Ind. city, fire civil service commission head to court over probationary FF’s firing
Louis Brown allegedly entered a Subway shop wearing a Gary Fire Department shirt, had a verbal altercation and displayed a firearm
GARY, Ind. — A question over whether or not the city can fire a probationary firefighter without the permission of the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission is headed to court.
The city of Gary filed suit on June 7 against the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission seeking an expedited declaratory judgment on whether or not the city through the Board of Public Works and Safety has the authority to terminate probationary firefighter candidates without the commissions’ permission or authorization.
The issue revolves around probationary firefighter Louis Brown, who was hired as a firefighter candidate Feb. 17, according to the complaint filed in Lake Superior Court Civil Division 4.
According to the complaint, Brown was terminated after an incident that allegedly occurred March 28 at the Subway sandwich store at 5808 Melton Road in Gary. Brown allegedly entered the store wearing a dark, navy blue sweatshirt bearing the Gary Fire Department logo and the words “Firefighter Candidate”.
At that time Brown allegedly got into a verbal altercation with a juvenile store employee and raised his sweatshirt displaying a firearm in the waistband, according to the document.
“Brown said something to the effect, ‘you don’t know what I’m capable of’,” the complaint alleges.
According to the complaint, neither the store manager, owner nor the juvenile store employee filed a police report.
Fire Chief Sean O’Donnell conducted an investigation on or around March 30 and proceeded to terminate Brown on March 30 “due to his behavior at the Subway as unbecoming a firefighter candidate,” according to the complaint.
The city’s Board of Public Works and Safety, on May 4, approved the termination of Brown during his one-year probationary period, according to the complaint. Then, on May 19, the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission voted to reinstate Brown over the objection of the city, the complaint continued.
Larry Tillman, president of Gary Firefighters Union 359, said the commission voted to return Lewis to work and make him whole on the compensation lost. He said he too supported Brown returning to work.
Brown returned to class on May 23 and had been attending classes until O’Donnell, on June 6, came to the training to tell candidate Brown to leave immediately, Tillman said. When Brown returned to class the next day, O’Donnell again told him to leave.
Tillman said Brown received a certified letter May 16 informing him he had 10 days to appeal the Board of Public Works decision.
Commission member Juana McLaurin, who is one of two fire department appointees on the panel, said Tuesday at the Gary Common Council meeting the Board of Public Works overstepped its authority. She said the commission is supposed to be apolitical and the Board of Public Works is highly political because its members are hired by the mayor. The commission has two mayoral appointees, two common council appointees and two fire department appointees.
"(Firefighter Lewis) could not get a fair shake because of the mayor and fire chief has an agenda and more than likely they will follow that agenda,” McLaurin said.
McLaurin said state statute gives appointing authority to the commission when one exists. If there is no commission, the Board of Public Works retains the power.
McLaurin said the commission had not received anything from the fire chief concerning the matter and took it upon themselves as the governing board of the fire department to send Brown back to work.
However, in the complaint filed in Lake Superior Court, the city argued it passed a city ordinance where the city retained the provisions of the Indiana Fire Civil Service Act instead of adopting the new provisions of the Police and Fire Merit Systems Act, to which McLaurin referred Tuesday in her comments.
Both the state statute and city code make reference to the “appointing power” and the “commission” suggesting they are separate entities, according to the documents.
The complaint requests an immediate hearing to enter the order declaring whether the board of works has the power to terminate probationary firefighter candidates with the permission or authority of the Gary Civil Service Commission and whether the commission has the legal authority to order the city to rehire a terminated probationary firefighter candidate.
The Gary Common Council has thrown their support behind Brown.
“I certainly share your frustration,” Council President William Godwin, D-1st, adding he guess the city’s law department has a lot of free time to fight all these battles.
Councilman Ron Brewer, D-At Large, said he supports Brown’s efforts to serve the city. He said Brown was brought to the bod at the top of his class and is a Gary resident.
“I take pride in one of Gary’s residents at the top of the classing who is willing to serve his community,” Brewer said, adding the city should hire him back.
Councilman Mike Brown, D-At Large, Council Vice President Tai Adkins, D-4th, and Councilwoman Mary Brown, D-6th, also voiced their support Tuesday for the firefighter candidate’s reinstatement.
The council’s vocal support comes during a meeting where they conducted a moment of silence for gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas and called for action against gun violence.
Drill Master Chief Kent Whitt said he was trying to get an understanding of what he is supposed to do. Brown returned to training on the advice of his attorney and the city has said he should not be there. He said it did not appear Brown received the due process to which he was entitled.
“I’m not going to get into a legal battle between his attorney and the city,” Whitt said, adding he needed clarification. He said the situation is causing a hardship for Brown’s family. Since his termination, his vehicle has been repossessed, he said.
“I can tell you it has created a hardship for him. He is struggling right now,” Whitt said, adding whatever happens needs to happen immediately so Brown and the department can move forward.
Brown and his mother Evangela Brown first appeared before the Council on April 19 to appeal for his job. She said she moved to the city when her son was 12 to give him a better life. She asked for the council’s help to make that happen. The 28-year-old is a father of four.
“I don’t think it was fair he was fired and why he was fired,” Evangela Brown said.
The family was joined by his pastor and fellow students and members of Firefighters Local 359 at the time, who called for a formal investigation into the matter.
Louis Brown at the time thanked everybody for the time and support helping him in this situation.
“This job has changed my life,” he said, adding what happened to him was so unjust.
“I didn’t know no better. I understand what I did was wrong. But like is said I wasn’t in the wrong. I apologize for my actions. I apologized to the store for my actions. I apologize to my classmates, and I apologize to you all,” Lewis Brown said.
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