Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Chief John Lane’s refusal to admit he was wrong and issue a quick and sincere apology to the city EMS paramedics who had filed a disrespectful workplace against him will cost city hall $115,000.
That’s the penalty awarded by labour arbitrator Arne Peltz in his ruling in the dispute between Lane and the 350 EMS paramedics who work for him.
The ruling was obtained by the Free Press.
The damage to Lane’s reputation took an even greater hit: Peltz concluded the chief had stubbornly refused to admit he was wrong, had improperly attacked paramedics and their union, and he described Lane’s testimony as evasive and "constantly shifting."
"In my view, the chief’s handling of this affair was flawed from the outset. In particular, a sincere apology at the earliest possible opportunity would have mitigated the damage but… this did not happen," Peltz stated in a 100-page ruling that was distributed to the union and city hall late Wednesday.
"I sense the chief lost sight of the realities of the situation. He seems to have convinced himself that he has acted honourably and has now brought this long dispute to a reasonable conclusion by apologizing. With regret, I record my finding that the chief is mistaken."
Peltz ordered city hall to pay the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union $10,000 and an additional $300 to each of the EMS paramedics who worked at the city at the time, which a union official estimated to be about 350 members — for a total of about $115,000.
Peltz ordered Lane and the local union executive to meet within six weeks in a formal session led by an external professional workplace facilitator, in a process designed to repair the damage to their relationship. Peltz said the city has to pay the cost of the session.
The ruling was anticipated by both the EMS paramedics and city hall after a four-day hearing last fall to hear a grievance launched by the paramedics union. A respectful workplace complaint was launched against Lane in respect to a presentation he made to an international firefighters conference in August 2015 in Redmond, Md., about the controversial training and deployment of firefighters as paramedics.
The conference brochure said Lane was going to talk about the threat posed to the firefighter-paramedic model, describing critics as non-fire paramedics spewing rhetoric that needed to be thwarted with facts.
The EMS paramedics objected to the brochure promoting Lane’s presentation, calling it offensive and insulting.
About 156 EMS paramedics signed a complaint against Lane, saying the brochure had contributed to a disrespectful workplace. The complaint prompted city hall to launch an independent investigation that upheld the complaint and found that Lane had not done enough to alter the heading and wording of the brochure and should not have made his presentation.
When Lane refused to issue an immediate apology, the union filed the grievance.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) which represents the EMS paramedics that work within the WFPS, said Peltz’s ruling was welcome but should not have been necessary had Lane and civic officials acted in good faith.
"Nobody wants their workplace issues broadcast all over the news. Before this process began, Winnipeg ambulance paramedics were willing to accept a sincere apology so that everyone could move forward together. Unfortunately, the chief rejected that option. His refusal to do the right thing, condoned by the City of Winnipeg, forced a costly and divisive arbitration," Gawronsky said in a statement. "We hope this ruling will be the first step towards changing the workplace culture in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service into one that is respectful of the work and input of ambulance paramedics."
The financial penalty was substantially less than what the union had requested: $50,000 for the MGEU and an additional $1,500 to each of the 350 paramedics working for the city in August 2015, a total of $575,000.
Peltz said his decision to award a financial penalty was the sole result of Lane’s actions.
"In the absence of a timely, sufficient and sincere apology, it is just and reasonable to award damages," Peltz stated. "As the union argued, early in the sequence of events in this case there was an ‘easy fix’, but the chief failed to grasp it."
Peltz said his decision to award damages to both the union and individual members was warranted because not to do so would "deprive individuals of a tangible remedy for the harm they experienced."
The hearing also revealed Lane’s close relationship with Alex Forrest, president of the firefighters union, which had been at odds with the EMS union. During cross-examination, it was discovered that Lane and Forrest had exchanged frank text messages in the hours following Lane’s testimony — a breach of Peltz’s instructions to Lane not to discuss his testimony with anyone.
It was difficult to determine what Lane had texted Forrest because Lane admitted to deleting the messages. However, Peltz concluded: "To say the least, this episode was damaging to the chief’s credibility as a witness."
It wasn’t the only time Peltz questioned Lane’s testimony. Peltz described Lane’s testimony at the hearing as "constantly shifting," and he was required to make a financial award because, "The city condoned the chief’s behaviour. Overall, there has been a failure of leadership...It is clear the chief never wanted to apologize and did so only when forced to act."
While Peltz found fault with Lane’s city hall bosses for their failure to force him to take immediate action on the union’s complaint, Peltz did not agree with the union’s assertion that city officials had undermined or interfered with the administration of the union and that the city had not acted in bad faith in its response to the initial paramedics’ complaint and subsequent grievance.
Peltz rejected the union’s request to order Lane to issue another apology and decided against ordering Lane to attend remedial training, concluding it was no longer necessary.
"The arbitration process and the determinations made in this award should have the necessary educational effect," Peltz said.
While there was repeated criticism of Lane in the ruling, Peltz singled out Lane’s deputy chief Christian Schmidt for his "candour" while testifying at the hearing.
Peltz said that the findings of the external lawyer who had investigated the paramedics’ complaint amounted to "a massive repudiation of the chief’s conduct," and warranted an immediate apology. Peltz said that Lane’s rationalization for the delay in issuing an apology "rings hollow. He simply failed to make it a priority."
Peltz said that when Lane did get around to making an apology, it was "both incomplete and misleading," and "reads more as an expression of regret over an inapt choice of words than an acceptance of responsibility for disrespectful conduct."
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.
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