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Former Clearwater official to help union

When city officials met with fire union leaders Wednesday for the first round of what promise to be contentious contract talks, a familiar face showed up across the bargaining table.

Former city personnel director Paul O'Rourke appeared on behalf of the fire union.

Known around City Hall as a friend to labor, O'Rourke was forced to resign his $85,446 per year job in May after clashing with City Manager Bill Horne.

O'Rourke's exit sparked a backlash among union leaders who had grown accustomed to a sympathetic ear, according to Horne. Meanwhile, tensions between the city and the fire union have grown after a deadly fire at Dolphin Cove condominiums and pension negotiations that broke down this month.

Union president John Lee has blamed substandard equipment and staffing problems for injuries suffered by firefighters at Dolphin Cove and angry city officials, in turn, have accused the union of posturing and distorting the issues.

The news Wednesday that O'Rourke will help negotiate the fire union contract shocked city officials, who questioned whether the move is proper.

"It surprises me," said Mayor Brian Aungst. "I'll leave it at that."

Aungst cited a city ordinance banning former employees from representing to the city for pay any people or businesses for one year after leaving office.

City Attorney Pam Akin said the city has not decided exactly how to proceed.

"We've never really had to enforce it," she said. "Mostly we just remind people of what the code says in the rare event that it occurs."

Whether the city has any cause for action could depend on whether O'Rourke is getting paid.

O'Rourke did not return a call seeking comment and union president John Lee could not be reached Wednesday.

Chief Rowland Herald attended Wednesday's 11 a.m. negotiation session along with Assistant Chief Charlie Flowers, the city's labor attorney and personnel officials, including O'Rourke's interim replacement, Rick Ebelke.

Herald said the first meeting was dedicated largely to procedural matters, such as discussing ground rules and offering dates for further talks.

Herald said he was not surprised to see O'Rourke after hearing of his possible involvement 10 days ago.

"I think Paul's demeanor and professionalism today were very apparent," he said. "I think he represented them well."

O'Rourke stepped down after becoming a figure in the police investigation into allegations that two city officers and a sergeant had improper sexual contact with a woman who lived in Clearwater Beach.

In March, he told the president of the police union there was an ongoing criminal investigation involving the three officers. Police officials have said that revelation could have compromised the inquiry.

Weeks later, Horne decided to fire the officers while O'Rourke _ who normally would make employee disciplinary decisions _ was in New York at a conference.

Later, O'Rourke told the Times he would not have fired the officers had the decision been left to him.

Horne said O'Rourke's comments were inappropriate and said he would be fired if he didn't resign.

The city manager said he made the decision to fire O'Rourke based on a pattern of actions, including some related to the police scandal.

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

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