City hall is firmly behind its embattled fire paramedic chief.
Mayor Brian Bowman and Michael Jack, the chief corporate services officer and Chief John Lane’s boss, repeatedly said Thursday they stand behind Lane despite a labour arbitrator’s scathing criticism.
"We continue to have faith in our fire paramedic chief," Jack said.
"I continue to support our chief and I continue to support the members of MGEU and the other unions involved," Bowman said.
Bowman and Jack were responding to the ruling from arbitrator Arne Peltz. In a decision released Tuesday, Peltz ordered the city to pay $115,000 in damages to the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union and its members who work as EMS paramedics within the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. They had filed a grievance against the city for what they said what Lane’s ongoing disrespect to EMS paramedics.
Peltz said a financial penalty is warranted because Lane failed to offer the paramedics "a timely, sufficient and sincere apology" after 156 of them filed a respectful workplace complaint against him.
"The obvious and best response to a single act of disrespect… was a sincere apology," Peltz wrote in the 100-page ruling. "It also would have been the least expensive resolution for the city."
Peltz ordered the city to pay the MGEU $10,000 and $300 to each paramedic who was employed with the WFPS in August 2015, when the complaint was filed.
Peltz strongly criticized Lane’s leadership style, saying he antagonized paramedics. Peltz also said Lane’s testimony during a hearing last October was problematic, describing him as evasive and "constantly shifting."
The criticism wasn’t enough to shake city hall’s support for Lane, who was appointed chief in 2014.
Jack said the city accepts Peltz’s findings and observations, but said all the criticism wasn’t warranted.
Jack said the perception of Lane as he testified doesn’t reflect his leadership of the WFPS.
"The way people testify, of course, doesn’t necessarily represent how they lead a department," Jack said.
The city would not allow Lane to be interviewed.
The president of the EMS paramedics union was surprised by the city’s strong support for Lane
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the MGEU, said she’s concerned city hall hasn’t accepted the arbitrator’s finding and she’s worried that Lane’s disrespectful attitude toward paramedics would continue.
"I think anyone who has read the ruling can see how disrespectful the chief’s actions and words were to all ambulance paramedics," Gawronsky said in a statement provided to the Free Press. "Until they put measures in place to deal with the lack of respect that has been shown to our members, they are condoning and allowing this behaviour to continue, and that’s not helpful for anyone."
While Jack said he had read the ruling, Bowman said his support for Lane stands even though he hadn’t read Peltz’s report. Reporters asked him if he would read the report. He was unable to say when.
"Ah man, that’s a good question," Bowman told reporters after holding a media photo opportunity on the curling ice sheet in Old Market Square with Olympian Kaitlyn Lawes, curling legend Jeff Stoughton and representatives of the Exchange District BIZ.
"I hear it’s a pretty long one. I can’t answer that right now. It’s going to depend on my calendar and how long it is. I haven’t even got a copy of it yet. I’d expect in the coming weeks I’ll have a chance to review it more fully."
Bowman said his focus is on ensuring that Lane and the EMS paramedics union resolve their differences.
"What I’ve communicated and what I continue to communicate is we need to work together to make sure we have the best service possible," Bowman said. "I’m hoping both parties will have an opportunity to review the arbitration, to learn from it, and to move forward."
Several councillors were asked to respond to Peltz’s ruling.
Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, chairman of the council committee that oversees the WFPS, said he was disappointed with Peltz’s findings, but he stands behind the chief.
"I was certainly hoping to hear better news as the chief had indicated he had apologized," said Pagtakhan.
"It’s definitely hard news to hear about the cost to taxpayers… I’m hopeful that the relationship can begin to heal. Sometimes the best working relationships start out from situations like this. The process and the parties need to be given a chance to make it work."
Coun. Brian Mayes, chairman of the environment committee, said that while he hadn’t read the Peltz ruling, he remains confident in Lane’s leadership.
Jack said the city supports Lane and the paramedics union in an effort to resolve the dispute. The city has started to search for a facilitator, as ordered by Peltz, who is to guide both Lane and the local union executive toward a resolution.
During a seven-minute interview, Jack used the words "confidence" and "faith" with respect to Lane six times as he answered reporters’ questions about Lane’s ability to stay on as chief.
"We continue to have faith in the chief," Jack said. "We do accept a lot of what the arbitrator said, not only how the chief testified but in terms of the sequence of events that got us here. So we accept that. There is a lot that needs to be corrected here, and that’s what we’re going to address as we attempt to move forward."
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.