Dixon reaffirms her faith in fire chief

Mayor dismisses union's no-confidence vote

April 12, 2007|By Annie Linskey and Sumathi Reddy | Annie Linskey and Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporters

Mayor Sheila Dixon has dismissed a no-confidence vote in Baltimore's fire chief from the department's largest union and defended the current top leadership.

"The department is making changes," Dixon said yesterday during her weekly news conference. "Some people don't like changes. I think the changes that are being made are for the betterment of the fire department."

The fire chief, William J. Goodwin Jr., has faced a barrage of criticism since a live fire training exercise at a vacant Baltimore rowhouse in February burned out of control and claimed the life of fire cadet Racheal M. Wilson, a mother of two. The city's department was once considered one of the best in the country.

An investigation revealed that 36 national safety standards were not followed during that exercise, prompting Kenneth Hyde Sr., the head of the training academy, to be fired and three other top training officials to be suspended.

Since the fatal burn, Goodwin has brought a new staff into the fire academy and spent tens of thousands of dollars on new equipment. He's also stepped up safety inspections of fire houses, increased the staff in the department's safety division, and announced that most of the department's midlevel managers would be moved to new posts, a move that has been delayed.

The city's two fire unions say that the department is in turmoil and that morale is at an all-time low. And a no-confidence vote held Tuesday night by the union that represents 1,300 rank-and-file members renewed calls for the chief to step down.

But Dixon supported the chief yesterday, saying: "I have confidence in the Fire Department process that I'm working through right now. This is a very awkward transition period right now."

Pressed on whether she had confidence in Goodwin, Dixon said, "I have confidence in him and the team." She noted that the vote represented a small fraction of the full union membership.

In an interview yesterday afternoon, Goodwin said that he will continue to lead the department and that the union members who voted against him are part of a "vocal minority."

"I wish the rhetoric would stop," he said. "Whether it is me or who I'm replaced with, [the fire chief] will have the same operating budget and the same mess to clean up."

About the no-confidence vote, Goodwin said: "It is unfortunate that the unions have decided to take that course rather than join with me and make the necessary changes based the tragic losses that we suffered."

The firefighters union held one no-confidence vote March 27 that drew 75 members, and a second one Tuesday with 50 members.

"The membership insisted on the vote," said Rick Schluderberg, the union's president. "It means they have lost confidence in [Goodwin's] ability to lead the department and the management style of threats and intimidation."

Rick Binetti, a department spokesman, played down the importance of the vote.

"They were begging people to come out," Binetti said. "If the members were really that full of bad morale, they would have gotten more than 125 people" out to vote.

The other department union, which represents about 325 lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs, held one no-confidence vote March 19. Stephan G. Fugate, the head of the fire officers' union, said that 47 members attended that meeting and that all voted against the chief.

Because of a quirk in union bylaws, Fugate's union will have to meet and vote a second time before the results are official. That next meeting is set Monday, but Fugate said he may change the rules so that paper ballots are sent out to members, a move he said would be more inclusive.

Meanwhile, members of Fugate's union are waiting to see whether Goodwin will follow through on his plan to shift 16 of 18 battalion chiefs to new posts in the city, a move Fugate said would "turn the whole department on its head."

Swapping chiefs is supposed to disrupt cozy relations between chiefs and the rank and file, Goodwin has said. The shift had been set to happen April 8, but Goodwin said yesterday he wants to give battalion chiefs the chance to come up with a different plan.

"If they have a better idea than I have, then I certainly do welcome it," he said. "They are the people who enforce it every day."

Goodwin is set to meet with the chiefs April 20.

One battalion chief, Carl Bull, contacted The Sun with permission from the department's public affairs office and voiced disappointment with the unions for publicly airing internal grievances.

"Firefighters don't do that -- it is more of a brotherhood," Bull said. "This is a healing process. We know some things were broken. This is time to pitch in."

Bull noted that the department must make changes -- and said that a new structure will likely mean people will need to work harder. "You have to evolve with the times. You can't do things like you did in the 1970s."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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