Pubdate: Fri, 23 Jan 2009
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
Copyright: 2009 PG Publishing Co., Inc.
Author: Rich Lord
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Unable To Discipline Union Member Over Drug Charge, 

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl made the case yesterday for changing
a state law that keeps him from firing firefighters, saying his
inability to discipline an employee who pleaded guilty to drug
charges shows that the system is broken.

"It certainly does frustrate me," Mr. Ravenstahl said when asked
about the case of John Connors, a nine-year veteran of the Fire
Bureau. "But I will say that this is an issue that I intend to
pursue. This is an issue that's important. And this is an issue that
really challenges the integrity of the Fire Bureau as a  whole."

Mr. Connors, 52, was arrested in August 2007 for possession of a
small amount of what police identified as cocaine. He pleaded guilty,
and with no prior record, was given six months probation. He had no 
comment yesterday.

He returned to work subject to drug testing under what's called a
"last chance agreement" in the firefighters union contract.

He later failed a drug test, and was suspended beginning Nov. 7,
2008, subject to termination proceedings.

To discipline a firefighter, the city has to get the approval of a
trial board of fellow firefighters. On Dec. 8, a trial board found
that the drug test wasn't conducted according to the union contract,
and ruled that Mr. Connors could return to work with back pay.

"A last chance, to me, is a last chance," said Public Safety Director
Mike Huss. "Here we have a person who was on a last chance, and
failed a drug test, and the trial board put him back to work."

Josh Bloom, an attorney for the firefighters union, said the city
failed to get a medical provider's recommendation required in the
union contract before extending drug testing beyond one year.

"I think it's inadvisable that the mayor would use this as an issue
to try to change the law to remove trial boards, in light of the fact
that it was the city's own incompetence that caused them to lose the
trial board hearing in the first place," he said.

Mr. Huss said established procedures were used in the 

Mr. Ravenstahl disapproved of the trial board ruling on Jan. 13, but
the city had already returned Mr. Connors to work on Dec. 14, as
required by state law.

"I don't believe this individual should be brought back on the job,"
the mayor said in an interview with Post-Gazette reporter Bill
Toland. "When I analyzed his record and his accusations and what he
had done over the course of time, it was clear to me that the trial 
board system is one that doesn't work, to be honest with you, and
that we need to take a look at that."

The mayor wants to hold a second trial board.

"Obviously, there's going to be double-jeopardy problems with the
city trying to do that," said Mr.  Bloom.

Mr. Ravenstahl is challenging the politically active firefighters
union early in a re-election year in which he could have several
challengers for the Democratic nomination, and at least one
Republican is expected to enter the race.

Trial boards occur as many as a dozen times a year, and a state law
applicable only to Pittsburgh governs the process.

First, the public safety director and the accused each choose the
names of 25 firefighters of rank equal to, or higher than, the
accused. The names are placed in a box, and seven are drawn. Each
side can strike two, leaving three to decide the case.

Mr. Huss said he's been "disappointed with the decisions" of trial
boards when serious discipline is sought.

City police discipline used to go before trial boards. But after
officers videotaped punching a Grateful Dead concertgoer in 1989 were
cleared by boards, state law was changed so city police discipline
goes to arbitrators.

Would the legislature consider changing the law on firefighter

"I would be open to having a discussion about it and hearing
different perspectives about it," said state Rep. Dan Frankel,
D-Squirrel Hill.

He said legislators would want to hear both sides of the

"The public safety unions are a significant presence in Harrisburg
and they advocate for their members aggressively. Nobody would expect
them to do any less."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin