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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dissent and controversy enflame Halifax fire department

Chief Bill Mosher to retire; fired firefighter Cromwell wins ruling; survey finds firefighters dislike management.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Halifax Fire Department management is facing several personnel issues, as a fired firefighter has won a fight for benefits, a survey of department employees finds “strong disapproval” of management and chief Bill Mosher has announced his retirement.

EI Board rules for Cromwell
Blair Cromwell, the black Halifax firefighter who was fired after making anonymous comments on The Coast’s website, gave “credible testimony... regarding the years of harassment within the workplace and the efforts he made to rectify the situation, which went unresolved,” reads a unanimous December 3 ruling by a three-person Board of Referees for Employment Insurance.

click to enlarge Fired firefighter Blair Cromwell
  • Fired firefighter Blair Cromwell
The ruling overturns an earlier finding dismissing Cromwell’s EI claim. On December 14 EI officials notified Cromwell that they were appealing the Board of Referees’ decision and that appeal was filed December 22, but the appeal was abruptly withdrawn on January 27 without explanation. Cromwell is now receiving full EI benefits, and his attorney, Patrick Eagan, is using the referees’ ruling to press the city for “financial compensation and a return of employment” for Cromwell.

Using several aliases, Cromwell was one of seven people who made comments disparaging of Mosher and deputy chief Steve Thurber in the comment section of several Coast articles about the fire department. In a private action paid for by the city, Mosher and Thurber asked for and received a court order requiring The Coast to turn over the IP addresses of the commenters, and that information was subsequently used to identify the seven for purposes of a defamation suit filed by Mosher and Thurber.

Of the seven defendants to the suit, two---firefighter William Murphy [correction: see below] and former firefighter Don Snider, have apologized, and Mosher and Thurber have dropped proceedings against them. Curiously, three others--- Jennifer Williamson, Betty Raymond and Armado Raymond---are still listed as defendants, even though Cromwell has stated that he simply used their unsecured wireless networks to make his comments, and even though Armado Raymond is dead. Cromwell and former firefighter Wayne Chapdelaine are also defendants. The case is still active, and Mosher’s and Thurber’s allegations of defamation have not been proven in court.

But the private defamation suit was entangled with the city’s firing of Cromwell in a way that perplexed the EI referees.

Before he was fired, Cromwell was suspended “pending an investigation that he published defamatory comments concerning senior management.” And in Cromwell’s termination letter, Mike Labrecque, the city’s deputy CAO, detailed the comments Cromwell made on The Coast’s website, then concluded that “[t]he misconduct that you have been found to have engaged in amounts to insolent and insubordinate behaviour. Your actions have undermined the authority of the management of HRFE and have irreparably severed the employment relationship.”

But when the EI referees interviewed Larry Williams, a deputy chief with the fire department, “Williams stated that [Cromwell] was not dismissed for defamation of character against senior management of HRM fire service, and therefore, whether or not this has been proven is not an issue.”

The referees stated that the suspension letter and termination letter contradicted each other, but ruled that it is “a fact that [Cromwell] lost his employment because the employer was able to prove the claimant did make these comments.”

The referees seem to be suggesting that information garnered in the private lawsuit was used by the public agency to fire Cromwell, even though Williams denied that was the case.

And it’s an open question whether it worked the other way around: Was information garnered in the city’s investigation of Cromwell used to advance the private lawsuit? “The decision concerning [Cromwell’s] employment followed a lengthy investigation carried on outside of Fire Services during which... [Cromwell] admitted most of the factual allegations,” writes city attorney Martin Ward to Cromwell’s lawyer Patrick Eagan. But Cromwell says his meeting with those outside investigators was recorded by deputy fire chief Larry Williams, who ultimately reports to Mosher.

Regardless, said the referees, “The Board weighed the evidence of years of harassment and bullying from the workforce and the fact that [Cromwell] used a private username when making [comments on The Coast’s website]. It is the Board’s findings that a reasonable person would not have felt he would have been fired for making such comments since they were made anonymously. The Board agrees with [Cromwell] that the breakdown in the relationship was severed long before this incident and was not caused by the actions of [Cromwell]. The Board does not feel his actions were of such a careless or negligent nature that one could say the employee willfully disregarded the effects of his or her actions.”

Mosher to retire
In related news, the firefighters’ union has told its membership that fire chief Bill Mosher will retire “by the end of the year.” Mosher’s retirement announcement comes on the heels of a workplace survey conducted by Corporate Research Associates that found wide discontent with how the department is run. Some 72 percent of the union’s membership responded to the survey; of those, “97 percent indicated strong disapproval of the current management team and their method of management, which behaviour includes the mistreatment of employees, intimidation, bullying and other abuses and violation of HRM policies and the workers’ collective agreement,” writes Eagan in a letter to Labrecque. The survey results have not been released by the union.

Correction, Monday February 21: Contrary to what is reported above, Bill Murphy has not apologized for his comments on The Coast's website, but Mosher's and Thurber's action against him has been dropped. See the dismissal here. We apologize for the mischaracterization.

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