Union assails 2 key fire promotions

Balto. County action labeled a `farce'

September 29, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County firefighters union assailed yesterday the promotion of two top-level firefighters with ties to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, fraying the union's strained relationship with the executive.

The union -- which in recent years has picketed Ruppersberger over his salary offers and fought his efforts to restructure the department -- said qualified candidates were unfairly shut out of consideration for the $80,000 deputy chief jobs because the administration made its choices months before the official selection process began.

"The whole process was a farce," said Kevin B. O'Connor, president of Baltimore County Firefighters Association Local 1311.

Fire Chief John F. O'Neill promoted Mark E. Weir Sr., the son of a prominent state delegate, and John J. Hohman, a supporter of Ruppersberger in past political campaigns.

The promotions, from battalion chief to deputy chief, made the longtime firefighters two of five deputy chiefs in the department.

O'Neill, who made the appointments last week and announced them Monday, said the candidates were selected from among four finalists, all longtime firefighters. He said the process was fair and did not involve politics.

"No matter how I did this process, there was going to be somebody who would be unhappy with it," O'Neill said.

The promotions mean pay raises of about $10,000 a year for Weir and Hohman, each of whom has more than 20 years experience.

They touched a nerve within the Fire Department, said union officials, who were flooded with calls from members.

O'Connor said the promotions were based on a set of 2-year-old applications. Oral exams usually given by independent evaluators for such merit jobs were not administered, he said, and the criteria used to rank candidates did not include experience or education.

The union chief also said the qualifications for the job were geared toward Weir and Hohman.

One of the criteria was experience in fire code enforcement, which O'Connor said was tailor-made for Weir, who has overseen code enforcement as chief of investigative services since 1992.

Another criterion was experience in negotiating contracts and dealing with labor negotiations, a qualification that fit Hohman, who headed the firefighters union from 1983 to 1991.

Michael Davis, a Ruppersberger spokesman, denied that politics were involved. "There was no input from the executive's office at all," he said.

O'Neill said that the promotions were based on his department's needs, not politics.

"The job description is the same one I had to meet when I applied for deputy chief in 1995," O'Neill said.

He said he used the 1997 list of finalists because he did not want the county Department of Human Resources, which reviews applicants and ranks candidates, to advertise the positions again. That would have held up the appointments for two to three months, he said.

He said that before he made his decision, he asked all four finalists when he interviewed them this year whether they had any updates to their resumes. He also decided not to conduct an oral examination because he knew all four candidates.

Weir and Hohman said yesterday that they won the posts because they were the best qualified.

"I've been hearing about politics for 21 years," said Weir, a 21-year veteran. "There's some people you'll never convince otherwise. But those people who know me, and know my work product, they know I'm qualified."

Weir is the son of state Del. Michael H. Weir, an Essex Democrat and a faithful Ruppersberger supporter who is vice chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Hohman's political ties to Ruppersberger go back to 1986, when he was firefighters union president. The union endorsed Ruppersberger for County Council that year, and Hohman campaigned for him.

An official with Mothers Against Drunk Driving criticized Hohman's appointment because of a drunken-driving conviction last year. David Elzey, president of the Lower Eastern Shore MADD chapter, said the conviction is so recent that Hohman should not be promoted.

"That's something that's in my past, and the chief knew about it, and we talked about it," Hohman said.

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