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Ruling: D.C. fire chief retaliated against union chief

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Photo - D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe
D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe
Local,DC,Liz Farmer

The D.C. firefighters union has scored a significant victory after an arbitrator's ruling that a sudden reassignment of the union's chief was meant as payback for speaking out against the department last year.

"I find that the real reason was to retaliate against Capt. [Edward] Smith for engaging in union activity as president of Local 36, the exclusive collective bargaining rep of the department's employees," wrote arbitrator Leonard Wagman, who ordered that Smith be reinstated to his prior post of five years at Rescue Squad 1.

In his 26-page ruling, issued earlier this month but released to the media on Wednesday, Wagman characterized Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe's and the department's actions as "evasive" and inconsistent. Smith was transferred to another fire company in July 2011. The order came after a series of protests and complaints from the union concerning whether the city had enough serviceable emergency vehicles, the conditions of the working vehicles and a new fire department policy that the union said would result in lost wages by pregnant firefighters.

A spokesman for the fire department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday regarding the ruling.

According to Wagman, the fire department initially provided a special order issued back in 2000 as the reason for Smith's transfer. According to the collective bargaining agreement, the department must provide a reasonable explanation when it transfers an employee who has not requested one. The department and Ellerbe later made other "efforts to come up with a lawful explanation for his decision to transfer Smith," including a trip by Ellerbe to Smith's firehouse to look through the firehouse's journal of events, the ruling said.

Wagman ultimately concluded the responses to Smith's "request for an explanation were evasive, amounting to a statement that 'we did it because we can.' "

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who also oversees the judiciary committee, called the ruling "sobering."

"[It] suggests the fire chief needs to be careful in his personnel actions," he said, adding that he had not yet read the full decision.

The ruling, which can be appealed by the city, comes after firefighters have repeatedly complained about poor morale in the department caused by fear of retaliation.

"It's not necessarily about me -- it's about the union, it's about all labor in D.C.," Smith said Wednesday. "As union members of an organization, we have protected rights."

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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