Dispute Further Embroils City Fire

By JULIA FERRANTE jferrante@tampatrib.com
Dec 24, 2002

ZEPHYRHILLS, Fla - A grievance disputing the practice of swapping shifts across ranks is the latest in a series of conflicts between the fire chief and the Zephyrhills Professional Firefighters union.
But City Manager Steve Spina said Monday the two sides must reach an understanding before the disputes spill into the job.

``We have got to find a way to work this out,'' Spina said. ``In this job, they are in public safety. Animosity can carry from one situation to another, and it could be a matter of life or death.''

Spina on Friday issued a letter of admonishment to Fire Chief Robert Hartwig, saying the chief violated the union contract when he filled in for Mickey Gibbs, a nonunion firefighter of a lower rank. Hartwig also authorized two captains to work for Gibbs. The captains, Kerry Barnett and Rex Guynn, were not reprimanded.

Hartwig said Monday he disagrees with the finding but wants to put the issue behind him.

``I disagree, but that was Friday. Now it's Monday and it's almost Christmas,'' he said.

Putting aside a long-running dispute with the union may not be as easy.

The conflict between Hartwig and Union President Shawn Baptist surfaced publicly three years ago, when the city council approved across-the-board raises to retain police officers but declined to do so for firefighters.

Spina said city leaders conducted a salary survey and determined firefighters were not entitled to a pay increase. Hartwig agreed, and the firefighters union was formed.

The conflicts surfaced again last year when Baptist used a slang term, which Spina found offensive, during contract negotiations. That sparked a dispute that since has been resolved. It also set off a series of complaints and grievances about management of the fire department.

Baptist said the complaints were justified, and the relationship with the chief is beyond repair. He said the only way the union and the chief can communicate now is through the city manager.

``I have hard feelings toward the chief. There's no doubt about it,'' Baptist said Monday. ``I don't see it ever getting better. There is no compromise from the chief. He'll tell me what I want to hear, then do what he wants.''

Hartwig, who plans to retire within four years, said the two sides need to communicate, but the union also needs to understand that management makes decisions that are not always popular.

``By the nature of the beast, the union and management are somewhat at odds,'' Hartwig said. ``But I will contend that there is nothing we can't overcome if we sit down and discuss it.''

Hartwig conceded discussions might go better if he and Baptist were not on opposite sides. But he disagreed that Spina should mediate.

``It wasn't too long ago that nothing good was to be said about [Spina],'' Hartwig said. ``As long as he's listening, they'll go through him. The minute he's not, they'll be back in an adversarial situation.''

Hartwig wouldn't say if he thinks Baptist should step down as union leader.

And Baptist has no plans to do so.

``I keep getting re-elected,'' he said.

Reporter Julia Ferrante can be reached at (813) 779-4613.

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