City council is meeting in a closed-door session today at 4 p.m. and Sudbury.com is told the topic under discussion will be the disciplinary action taken against 11 volunteer firefighters last week.
On Sept. 29, Sudbury.com learned that several volunteer firefighters with the City of Greater Sudbury were being terminated for speaking against the contentious (and ultimately abandoned) fire optimization plan created by Fire and Paramedic Chief Trevor Bain.
Bain had been instructed by city council to create a plan to create a one-city, one-service model for fire protection to ensure all corners of the city were adequately served.
The fire chief held a series of public meetings regarding the plan leading up to a council vote on what to do with the document Bain had created.
Although the plan was ostensibly to improve fire protection across the city, it contained provisions for the closing of some fire stations and the hiring of additional professional firefighters, provisions some vocal residents in rural parts of the city saw as a reduction in service, not an increase.
Both volunteer and professional firefighters attended those public meetings.
On Monday, Sudbury.com learned that 11 volunteers had been disciplined for, says their union, CLAC Local 920, speaking out publicly against the plan. Under the rules laid out in the City of Greater Sudbury's employee handbook, city workers are to be apolitical and not express public opinions regarding issues before city council.
Three of those 11 were fired.
Sudbury.com has been asking the city for several days to make someone available to speak to us regarding what exactly those volunteers were displined for. Thus far, the city has not made anyone available.
Ward 5 Coun. Bob Kirwan on Monday highlighted provisions in the City of Greater Sudbury's employee handbook that appear related to the disciplinary action taken against the volunteers, provisions he said he's going to be bringing a motion forward to change.
“While all of us enjoy freedom of speech as private citizens, during the portion of your day where you are a CGS employee, your behaviour should be apolitical. As Employees, we are the implementors of public policy, not the debaters of public policy.
"To do otherwise, does not support democratic principles, or CGS’s purpose. To be specific, employees shall not communicate (either visually, in written form, or verbally) to the public, clients, or media on issues that are before CGS council; at odds with the mandate and policies of CGS, or are the subject matter of a municipal election, unless it is part of their official duties as an Employee.”
Furthermore, the city discourages employees from speaking with individual council members.
“The terms in the handbook are so prescriptive," Kirwan said, "that it appears to prevent employees from saying anything to anyone, and what is even more concerning to me, is the reference that communication with councillors is discouraged.
“Employees are constituents of my ward, and they should be able to talk to their councillor about anything. This matter is certainly not finished.”
As stated earlier, the city has not explicitly stated why the volunteer firefighters were disciplined.
Sudbury.com spoke Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini today about the situation. He described the disciplinary action as a "scud missile" fired at an already tense situation between the city and volunteer firefighters.
On Sept. 29, Vagnini said he had spoken with several volunteers who were threatening to quit in solidarity over the firings. He said he pleaded with them to give council time to sort the situation out.
Today, the Ward 2 councillor said he is perplexed with how the city handled the situation and is going into this afternoon's closed-door meeting looking for answers.
"I spoke with one (volunteer firefighter) who was terminated and I was at three of the meetings he was at," Vagnini said. So what kind of questions did this man ask at the meetings? "He asked simple questions" about the time delay in dispatching volunteers and full-timers, for instance.
What's more, Vagnini said the man wasn't even aware he was in contravention of the policy and wouldn't have put his volunteer firefighting duties at risk had he known.
The Ward 2 councillor wonders why city staff took the extraordinary step of firing three volunteer firefighters months after the incident. Why couldn't have the firefighters been warned or reminded of their obligations under the employee handbook?
"He told me he would have stopped in a heartbeat (had he been warned)," Vagnini said, adding the man loves being a volunteer firefighter and wants to continue being one. "So why not pull them aside and warn them instead? Firing volunteers just sparked a brand new fight."
The closed-door meeting of council is scheduled for 4 p.m.