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DOWNEY − The Downey fire union filed a lawsuit against the city of Downey last month citing allegations of harassment, retaliation, and breach of contract since members voted no confidence in former Fire Chief Lonnie Croom last summer.
The lawsuit comes seven months after the Downey Firemen’s Association filed a tort claim against the city with similar accusations. City officials released a statement last Thursday expressing disappointment in the “suit mired with inaccuracies.”
In the 25-page deposition, the fire union and 14 individual members accuse Councilman Mario Guerra of using city funds for campaign expenses and allege Croom retracted his support for county fire services in order to secure a 5.5 percent pay raise in 2013.
The lawsuit also alleges Croom, who retired last month, withheld promotions, initiated unwarranted disciplinary actions, and threatened to stall pay increases as a result of union activities.
“By taking adverse employment actions against Plaintiffs substantially motivated by protected speech and association, Defendants violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to freedom of speech, expression, and association, as well as federal statues protecting labor organization,” the suit reads.
Dan Rasmussen, who serves as fire union vice president, said the lawsuit is just the next procedural step in an arduous process to end tensions between the fire department and city management.
“It’s not about politics, it boils down to work environment,” Rasmussen said. “As firefighters, we don’t deserve to work in an environment that supports intolerance and discrimination. We’re hoping for some relief from the justice department.”
City officials, nonetheless, are linking the lawsuit to politics and the council’s refusal to disband the Downey Fire Department in favor of county fire services.
“The association continues to use the litigation process to politicize its disagreement with former chief Croom’s objective and candid assessment to the council regarding the association’s proposal to contract out fire services to the county,” Mayor Fernando Vasquez said in a statement.
“That’s an easy spin on it,” said Rasmussen, who said plans for the lawsuit were already underway before Downey voters in June rejected a fire union-sponsored charter amendment that would have eliminated residents’ right to approve contracting out public safety services.
“The root of it is our current work conditions. It’s an environment of hostility…something needs to change.”
In a statement, the city reiterated its commitment to providing a workspace free of retaliation. City officials said they expect to prevail in court.
“This is another attempt to mislead and deceive Downey residents in what has become an abuse of the legal system,” said Councilman Mario Guerra. “I was appalled to read the false statements against me and the attempt to slander my name and character. I look forward to Downey moving past this distraction and continuing on with our positive growth.”
In addition to a jury trial, the Downey fire union is seeking both general and economic damages due to lost wages and benefits as well as “distress, anxiety, and humiliation.”
Rasmussen said the legal process could take more than two years to resolve, but he hopes residents will remain supportive of the fire department.
“We just ask that residents keep an open mind,” he said. “If any residents went through this harassment that we’re experiencing, they would understand that enough is enough.”
Published: Aug. 21, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 19