Omaha Fire Chief Mike McDonnell's exit deal with city collapses -
Published Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 7:00 pm
Omaha Fire Chief Mike McDonnell's exit deal with city collapses

The tentative retirement deal between Omaha Fire Chief Mike McDonnell and Mayor Jean Stothert is off — and now McDonnell is under investigation by the mayor.

The Mayor's Office said Friday evening that it had been unable to come to an agreement with McDonnell, who “demanded language be inserted into the original agreement that the parties were negotiating.”

McDonnell, however, said he made an offer that reflected “the letter and spirit” of the preliminary deal.

The deal's collapse means that the firefighter layoffs, idled rigs and other Fire Department cuts that have been the subject of months of debate are back on the table.

It also means McDonnell won't step down this week with the biggest pension in the city's history. Instead, he'll remain on paid administrative leave, facing an uncertain future.

“He's on administrative leave with pay,” said assistant city attorney Bernard in den Bosch. “We're going to conduct an investigation, and then ultimately a decision will be made as to his continued employment.”

The breakdown of negotiations came four days after McDonnell and Stothert signed off on a tentative agreement under which McDonnell would retire with a $10,900 monthly pension.

McDonnell's base annual salary is $125,096.

The mayor, meanwhile, would have been blocked from laying off firefighters until July 1, 2014.

The city would have also had to hold off on taking rigs out of service in the same time period, with the exception of one medic unit based in South Omaha. Three assistant fire chief positions were to be maintained through the 2014 payroll year.

McDonnell turned in his city-­issued cellphone and vehicle and was replaced by Battalion Chief Bernie Kanger, who is filling in as interim chief.

Now, the long debate continues.

In a statement, the Mayor's Office said McDonnell had asked for additions that were “outside of the scope of the (tentative deal) and we believe inappropriate for inclusion.”

“I am disappointed in Mr. McDonnell's unwillingness to stay within the parameters of our memo of understanding,” Stothert said in a statement.

The chief disagreed.

“The agreement that I've offered her reflects the letter and spirit of the memorandum of understanding, and I'm willing to sign that,” said McDonnell, who declined further comment.

Neither McDonnell nor Stothert would discuss the specific changes to the contract that caused negotiations to break down. Nor would they share the proposed contract.

It's not clear exactly what Stothert will investigate.

One consideration might be a recent evaluation of the Fire Department's training agency by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

The report showed failing grades for seven of nine categories after an Aug. 1 inspection of the department's emergency medical services training operations.

Among the problems: incomplete documentation of intern and instructor evaluations and the department's failure to produce a catalog that lists training requirements and contact information.

The Fire Department has been ordered to fix the problems by Oct. 21.

Stothert's investigation is an indication that she is seeking legal grounds under which she could fire McDonnell.

The fire chief ranks 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.

If the mayor does fire McDonnell, it's likely to set up another legal battle.

Already, the mayor has been sued by the city's fire union over her $90.6 million budget proposal for the Fire Department — the plan suggests 16 firefighter layoffs, eight demotions and two rigs pulled from service. That amount was included in the budget passed by the City Council this week.

The lawsuit was dismissed by the judge, who said the suit was premature because the city's budget had not yet been approved.

After that decision was released, the union said in a statement that if Stothert's budget was approved, “the parties will be back in court.”

Contact the writer: Erin Golden    |   402-444-1543    |  

Erin covers the Omaha City Council and the Mayor's Office.

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