Union president criticizes fire chief Balto. Co. officials defend suspension related to noose put in co-worker's locker

September 16, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The head of the Baltimore County firefighters union has bitterly attacked Fire Chief Paul H. Reincke, accusing him of caving to political pressure by suspending a firefighter without pay before a hearing on charges that he left a noose in a black co-worker's locker last year.

Fire union President Kevin B. O'Connor also said the suspension has sharply increased tensions among firefighters.

But county officials said the suspension is required under county law governing trial boards, and Reincke denied that political pressure was applied to him.

"Absolutely not," he said. Reincke said he wanted to avoid any perception of favoritism.

He and John Parham, the department's fair practices officer, also said tensions are no greater than normal in county firehouses.

Suspension was Sept. 2

Firefighter Walter L. Brewer III of the Towson station was suspended Sept. 2 after being accused of violating department rules and regulations in the December incidents, in which James G. Shelton, a black firefighter, twice found a noose among his gear at the Towson station.

A county police investigation completed in January found no basis for criminal charges. But the county government's internal report on the incident, completed in February, led to Brewer's suspension. A hearing date has not been set.

Brewer declined to comment on the accusations, except to say: "I'll be glad when it's over, so I can get back to work. I know the truth."

Letter to Reincke

In a scathing letter to Reincke dated the day after the suspension, the firefighters union president said he was "outraged" by the suspension. O'Connor demanded Brewer's immediate reinstatement and accused the chief of prejudging the case.

The letter also said it was "bitingly ironic" that the department has treated more senior fire officers facing criminal charges "much less harshly."

"The entire process is a sham," the letter said. "Allow me to close by voicing my personal dismay and disgust at the department's handling of this situation."

Yesterday, O'Connor denied that his letter contained a veiled reference to Battalion Chief John H. Hohman, who helped investigate the noose incident and who was suspended last month for two days after pleading guilty to drunken driving in Ocean City in June.

However, Hohman said he thinks it was aimed at him.

O'Connor said that while "we don't have any tolerance for bigotry in the workplace," the decision to suspend Brewer without pay "is a very, very, very misguided decision."

He said the law doesn't specifically call for a suspension without pay and argued that Brewer could have been transferred and not suspended pending the hearing. He said Brewer continued working as a firefighter for nearly 10 months after the noose was first reported.

Reincke and county Personnel Director Antony J. Sharbaugh said county policy has been to suspend without pay anyone facing a trial board hearing.

Trial board procedure

Although the trial board procedure is used only for firefighters and only on rare occasions, Reincke said he decided to use it in this case "because we didn't want to give any indication of a cover-up."

Sharbaugh said the law would not permit Brewer to simply have been transferred instead of suspended.

The firefighters union has been feuding with the administration of County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger since last year over what members see as unfair treatment on pay increases.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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