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To keep jobs, fire chief, lieutenant must change

Published Feb. 15, 2006

(ran Beach edition)

If fire Chief Derryl O'Neal and one of his lieutenants want to keep their jobs, they will have to change the way they deal with fellow firefighters.

Although the men were cleared of any major wrongdoing, they were strongly criticized by an independent investigator for, in essence, creating a hostile work environment.

"This is very serious," City Manager Jill Silverboard said Tuesday. "There has to be a correction of the problem."

While she notes "there are no significant conclusions of foundation" in the firefighters complaints or "no hard evidence" of misuse of city property or any act of impropriety, she said, there were several "questionable" items.

The 23 specific allegations against O'Neal sent to Silverboard by Ed Broomes, president of the St. Pete Beach Professional Firefighters, Local 2266, IAFF, include:

+ Improper use of city equipment.

+ Using and allowing "culturally inappropriate remarks."

+ Lying to the City Commission.

+ Blocking firefighters from independently talking with the city's human resources manager.

+ Allowing supervisors and firefighters to "belittle" each other.

+ Disciplining firefighters inappropriately.

An additional seven specific complaints were levied against Lt. Donald Steger, primarily for making "personal" verbal attacks against people under his command.

"There is more than one firefighter that believes that we work for a "good ole boy type management' and 90 percent of us are in fear of losing our jobs or receiving drastic repercussions for bringing these problems to light," Broomes said.

As a result of the investigation, Silverboard is requiring O'Neal to complete a "corrective action plan" within the next seven months or face "immediate suspension and/or discharge."

O'Neal is required to participate in a federally sponsored mediation program to directly address the grievances raised by members the fire department. The mediation process is scheduled to begin Feb. 27.

He is also required to complete leadership and management training, consult with the city human resources office on any pending employee disciplinary actions, fully document work assignments and fire inspections, and improve relationships with volunteer firefighters.

If O'Neal cannot reach an accommodation with his firefighters, regain employee support, and ensure a "nonhostile work environment," he could face losing his job, Silverboard said Tuesday. Steger has similar requirements.

Silverboard met with fire department employees last week to discuss the results of the investigation.

"There were a number of people who expressed a great deal of concern that he (O'Neal) was not terminated as result of inquiries," Silverboard said. "I have gotten quite a lot of feedback from people who are not accepting the resolution of the matter."

O'Neal was suspended from his post during the two-week investigation and returned to work Monday to a mixed reception with some firefighters welcoming him back and others pointedly avoiding him.

He is optimistic about the outcome, saying it "exonerates" him from "trivial complaints, personal attacks, and blatant lies."

The fire chief is particularly critical of the final report issued by labor attorney Robert Walker, who was hired by the city to investigate the firefighters' complaints. O'Neal said it was "skewed" and filled with "personal opinions."

Walker's 14-page report concluded that "change is necessary." He said the "derision and criticism that has been leveled at (O'Neal) is not fabricated, manufactured or undeserved."

He did say "a significant number of complaints, accusations and allegations are inaccurate, uninformed, unproven, exaggerated and possibly motivated by the desire for revenge among certain members of the rank and file."

Following similar firefighter complaints in 2000, another consultant recommended complete reorganization of the department. O'Neal says he was hired "as a change agent" and has strived since then to make the fire department more professional.

The report noted that recent disciplinary actions against several firefighters, one of whom resigned, appeared to trigger the flood of complaints against O'Neal. Silverboard said Tuesday she does not plan to "revisit" those cases.

"My final conclusion is the the fire chief cannot effectively serve or survive as a dictator or tyrant," Walker wrote, noting that O'Neal believes that a "vocal and highly influential minority core group are behind the present attack on him."

Walker says this view "reflects a lack of insight" that a "majority" of the firefighters "are fed up with the fire chief's despotic ways and perceived double standards."

In attempting to address previous problems in the department, O'Neal "has gone to the other extreme - replacing laissez faire leadership with a style that is overcontrolling and inconsistent," Walker said.