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Firefighters’ suit alleges secret surveillance

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https://lvcampustimes.org/2018/10/firefighters-suit-alleges-secret-surveillance/

Christian Shepherd
News Editor

The La Verne Firefighters Association, the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters union, is suing the city of La Verne, La Verne Fire Chief Peter Jankowski and Battalion Chief Michael Thompson.

In the lawsuit filed last month, the union alleges that Thompson gathered secret evidence to be used against union members and that Jankowski was aware of his actions.

“Chief Thompson filmed us while hiding behind walls and curtains, from inside of cars, through windows, from behind us, and while concealing his phone with his hand,” said union member Capt. Danny Montoya during the Sept. 17 city council meeting.

The lawsuit alleges that Thompson gathered 245 videos, 1,586 photographs and 232 pages of notes on union members, which violates the California Firefighter Bill of Rights.

City Manager Robert Russi said last week that an investigation into the union’s claim is being conducted by a third party organization.

This recent suit filed last month is the latest development in a series of grievances between the local firefighters’ union and management, which now includes three separate lawsuits in less than 10 years.

One of those suits was filed in December 2017, in which the union alleges that Jankowski and Thompson were retaliating against union members.

According to the 2017 lawsuit, the retaliation included Jankowski making derogatory comments about the union and banning firefighters from an event for political candidates.

The retaliation, the suit alleges, began after the union submitted a vote of no confidence against Jankowski. This no-confidence vote, according to firefighters, was prompted by Jankowski’s failure to replace failing fire hoses and adequately test self-contained breathing apparatuses.

The suit also cites the union’s refusal to support Jankowski’s political ally Mayor Don Kendrick as an additional cause of the retaliation.

The Firefighters Association instead supported current city council member Tim Hepburn, who ran against Kendrick in the last mayoral race, according to the 2017 lawsuit.

Kendrick declined to comment on the matter for this story.

Russi referred the Campus Times to a city webpage for the official city position on the lawsuits.

According to the web page, the city maintains there was no wrongdoing by city management or anyone acting on its behalf.

La Verne City Council member Robin Carder said she never witnessed any retaliatory action from Jankowski or Thompson. Council member Charlie Rosales added that the city is adept at handling personnel issues.

In the 2017 lawsuit, the firefighters’ union also alleges that the city did not conduct an investigation following the vote of no confidence submission.

Hepburn said that at the time the vote of no confidence was submitted, he was the only council member who pushed for an investigation into the firefighters’ allegations against Jankowski.

“I never wanted it to get to this point.” Hepburn said in a recent interview. “I wanted to resolve it at the time of the vote of no confidence. But there was support for (Jankowski) by the city manager and by the city council.”

In the 2017 lawsuit, the firefighters allege that they received a notice on Sept. 7, 2017, that the city had denied their accusations and that no further actions would be taken by the city.

According to the statement on the city web page, however, city personnel had reached out to the firefighters to address the allegations.

Russi said progress had been halted when the city received a cease-and-desist letter from the firefighters’ lawyer.

“Given that we were blocked from communication, we couldn’t have done more than we did,” Russi said.

The language of the cease-and-desist letter Russi referred to requested that any communications be directed to the firefighters’ lawyer, who would respond on their behalf.

Andrew Glaze, president of then firefighters’ union, said the lawsuit was an attempt to solve a lack of communication between leadership and personnel.

“He wouldn’t listen to us and any concerns we had, he would just dismiss,” Glaze said in a recent interview. “That turned into an almost immediate retaliatory action on his part to multiple association members.”

During the Sept. 17 city council meeting, council members – saying Hepburn had shared strategic information about the 2017 lawsuit with the union – formed a committee to handle the lawsuit strategies, which excluded Hepburn.

Hepburn said he did not share such information with the union, though he added that he maintains close relationships with employee groups throughout the city, including the firefighters’ union.

“I’m a very open individual. I believe in transparency,” Hepburn said.

Despite his exclusion from this committee, Hepburn will still be able to cast a vote on any decisions made by the council regarding the December 2017 lawsuit.

The La Verne City Council canceled the most recent city council meeting, scheduled for Monday, following these developments.

Christian Shepherd can be reached at christian.shepherd@laverne.edu.

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