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Ocean City

HARRASSMENT IN CITY RANKS?

(Jan. 18, 2013) The deposit of a dead cat on the doorstep of Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore’s home the night after he enacted a controversial promotional decision was one example, sources allege, of an ongoing pattern of harassment and intimidation that stretches from the Ocean City Fire Department up to the City Council level.

Not only that, but the scandal took a further turn for the worse this week with the news that a complaint has been filed with the Equal Employment Op-

portunity Commission (EEOC) against the Town of Ocean City.

The complaint relates to an incident in which, sources say, false accusations of sexual misconduct were used in an attempt to press Larmore to back down and the council to withhold its support of the chief’s recommended promotion of an OCFD lieutenant to captain.

Larmore’s proposal was to promote two people, a man and a woman, to captain, with the city’s chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and at least one member of the City Council steadfastly opposed to the latter candidate.

The EEOC, by law, cannot discuss the complaint, but multiple independent sources have confirmed that the filing was made by the female candidate, who is now a captain.

These sources, contacted over the past several weeks about the behind-the-scenes turmoil, cannot speak openly because it involves a personnel matter and possible investigations from both internal and outside agencies. Nevertheless, they have verified independently a complex series of events that took place during the last two months.

According to these sources, shortly after the municipal election, Larmore appeared before the council in closed session to explain that, while he had been allocated the promotion of one new captain, he was planning to promote two. This would solve two issues at once, Larmore is said to have told the city officials.

Firstly, one of the department’s long-time captains would soon be retiring, meaning that a replacement would have to be promoted in short order. Secondly, two candidates for the captain’s slot had scored far-and-above the rest in testing by the city’s human resources department. However, the highest-scoring candidate — despite being a long-time member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company — was considerably more junior as a career firefighter than the runner-up, a long-time career employee.

In order to not sacrifice either candidate, Larmore proposed to hire both, a move the department’s budget had the resources to sustain until the impending retirement of the aforementioned current captain.

Under the city’s charter, city department heads are free to make their own personnel decisions, with the approval of the city manager. However, Larmore desired to notify council of his promotion decision because he would, in effect, be changing the structure of his approved budget, although the numbers themselves would come out the same.

The IAFF, however, filed a grievance with the city, objecting to Larmore’s recommended promotions. The union argued that Larmore did not have the latitude to change the management structure of the department, even temporarily, and that workplace policy dictated that the more tenured candidate should be the only one promoted.

IAFF President Michael Maykrantz said this week that he could not comment on any grievance.

“To follow the rules of our internal process, I can’t say anything about that,” Maykrantz said.

This dispute became more involved as at least one council member, according to sources, pressed Larmore to find a solution that would be more amenable to the IAFF. Larmore’s secondary recommendation, in that case, was to make the junior candidate an “acting captain” for the time being, essentially naming her as the successor to the captain who was planning to retire, without actually making the promotion.

“Chris saw what was happening, and he compromised to get what he wanted,” a source said.

However, sources said the city’s response to the grievance resulted in City Manager David Recor notifying the IAFF that it was out of its jurisdiction in trying to be the final arbiter, as a bargaining unit, of who would and would not be employed at the management level, a sector it does not represent. Recor subsequently allowed Larmore to make the dual promotion.

But the conflict, apparently, did not stop there. Larmore still faced opposition on the council, with sources claiming that one member essentially went so far as to dictate who should be hired.

Meanwhile, rumors were being circulated through City Hall and the town’s emergency services that Larmore had engaged in sexual relations with the female candidate.

The row caused Recor to investigate the allegations. On the completion of that investigation, sources said, he notified high-level city officials that the charges were unfounded. The apparent scheme to discredit and threaten Larmore reached its peak when, only a day after the dual promotion went through, a dead cat was left on his doorstep.

The campaign against Larmore and the promotion is said to have further revealed a pattern of harassment and intimidation in the OCFD. The junior candidate alleged that she had long been the victim of harassment by fellow firefighters on the basis of her gender.

The insistence that her promotion be “downgraded” was, in her view, a continuation of the harassment and gender discrimination — an argument bolstered by the purported use of sexual rumors as a weapon against her and Larmore. According to sources, this is the substance of the EEOC complaint filed against the city.

The backlash against the move has become so severe, sources claim, that the captain has been forced to work from home in fear of retaliation in the fire house.

The scandal also highlights the continuing tension between the volunteer fire company and the paid division that erupted publicly in 2007. At that time, allegations arose that the city was planning to place an emergency services director over both the OCVFC and an expanded paid fire corps, and whose operational directives would supersede those of the volunteer company.

Larmore, then the OCVFC chief, said the plan was “an unacceptable public safety practice” and “an unsound and dual command structure where truth is alien and duplicity rules.” The OCVFC then stated that it would relinquish fire service on the island, and move its primary operations to West Ocean City due to its inability to “function under this umbrella of distrust and deceit.”

A compromise was reached under which Larmore would become the head of a fully combined fire department for a starting salary of $1 per year (future budgets have made him a fully-compensated employee) in which both volunteer and paid firefighters and EMS personnel serve under the same administrative structure.

The current situation is unfolding as the city enters labor contract talks with the IAFF and negotiates a new memorandum of understanding with the OCVFC. Last month, a series of e-mails from OCVFC President Cliff Christello revealed that the city wanted to revisit the MOU it had established with the volunteer company in May 2008.

The MOU, as it stands, names Larmore specifically as possessing an open line of communication and discussion with the mayor and council, outside of the city’s normal chain of command, on the behalf of the volunteers. But since Larmore himself has become a fully-paid department head, the city has submitted that he should no longer be party to the agreement.

According to sources, there has been considerable disagreement between the city and the volunteers as to the best way, legally, to shore up Larmore’s role.

Contention with the union has also continued to be an issue. In late November 2012, the union filed a grievance against the city that disputed Larmore’s mandate that one person at each fire station be awake at all times.

The move was the result of an incident in which, sources say, paramedics at the 15th Street Headquarters building missed a call after turning off their radios to sleep. Although personnel are permitted to sleep, if possible, on 24-hour shifts between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., they must still be able to respond to emergencies.

The IAFF contended that Larmore’s edict went too far in restricting staffs’ right to bunk time. The issue is still being worked through, with the possibility of using some kind of built-in alarm.

“It has not been resolved yet,” May-

krantz said this week. “We’re still working on some adjustments to our current alert system that will make it more fail-safe.”

As for the city’s labor contract negotiations with the IAFF, they are scheduled to begin on Jan. 24, with the current contract expiring at the end of this fiscal year.

But in the meantime, the union has already proposed that its current contract be extended for another year, until July 2014. This would be dependent, according to the IAFF, on the city revisiting the move made in 2011 to close the city’s defined-benefit pension plans – including the separate plan for public safety employees – and switch to defined-contribution, 401(a) retirement packages.

An email from Maykrantz to city officials, a copy of which was obtained by Ocean City Today, posits “a one year IAFF Collective Bargaining Agreement extension in lieu of negotiations.”

The major issue that the IAFF — as well as City Hall and the Ocean City Police Department’s chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police — would like to resolve is the debate over the public safety pension system, Maykrantz said.

“If the pension plan change is the primary reason the city would need to go to the table, it sounds as though the support exists on the pension committee to get this done independent of negotiations,” he wrote.

Maykrantz said this week that he did not wish to preemptively discuss the status of the proposal, but that he would know more from City Hall next week.

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