Downey Firefighters allege discrimination, harassment

DOWNEY - The heated relationship between the Downey Firemen's Association and the city just got a whole lot hotter.

The Downey fire union filed a tort claim against the city on Monday, citing "ongoing retaliation, harassment, and discrimination" ever since union members voted no confidence in Chief Lonnie Croom last summer.

In the 13-page claim, all 49 fire union members accuse Croom of refusing to promote eligible and qualified employees while initiating unwarranted disciplinary investigations and threatening to stall pay increases unless the association retracts its vote of no confidence and abandons its current lawsuit against city jailers.

"...Chief Croom is engaging in similar acts of retaliation against all Association members because he 'can't get over the Vote,'" the claim reads. "The City is aware of Chief Croom's unlawful conduct and it has condoned, ratified, facilitated -- and according to Chief Croom directed -- this pattern and practice of retaliation."

City officials publicly denounced the fire union's tactics, citing the tort allegations as identical to internal grievances already being addressed through the city's grievance procedures at the request of association members.

"It is disappointing that the Association appears to be using the Tort Claims process to politicize its disagreement with Chief Croom's objective and candid assessment to the Council regarding the Association's proposal to contract out fire services to the County," said Mayor Fernando Vasquez in a statement.

"Rather than focus on public safety and our residents and respecting the internal process that exists to address their concerns, the tort claim will result in Downey taxpayers footing the bill for expensive and unnecessary litigation."

According to the claim, union officials allege retaliation, including open threats and hostility towards members' exercise of free speech and union rights.

In 2012, for example, Captain Jorge Villanueva says he was warned by Battalion Chief Bruce English during a performance evaluation that he was "too pro union" and needed to "toe the company line more."

Dan Rasmussen, who serves as fire union vice president, likewise alleges that he was told by Croom in June to "be careful" and that his job security and chances of promotion could be jeopardized if he was perceived as "disloyal." Ever since the vote of no confidence, Croom has openly declared war on the fire union, the claim states.

Union officials say Croom refuses to fill an open battalion chief position because all eligible candidates signed the vote of no confidence petition.

"When asked why he wasn't filling the position, Chief Croom advised the Association President Steve Davis that unless every member of the Association...signs a letter retracting the Vote and publicly apologizes for it, he will never promote anyone from the [eligibility] list," according to the claim.

"Chief Croom threatened that he will instead conduct an 'outside test' to obtain a candidate who is not an Association member to fill the vacant position."

The claim also accuses Croom of failing to reinstate "phased out" paramedics and highlights recent formal disciplinary investigations inside the department as a means to generate "undue stress and create a sense of fear in the ranks."

"The subject matters of these formal investigations reveal that Chief Croom is grasping at anything he possibly can to try to paint these individuals in a bad light," the claim says. "[He] deliberately targeted Association leadership, individuals who have had spotless careers with the Department, in an attempt to send a message to the rest of the Association that if they exercise their Constitutional rights, Chief Croom will make their lives miserable."

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Rasmussen defended the tort claim, maintaining that the city can no longer overlook these actions of retaliation.

"The City of Downey should understand that a tort claim is not a lawsuit. Council member [Alex] Saab, as an attorney, should know this as well. The sole purpose at this point for filing a tort claim is to give the city a formal opportunity to evaluate and take corrective action without costing taxpayer's money in litigation," he said.

"This is about addressing an environment of retaliation in the workplace which is illegal. We are asking the city to make positive change in this unhealthy workplace environment."

Councilman Mario Guerra, whose name is mentioned in the tort claim as a knowledgeable facilitator of the alleged actions, released a statement supporting Croom and his service to the city.

"Our fire chief has done an amazing job, worked hard through the ranks to archive this honored position and I have full confidence in his ability to lead our fire department," Guerra said. "He has implemented many progressive reforms that have increased safety and medical response times in our city. Our city is blessed to have him leading our fine fire department."

Guerra continued: "He is the true meaning of public servant and has done a great job as the Fire Chief for the Downey Fire Department and has the confidence of our entire council and community."

Union members, nonetheless, believe the city has breached its contract by threatening union activities and must address the issues of retaliation or risk a lawsuit, which would include monetary damages.

"The City, its leadership, and Chief Croom are liable for First Amendment violations," the claim says. "In the event the City denies this Claim and offers no resolution to stop the unlawful retaliation and fix the Association's unlawful and hostile work environment, the Association intends to pursue claims in litigation."

********** Published: Dec. 26, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 37