City Manager Robert Layton expressed strong support for Fire Chief Ron Blackwell on Monday, the same day the local firefighters union called for his resignation along with two other top officials in the department.
The union conducted a survey of its membership, and 94 percent of those who responded said they have no confidence in Blackwell’s leadership. Similarly, 97 percent said they have no confidence in Deputy Chief Ron Aaron or Division Chief Billy Wenzel.
The union wants Aaron and Wenzel to resign as well.
“This vote has been coming for a long time,” said Matt Schulte, president of IAFF Local 135, which has about 350 members.
Layton and Blackwell both called the non-binding vote disappointing.
In taking the vote, Layton said, the union violated an informal agreement last year to back away from “a long history of rancor and protracted disputes” and move forward “in a more positive and productive manner.”
Blackwell, who is attending an International Association of Fire Chiefs conference, said in a prepared statement the vote is “an opportunity for the WFD union and leadership team to focus our efforts and continue working together to provide effective fire services for our residents.”
The union vote “has no teeth,” Schulte said, but “it needed to be said.”
The no-confidence vote is the first of its kind taken by the local firefighters union in its history, he said.
Issues with the fire administration have been building for the past few years, Schulte said.
Among the most grating for union members was seeing double-digit raises being given to certain administrative staff members during difficult economic times that saw front-line emergency response units taken out of service.
Layton said guidelines have been put in place limiting the size of raises since those increases took place more than a year ago.
The union also accuses fire administration officials of trying to change the terms of the last contract after agreement had already been reached. The current contract runs through 2013.
“Misplaced budget priorities have at times left areas of Wichita unprotected and unprepared” in the event of emergencies requiring multi-unit responses, according to a statement released by the union.
In the past several months, Schulte said, administrators have repeatedly asked to have fewer than the 117 personnel on duty each day as stated by the contract.
The final straw, Schulte said, came when serious errors were discovered during the promotion process last November. The errors caused promotions to be reversed pending reviews with the corrected scores.
“You’re dealing with people’s careers and livelihoods there,” Schulte said.
Layton called the error calculating scores during the promotion process “an honest mistake” but challenged any notion that the city’s fire service has suffered.
Wichita residents gave the fire department a 94 percent approval rating when surveyed in 2010, he said.
“The issues that appear to be in dispute at this time involve contract interpretation, not service delivery,” he said.
Aaron and Wenzel will stay in their positions as well. Blackwell has been Wichita fire chief since 2007. He has agreed to visit each fire station in the city to discuss issues and concerns with firefighters, Layton said.
Division Chief Tammy Snow and Fire Marshal Brad Crisp were included in the survey of union membership. Voters gave Snow a strong vote of confidence – 93 percent.
Of those who voted, 58 percent said they have no confidence in Crisp’s leadership. Schulte said the union found that figure acceptable and has no plans to seek Crisp’s removal.
In sharp contrast to the others included in the vote, Schulte said, the union strongly supports Snow.
“Chief Snow has always had the best interests of the employees at heart throughout her career,” Schulte said.
Schulte said the no-confidence vote will have no bearing at all in how firefighters perform their duties, he said. It is also not a statement on how effectively fire investigators do their jobs, he said.
The Wichita Fire Department has 438 staff members and a $40 million annual budget.