Ind. city mayor sues council over firefighter shift changes

The council reversed the mayor's plan to move firefighters from 24-hour shifts to eight-hour rotating shifts last week


Bill Dolan
The Times, Munster, Ind.

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland struck back Tuesday against the city council in their fight over who controls the city firefighters’ work schedule.

John Bushemi, the city council attorney, announced Tuesday night to the council’s public safety committee that the mayor is suing to keep in place a new swing shift he imposed this month on firefighters.

East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland has sued the city council over an ordinance passed last week that would switch firefighters back to a 24-hour shift schedule after Copeland sought to implement rotating eight-hour shifts. (Photo/East Chicago Fire Department Facebook)
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland has sued the city council over an ordinance passed last week that would switch firefighters back to a 24-hour shift schedule after Copeland sought to implement rotating eight-hour shifts. (Photo/East Chicago Fire Department Facebook)

Bushemi said the mayor’s suit is aimed at blocking a city council ordinance that would return the firefighters to a schedule of 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off.

City Councilman Robert Garcia said, despite the suit, the council is set to meet 6 p.m. Monday and vote on its ordinance on a second reading. The ordinance supports the firefighters, who oppose the mayor’s swing shift, saying it was an act of political retaliation for their union’s opposition to the mayor’s reelection earlier this year. Copeland has denied any political motivation for the schedule switch.

The date for a third and final reading of the ordinance has yet to be announced.

Bushemi said the mayor filed his suit Tuesday in state court. The case hadn’t yet been posted on the court’s online docket indicating when the matter would appear before a judge.

Bushemi said the suit attacks the council’s authority to set the firefighters' work schedule.

Last week, council members, who passed the ordinance by an 8-1 vote, predicted the matter would be headed to the courts. But the timing of the mayor’s suit appeared to be unexpected by those attending Tuesday night’s meeting.

Fire Chief Anthony Serna told council members last week their work schedule ordinance violates state law.

Council members argued last week they do have authority to set firefighters' shifts and they are prepared to defend their position in court.

More than a dozen members of the East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 waved union banners Tuesday night outside City Hall at traffic on Indianapolis Boulevard. Garcia chest-bumped and shook hands with union members in the hallway outside the city council meeting room before the 5 p.m. meeting.

However, the mood was more subdued during a meeting of the council’s public safety committee. Garcia opened the meeting with an announcement to the audience that the litigation prevented council members from discussing the firefighters' work schedule.

Bushemi advised the four council members at Tuesday’s meeting against commenting or inviting firefighters to comment on the issue in the wake of the mayor’s suit.

Neither the mayor nor the fire chief were present Tuesday night, and the mayor couldn’t be reached for comment.

The suit is the latest flare-up of tensions between the mayor and the fire union over upcoming contract negotiations over pay and working conditions.

The union supported the mayor’s political opponent, John Aguilera, in last spring’s Democratic primary. Copeland defeated Aguilera and voters reelected him to a new four-year term last month.

Serna imposed a new swing shift schedule on firefighters beginning Dec. 7 that features rotating eight-hour morning, afternoon and overnight shifts taking place over three days before a firefighter is given the next 24 hours off.

Both Serna and Copeland, who worked for years as a firefighter before his first election as mayor, said last week the new swing shifts will save thousands of dollars in overtime pay while increasing the number of firefighters available for each shift.

David Mata, president of Local 365, said last week the swing shifts provide no savings for the public, only sleep deprivation for disoriented firefighters.

The union has chosen to work around him by negotiating a contract with the city council, where they have been given a warmer reception.

Last week’s council meeting resembled a union rally with Serna subjected to a chorus of catcalls from the union members in the audience. Most council members expressed their support for the union position and criticized the mayor.

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©2019 The Times (Munster, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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