This story has been updated with comments from city of Downey officials.
Second update: Added comments from former councilman Mario Guerra.
DOWNEY – The city of Downey has settled a lawsuit from Downey firefighters for $3.7 million.
City Council members approved the settlement on Feb. 14, seemingly bringing to an end a long and contentious battle between City Hall and the Downey firefighters.
The Downey Firemen’s Association sued the city in 2014, alleging 14 firefighters were retaliated against after publicly expressing no confidence in then fire chief Lonnie Croom.
The fire union alleged that qualified firefighters were passed over for promotions and that the city suppressed their freedom of speech.
“The settlement of the lawsuit for $3.7 million, the reinstatement of two firefighters to paramedic status with full pay, and the removal of all disciplinary files resulting from the retaliation against Association members is a tremendous vindication for our clients, who were the victims of a series of politically charged and vindictive actions by Downey and its officials,” said Thomas M. Brown, managing partner of Brown White & Osborn, the law firm representing the 14 firefighters and fire union in the lawsuit.
“The City violated my clients’ constitutional rights by retaliating against them for their speech, by denying them promotions to Battalion Chief, Captain, and Engineer, investigating and disciplining them for spurious allegations of misconduct, and holding up negotiations on their collective bargaining agreement,” Brown added.
Caleb Mason, a Brown White & Osborn litigation partner, claimed the city’s retaliation came after Downey firefighters questioned the City Council's decision not to contract with L.A. County Fire for fire services.
“This victory by the Downey Firemen’s Association and 14 firefighters is well deserved,” Mason said. “Downey’s firefighters are dedicated professionals who risk their lives to ensure the safety of Downey residents. Our Constitution prohibits public entities from suppressing the free speech of their employees on matters of public interest. This settlement proves that public employees can stand up for their rights, and the law is on their side.
“These guys showed real guts in standing up for their rights, and I’m proud to represent them.”
City officials said the decision to settle the lawsuit was made in a "good faith effort" to build a cooperative relationship with Downey firefighters.
"I am pleased that the litigation was settled to the mutual agreement of all parties," said Mayor Fernando Vasquez. "We certainly were willing to move forward in the courts to prove our case. However, we strongly believe that it is more beneficial for the community to spend taxpayer time and money on service rather than on litigation, and the costs and time associated with litigation.
"We look forward to getting back to cooperatively providing for the residents and businesses of Downey," the mayor added.
Councilman Alex Saab said it was "unfortunate that this exorbitant amount of money had to be paid as a result of the Downey Firemen's Association suing the city."
"However, I believe it's in the best interest of our residents to once and for all end their lawsuit and focus on a productive partnership with our fire department going forward to best serve our residents," Saab said.
"Ending this litigation has been a goal of mine since being elected to Council, and I am looking forward to closing this chapter and moving on with our fire department in service to Dwoney residents," said Mayor Pro Tem Sean Ashton.
"Having grown up in Downey, as one of those kids who looked up to our firefighter heroes, I believe that the DFA's and the city's mutual willingness to end litigation shows that both parties are looking forward to a true collaboration in our community," added Councilmember Blanca Pacheco.
The Downey City Council briefly considered contracting with L.A. County for fire services in 2013, but abandoned the idea after receiving the results of a feasibility study.
“In a local approach, we benefit from an efficient use of institutional knowledge -- guys like me who’ve been here for over 25 years,” Croom said at the time. “In the regional approach, you have access to 24 L.A. County fire stations in a five-mile radius -- the closest station responds to the call.”
Dan Rasmussen, a Downey fire captain, had accused Croom of “knowingly and deliberately distort[ing] and misrepresent[ing] the facts and figures contained in the feasibility study in his administrative report to the Downey City Council...to give council members reason to halt negotiations.”
The following month, the fire association announced a 49-0 member vote expressing “no confidence” in Croom.
Croom retired in 2014.
In addition to the $3.7 million payout, the city agreed to reinstate Jeff Simmons and Jose Garcia to paramedic status with full pay, and to destroy disciplinary records related to firefighters Dan Rasmussen, Steven Davis, Ryan Schleiger, Kevin Kim, Frank Culhno and Shawn Youngblood going back to June 1, 2013.
The city also agreed to delete files from a March 7, 2011 reprimand against firefighters Scott Devereux and Ryan Schleiger.
"As a longtime resident and supporter of our public safety professionals, I hope that the city's decision to take the high road instead of spending more time and money on this litigation would help the DFA and the city to move forward together," said Councilman Rick Rodriguez.
Mario Guerra, who was a council member when the Downey fire association filed its lawsuit, said the litigation was a "black eye on our community."
"While I'm happy that we are moving on, it saddens me that those who deceived our residents, attacked good leaders, actually hindered our public safety and public trust, are being rewarded financially," Guerra said. "I understand the insurance companies wanting to settle because it isn't their money, but to us in Downey it hopefully ends a black eye on our community perpetrated by our fire union.
"Their willingness to hurt others was surprising at the least and I still feel their personal attacks on a great fire chief, Lonnie Croom, were spiteful, vindictive and unwarranted. So let's move forward as a community but remember the stain of their actions."