NEW FOR TUESDAY: Berlin Ceasing All Financial Aid To Fire Company

NEW FOR TUESDAY: Berlin Ceasing All Financial Aid To Fire Company
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BERLIN — Citing hostile working conditions and unveiled hints of discrimination and harassment, the Berlin Mayor and Council today announced the town was disassociating itself from and ceasing all financial aid to the Berlin Fire Company (BFC).

The Berlin Mayor and Council on Tuesday announced it will amend its fiscal year 2013 budget to cease all financial aid to the BFC as a result of the organization’s inability to accept basic requirements of the town’s personnel policies to eliminate workplace harassment based on sexual orientation, race and sex of paid emergency medical services (EMS) employees at the Berlin Fire House. The funding support is also being withdrawn from the budget because the BFC has allegedly seriously breached the terms of an employment agreement for paid EMS personnel with the town in effect since 2009.

“Over the past six months, the Mayor and Council have done all that we can within our legal and moral authority to protect the rights of the paid EMS personnel who have been working as leased employees under the terms of an agreement enacted January 1, 2009,” said Berlin Mayor Gee Williams in a press release. “The fire company has been unsuccessful in its attempts to prevent some volunteer members from harassing Berlin’s paid EMS employees in the workplace that the town firmly believes is both unacceptable and illegal.”

The agreement to have paid EMS personnel begin working as employees of the town of Berlin in 2009 was made at the request of the BFC in order for them to be eligible for state retirement and town health benefits. At the time, the state of Maryland and the town of Berlin made it clear the employment of the EMS personnel, even as leased employees, could not be a sham and attempted to make clear the terms of the agreement in a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

“The Mayor and Council shall have primary direction and control over paid EMS personnel through its Town Administrator in accordance with the town of Berlin’s personnel policies and manual,” it read.

However, in late February, the paid EMS personnel informed the town of Berlin of complaints of discriminatory practices in the workplace including harassment and threats of retaliation based on sexual orientation, race and sex, according to a town release. The complaints were lodged against both the paid EMS employees and volunteer members of the Berlin Fire Company.

The Town Administrator and Human Resources Director immediately investigated the allegations and interviewed all 10 full-time EMS employees. As a result of the findings of the town’s investigation, the allegations of discriminatory practices based on sexual orientation, race and sex were corroborated and found to be credible, according to the Mayor and Council.

As it was a personnel matter, the Mayor and Council met in executive session on March 12 and voted unanimously to direct Town Attorney Dave Gaskill to prepare a memo for delivery the next day to the Berlin Fire Company informing the organization of the town’s findings that the complaints by the paid EMS employees were credible. The memo stated the town found the harassment complaints constituted, in the town’s opinion, violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of Maryland law, all of which prohibit such conduct in the workplace.

The memo also stated disciplinary actions for some paid EMS employees were necessary and appropriate to ensure that no discriminatory practices would continue by any paid EMS personnel employed by the town. In addition, while the town has no oversight authority over volunteer members, the March 13 memo also stated, “It is also certainly in the interest of the Berlin Fire Company to ensure that this illegal activity ceases immediately as it is subject to immense liability if a suit were to be filed against it.”

Throughout the summer, several weeks of communication followed between Gaskill and attorney Joe Moore, counsel for the Berlin Fire Company. The fire company accepted the town’s memo in May, only after being informed by the Mayor and Council that the fire company could not make its annual budget presentation without accepting the document in its entirety.

During the summer, the Berlin Fire Company conducted its own internal investigation into the allegations of harassment by EMS employees and as a result made some changes in its volunteer command structure. However, the town has continued to receive reports of harassment of EMS employees by volunteer fire company members, which were immediately shared with BFC leaders, according to the town.

However, in a memorandum to the Mayor and Council dated last week on Aug. 16, the fire company leadership asserted the elected officials’ actions usurped their authority over the organization and flat out told the Mayor and Council they were assuming control of all things related to emergency medical services.

“Effective immediately, the Berlin Fire Company will assume full control, direction and supervision over all emergency medical services (EMS) personnel,” the memo dated August 16 reads. “The town of Berlin has attempted to enlarge its scope of direction and control over personnel matters in accordance with the town’s personnel policies and manual, to operational matters relating to fire and emergency medical services. The town has no authority or expertise to do so. The company’s attempts to work with the town have been unsuccessful.”

The fire company’s memo dated Aug. 16 suggested the town’s intervention has compromised the organization’s ability to carry out its primary mission.

“To highlight but a few of the issues the company has been facing, incidents relating to emergency responses, scheduling and staffing are needlessly arising,” the fire company’s memo reads. “Personnel are, or claim to be, confused as to whom they should receive direction, even during emergency responses. The confusion has resulted in duties not being performed or performance of duties in an unprofessional manner. There has been an increase in the number of complaints, some unfounded, by personnel against one another and against company volunteers, as well as volunteers against personnel. There has been a marked decrease in the level of volunteer participation when an emergency situation arises.”

The fire company justified its decision to assume control over the EMS, citing public safety issues.

“All of these issues have detracted from the company’s primary mission- to serve and protect the public,” the memo reads. “This immediate change is in the best interest of public safety for the residents and visitors of the area that is served by the company.”

However, Williams said the town’s memo of last week is an unveiled attempt to deflect attention away from the complaints of harassment that ignited the controversy in the first place.

“It is evident from the decision of the fire company’s leadership last week to assume full control, direction and supervision over all EMS personnel that the Berlin Fire Company is not making a sincere effort to end the harassment and have not been acting in good faith with the town of Berlin to resolve these issues,” he said. “As a result of their decision, which, in effect, breaches and dissolves both the original 2009 memorandum of agreement and the more recent memo of March 13, the Mayor and Council have no alternative other than to immediately disassociate the town of Berlin with the Berlin Fire Company. We have been both disappointed and appalled with the fire company during this entire episode.”

Williams said the fire company’s claims that the town is overstepping its authority in terms of operational and personnel policy is unfounded.

“To claim that their operational problems are the fault of the town is ludicrous and illogical,” he said. “Their continued problems volunteer EMS participation and command and control issues are a direct result of the failure of the fire company leadership to stop all abusive workplace behavior and fill the paid EMS vacancy as requested by the town.”

The current fiscal year 2013 allocated $340,000 to the BFC and $215,360 to the fire company’s ambulance service. That’s about 28 percent of the BFC’s total budget. In his press release, the mayor said the BFC currently owes the town in excess of $150,000 for payroll expenses for paid EMS personnel for June through August. Williams said the council is demanding immediate payment of those expenses by the BFC.

Meanwhile, Berlin Councilwoman Lisa Hall weighed in on the issue today with a statement. As a past president and vice president of the Berlin Fire Company Auxiliary, Hall said she was saddened this situation got to the point the town was forced to pull funding from the organization, but stood by the decision.

“As an elected representative for the town of Berlin, my first duty and obligation is to ensure that the residents and ratepayers not be exposed to any financial risk from what I believe are violations of federal and state law,” she said. “Furthermore, it has come to my attention that less than 50 percent of the municipalities in Maryland provide any funding to their local volunteer fire companies.”

Hall said the actions of a few in the fire company have forced the town to act and she remains confident to residents of Berlin will support the decision when the facts are brought to light.

“It is unfortunate that I am heartbroken over actions of a few BFC volunteers and paid EMS employees,” she said. “I am confident though that when all the facts are presented, the Mayor and Council will have the support of the residents and ratepayers in this decision.”

The story is developing and The Dispatch will provide more details and information as they become available.