Tensions rise as mayor orders fire chief not to talk about budget, asks for documents - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:07 am
Tensions rise as mayor orders fire chief not to talk about budget, asks for documents

Tensions between Mayor Jean Stothert and Fire Chief Mike McDonnell rose Wednesday as both sides grapple over the Fire Department's finances.

Stothert ordered department personnel to not speak publicly about the budget and barred fire officials from promoting staff or making purchases without “notice to and approval by the mayor.”

“This is the mayor's budget, not the Omaha Fire Department's budget,” Stothert said Wednesday. “I don't want Mike McDonnell speaking for me.”

At the same time, Stothert has made a sweeping request for information from the Fire Department — three pages asking for details about the department's hiring, staffing, operational practices and its interpretations of key labor union contract provisions.

McDonnell, flanked by a fire official and sheriff deputy, carried a box of documents into the Mayor's Office for a closed meeting late Wednesday afternoon. A number of top officials — including Stothert, Chief of Staff Marty Bilek, City Attorney Paul Kratz and a Baird Holm labor negotiator — waited inside.

McDonnell did not comment when he entered the Mayor's Office, or exited City Hall's parking garage about a half-hour later.

Stothert's new directives, given to Fire Department administrators this week, include an order that all media inquiries relating to the city budget and its impact on public safety are now to be sent to the Mayor's Office.

Stothert, in a statement released Wednesday, said “it is important that the administration speak with one voice on our progress and the impact of any recommended changes to the operations of the department” as the city finalizes its 2014 budget.

In May, the Fire Department submitted a $96.6 million budget proposal to the Mayor's Office for next year — a roughly 17 percent increase from the prior year. The proposed budget includes a 2.9 percent wage increase as mandated by the fire union contract.

Stothert responded with a spending target for the department that amounts to a slightly less than one percent reduction from its 2013 budget.

The Fire Department exceeded its budget by $30 million over the past five years, Stothert said, adding that she's sought information from Fire Department managers “so we can fix their budget after years of overspending and financial mismanagement.”

“I have provided Chief McDonnell with numerous, reasonable written requests and directives for the department to become more transparent and accountable to me and the taxpayers,” Stothert said. “I expect him to comply with my directions.”

The inquiries that Stothert submitted to fire department officials indicate part of how she'll scrutinize Fire Department practices and expenses.

Her requests include a list of all employees and their current assignments; a list of injuries in the line of duty; and all written communication between Fire Department administrators, union members and city employees regarding the recent hire of roughly 40 recruits.

Stothert also asked for a list of all employees hired since July 2012 that scored lower on entrance exams than recruit candidates who were not hired. In addition, Stothert asked for “a specific explanation” of the reasons those candidates were or weren't hired and a list of all firefighters hired since July 2012 who have any familial relationship, “no matter how remote,” with current or former department employees.

Stothert's latest order on the Fire Department's interaction with the media says it is not intended to limit any commentary made “on your own time or as a private citizen.”

“However, absent specific permission, under no circumstances are you or any member of your staff permitted to comment on the budget or the impact of the budget on public safety during work hours, while in uniform, or in any way holding yourself out to represent the City of Omaha or the Fire Department,” the directive says.

Shortly after taking office, Stothert ordered that no city department directors or staff members speak to the news media without prior review or approval from her chief of staff or spokeswoman. Top staff members in the Mayor's Office said the policy was simply designed to clear communication lines during between city officials and the Mayor's Office.

The relationship between Stothert and the fire chief and union has been rocky since Stothert served on the City Council.

McDonnell, a former fire union president, said earlier this year that the latest labor contract, negotiated by a council committee led by Stothert, created a multimillion-dollar shortfall in the department budget.

Stothert responded that the shortfall was “an issue of failed leadership and failed management” and said if McDonnell can't manage the budget, “we need to find someone who can.”

The fire chief, however, is among a small group of specially protected city directors who can be dismissed only for cause. City code refers to cause as anything that reflects discredit on the job “or is a direct hindrance to the effective performance of the city government functions.”

Such employees, according to city code, can be subject to discipline, including dismissal, for such reasons as criminal behavior, habitual use of alcohol, insubordination, incompetence or negligence.

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