denied the accusations, which spawned an internal and county investigation and led the department to reinstate Figueredo and demote Finley.

Now the administration is trying to steady the ship.

"One truism, that will never change, is that it is much easier to tear things down than build people up," Weinkrantz wrote in a recent email to firefighters, touting his work at the department and criticizing the media for covering the allegations. "I choose to work with the people who opt to build."

Department leaders still have several issues to address.

The county's investigation into Figueredo's complaint that he was treated unfairly because of his race is ongoing.

And documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show the department, which has about 40 employees and operates on a $4.2 million budget, is dealing with personality clashes that require leaders to schedule certain firefighters for separate shifts and firehouses.

Several firefighters have filed formal grievances with the department, each triggering an investigation.

Figueredo, for example, complained that he was forced to talk alone with a superior rather than where others could hear their conversation, causing him to fear he would face another false accusation.

In another case, Finley filed a grievance complaining that fellow firefighters confronted him about conspiring with Weinkrantz to get Figueredo in trouble.

Other grievances are for things like name-calling and "attitude problems."

Recently, the department required firefighters to complete an online survey in which they were asked to give their opinion of Jamison and other leaders' ability to run the department.

Although the survey appears to have closed the first week of June, department leaders, through the office manager, said they're still processing the information and won't release the results until July.

Jamison, meanwhile, urged firefighters via email to keep focused on the department's commitment to the community.

"Whatever distractions are occurring are a process that will play out to an end point eventually," Jamison wrote to firefighters. "In the meantime, you must treat one another with courtesy, professionalism and respect."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

East Lake Fire Rescue tries to move on from harassment accusations 06/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 14, 2013 6:55pm]
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