PINELLAS PARK — The union president, a lieutenant and three other firefighters have been punished after city officials found they broke state and local rules banning election campaigning while on the job and using city equipment for political activity.
The five, wearing city fire uniforms, posed for pictures with City Council candidate Eddie Kosinski on Jan. 21 while they were on duty at Fire Station 34. Behind them are the station and the rescue truck and fire engine based there.
Kosinski used the pictures on his campaign website, eddiekosinski.com. The firefighters were named as if they personally were endorsing the candidate, city records show. The pictures also served to highlight the endorsement he received from the Pinellas Park fire union.
"They're all good employees. You just don't like to see this happen," Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis said. It's "one of our rules and regulations in the city. It's not just a rule but the Florida statute was broken."
City employees are given copies of the rules when they are hired, Lewis said. And the city manager reminds employees at the beginning of each campaign season about regulations covering political activity.
"The whole situation was a misunderstanding and an unfortunate event," fire union president William Dallem said. "It was not my intent for that photo to be used with the endorsement."
City records say it happened like this: Dallem called Kosinski to have him drop by the station to pick up a copy of the union endorsement. While there, Kosinski asked the firefighters if they would pose for a picture that he said "will go good with your endorsement on my website." The five did so. Not all of them heard Kosinski say how he planned to use the pictures.
Kosinski removed the pictures after he was told the firefighters should not have allowed them to be taken. Kosinski said Friday that he was unaware of any city rules or state law banning political activity by public employees while on the job. Had the firefighters told him, Kosinski said he would have forgone the pictures.
Kosinski, however, said the incident is "really getting blown out of proportion for what it was." Politics are to blame for that, he said. Council members Jerry Mullins, Rick Butler and Ed Taylor have all endorsed his opponent, Patricia Johnson. So it's no surprise, he said, that the city manager and fire chief would be forced to come down hard on firefighters who supported him for violating "some kind of stupid state law."
"That's how I feel and that's how I believe it is," Kosinski said. "It's dirty politics and I don't like it."
Dallem was suspended without pay for 14 12-hour working days, or 168 hours total, for participating in political activity while on duty. Dallem, 34, a firefighter/paramedic, has worked for the department since 2002, He earns about $52,322 a year, or $17.96 an hour.
This was Dallem's second offense. Records show he received an oral reprimand last August after he was charged with battery by a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy. The deputy said Dallem had been drinking at Derby Lane and had become "belligerent and began yelling profanities" when told he could have no more to drink. The report also said that Dallem "was taken to the floor."
State records show Dallem pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor and was placed in a pretrial diversion program.
Lt. Andrew Dezso, a paramedic, was suspended without pay for six 12-hour workdays, or a total of 72 hours. Dezso, 49, is a 19-year department veteran. He earns about $68,467 a year, or $23.51 an hour.
Firefighter/emergency medical technician Richard Dudley was suspended for one 12-hour workday without pay. The accusation of participating in political activity on the job was Dudley's third offense, according to records.
Dudley received a written reprimand in August for carelessness after he ran over a flashlight when responding to a medical call. He was accused of carelessness again in November after his protective mask fell under the wheels of Engine 34 and was destroyed. Lewis said Dudley was suspended without pay because of both the photo and the loss of the mask.
Dudley, 29, began working for the Pinellas Park department in 2007. He earns $39,232 a year, or about $13.47 an hour.
Firefighter/EMT Daniel Swiger and firefighter/paramedic Andrew Lusher received written reprimands. Swiger, 30, has worked for the department since 2006. He earns $40,213 a year. Lusher, 32, has been with the department since January 2011. He earns $44,016 a year.
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.