Firefighters union, city officials meet
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley met Monday with representatives of the city's firefighters union, and both sides are calling the sit-down a positive first step.
The union, which represents about half of the city's 250 firefighters, has been at odds with Riley and Fire Chief Rusty Thomas for years over safety and administrative issues inside the department. City officials have long said that state labor laws limit the discussions they can have with a public-employee union.
A panel of experts hired by the city after last year's deadly Sofa Super Store blaze recommended in October that the department begin a dialogue with groups such as the local union. But the meeting had been slow in coming because hard feelings linger from the June 18 fire that killed nine city firefighters.
Roger Yow, a former Fire Department captain and head of the local union, said Monday's meeting with Riley and Thomas went well.
"The mayor was real receptive. I feel like this is a good first step forward," Yow said.
Also attending the meeting was Larry Osborne, a vice president with the International Association of Fire Fighters, the parent organization of the local union.
Riley agreed that the meeting opened a dialogue and said he welcomes the union's input in the future. "It's clear that we are all working on the same goal: to make this fire department move to an even higher level of achievement."
Riley said he did not know why the city and the union have not met regularly in the past, but he said city officials can continue to talk with the union about issues concerning firefighters without running afoul of a state ban against collective bargaining.
Though the meeting did not yield much in the way of specifics, Yow said he raised concerns about the city's employee discipline policy after a captain with the Fire Department recently received a two-week suspension without pay for failing to wear his air pack at a car fire.
Yow agreed that the firefighter, a union member, should have been disciplined. But Yow said he believes city policy should be more flexible to allow lighter punishments.
"That guy didn't have a flaw against his record. One or two shifts without pay should have been enough," he said.
Riley pledged that the city would review the policy, Yow said.