Calif. firefighters allege age discrimination in lawsuit
Firefighters and officers allege there's a plan to oust older firefighters in an effort to reduce pay and pension
San Bernardino County Sun
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — Current and former high-ranking San Bernardino County firefighters are alleging age discrimination in a lawsuit against the county, arguing that the Fire Department has been trying to oust older firefighters since Chief Mark Hartwig took the helm three years ago.
Former county fire Division Chief John Salvate, 50, who now resides in Kenwood, in Sonoma County, and Michael Weis, 62, a battalion chief with the department who resides in Victorville, allege Hartwig was appointed fire chief per an agreement between county CEO Greg Devereaux and Bret Henry, then president of San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters Local 935 - the union representing county firefighters.
Hartwig’s appointment, according to the lawsuit filed in San Bernardino Superior Court on April 24, assured Henry and union vice president and fire Capt. Don Trapp would quickly ascend the ranks of the department, and that older, higher paid chief officers would be systematically removed from the department.
It is not the first lawsuit filed by county firefighters alleging age discrimination since Hartwig took command.
In June 2012, only two months after Hartwig was appointed fire chief, fire Division Chief George Corley filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county, also alleging age discrimination. He was told he was being terminated due to conflicts in management style, but Corley believes otherwise.
Corley, 60, of Big Bear City, is now working as a battalion chief for the Running Springs Fire Department. He concurs with the allegations asserted by Salvate and Weis - that the Fire Department, cut personnel as a means of cutting costs.
“I think it was to reduce salaries and pensions and bring the younger folks in,” Corley said.
Redlands attorney Sandra Noel represents all three plaintiffs.
“This seems, from my understanding and speaking with numerous individuals who were either victims or witnesses, that this was a concerted effort on the part of the county . . .” Noel said.
Hartwig did not return telephone calls Tuesday seeking comment.
On April 14, 2011, San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters Local 935 entered into an agreement with the county to take a 7 percent reduction in salary, achieved through a reduced retirement pickup. The union also agreed to a 50 percent reduction in step increases and a capped medical subsidy no longer applicable to retirement calculations.
But the union’s agreement with the county included a special caveat: a contractual term allowing the department to keep 18 positions vacant so that firefighters could make up for the salary loss by working more overtime than ever before, according to the lawsuit.
Five days after the union entered into its agreement with the county, Hartwig, then the deputy chief for the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Protection District, was appointed the county’s new fire chief.
County spokesman David Wert said in an e-mail Tuesday that “no one understands better than Devereaux the short-term and long-term impacts management appointments have on a department and an entire government organization.”
“So anyone who knows Mr. Devereaux knows he would never cede an appointment as important as fire chief to anyone in exchange for anything,” Wert said. “And do you really think Mr. Devereaux would agree to something that would lead the way to unlimited overtime? That allegation is so contrary to Mr. Devereaux’s reputation and record that it borders on insanity. And their evidence?”
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