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Pasco County's legal bill grows in lawsuit filed by firefighters

A lawsuit by two firefighters plus an effort to unionize county workers has left Pasco County with a bigger legal bill than officials planned.

County officials are asking Pasco commissioners to pay an extra $100,000 to Tampa-based legal firm Ford & Harrison to defend the county in a lawsuit filed last December by firefighters Anthony Booth and Jerry Brown.

The complaint, filed against Pasco and the International Association of Firefighters Local 4420 union, alleges 24 counts of unlawful discrimination and retaliation.

Booth is Hispanic, and Brown is married to a woman from a family of Jewish faith.

Both men say the county failed to conduct a proper investigation of Capt. Mark Bodden, whom they accuse of making inappropriate racial and ethnic comments directed at them in 2007.

In November 2007, Pasco officials found Bodden, the captain, had violated county policies.

Personnel director Barbara DeSimone said Friday that Bodden, who still works with the department, completed several remedial sessions.

"He needed some diversity training," she said.

The pair also alleges that after they filed their original complaint in 2008 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Florida Commission on Human Relations, they were subjected to harassment by their colleagues and passed over by their supervisors for overtime shifts.

The two name their union as a defendant, saying that it not only failed to assist them but also posted a memo about their complaints that led to harassment by other firefighters. The union has asked a federal judge to dismiss the case.

Booth and Brown, both of whom still work for the department, are seeking punitive damages and attorneys' fees.

But the county maintains that the lawsuit is baseless. "There are no merits to the allegations," DeSimone said.

Two months before that lawsuit was filed, commissioners had retained Ford & Harrison as labor counsel to assist with the ongoing negotiations with the firefighters union. The county attorney's office has the authority to expend up to $25,000 for the firm's services.

But Ford & Harrison's Tracey Jaensch then took on the discrimination lawsuit and just this year has already run up a nearly $18,000 tab.

"The adversarial nature of the proceedings as well (as) the proactive measures taken to protect the county has required a significant use of Ms. Jaensch's time and expertise in the area of employment law," County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder wrote in a memo to commissioners.

Officials propose taking half of the additional $100,000 from the general fund and half from a $500,000 reserve account in the firefighting fund.

The fire department fund has a tight operating budget and officials have said layoffs may be necessary next year unless commissioners raise the fire district tax rate or win federal stimulus money to retain employees.

County budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said he decided that splitting the tab between the two funds was the most equitable way of paying it.

"I didn't think the general fund should bear the entire brunt," he said.

Officials are also asking commissioners to set aside another $21,000 to Ford & Harrison for its assistance on a Teamsters Local No. 79 petition to unionize 1,020 county employees.

Last month, the Teamsters filed for an election with the Public Employees Relations Commission, the state organization that oversees public employee unions, after getting enough signed statements from interested workers.

County officials say they need Ford & Harrison's help for upcoming hearings and an election. Last month, officials issued a $1,000 purchase order with the firm to conduct a training course for managers.

Officials make their requests to Pasco commissioners at the board's meeting Wednesday. The requests are listed on the commission's consent agenda, a set of routine items typically approved with little or no discussion.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County's legal bill grows in lawsuit filed by firefighters 04/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 9, 2010 9:03pm]
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