Ohio chief fired by mayor for refusing to make cuts

Editor's Note: Chief Donald Barnes was blunt when told by the mayor to make more cuts, saying it jeopardized the safety of both residents and firefighters. The mayor's response? Dismissal. "We need a chief who can be flexible enough and creative enough to find the best plan," he said. Use your free FR1 login to have your say in the member comment section at the end of the article.

By Patrick O'Donnell
The Plain Dealer

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Fire Chief Donald Barnes was fired Monday after balking at orders from Mayor Earl Leiken to make a new round of cuts in the fire department's budget.

Leiken had asked him to cut $250,000 from the department's $8.3 million budget as all city departments trim costs to avoid a possible citywide deficit of $3.5 million this year. Barnes had been chief since 2002.

The firing may be the first dismissal of a public official in the region for refusing to make budget cuts. Despite significant cuts at many communities in this economic downturn, none has reported firings because of opposition.

Leiken said he did not want to cut firefighters because the city had laid off four this year. The mayor said he wanted Barnes to trim management costs.

"We had prolonged discussions, but in the end, he refused to come up with anything," said Leiken. "We need a chief who can be flexible enough and creative enough to find the best plan."

Barnes declined to comment Tuesday, referring all calls to his lawyer, Joseph Diemert. Barnes said in a letter to the mayor last month that cuts would damage the department and the protection it provides residents.

"I just can't professionally or morally do what you have instructed without jeopardizing the health, safety and welfare of our residents and our firefighters," he wrote.

A written statement from Diemert's firm called the firing unjust and said it would be contested. It also noted that Leiken, as mayor and safety director, could have made cuts without Barnes' cooperation.

Leiken suggested cutting an assistant chief and a nonunion fire inspector. Barnes raised objections in letters to Leiken to both suggestions.

Leiken said Barnes had resisted proposed changes to the department in the past.

Shaker Heights already made budget cuts this year but Leiken said declining tax collections forced a new round of cuts. Starting this month, some city employees will take every other Friday as unpaid days off. The City Hall and community building will be closed on those days.

Leiken said he believes the fire department, with 61 firefighters, is far too large for a city of about 27,000 people. It also had two assistant chiefs when all other suburban departments that Leiken checked have only one.

Assistant Chief Kevin Jacobs was named acting chief. Jacobs, a longtime firefighter who has been an assistant chief since 2002, said it was too early for him to discuss any budget cuts.

Barnes' firing saves the city more than $140,000 in salary and benefits.

Vice Mayor Nancy Moore said City Council was aware of the discussions between Barnes and Leiken and supports the firing because cuts are necessary.

"We're all really sorry it has come to this," she said.

Republished with permission of The Plain Dealer

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