Alan Levy’s assessment of city hall’s reaction to a labour arbitrator’s scathing criticism of Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Chief John Lane probably sums up the feelings of many local residents about the ruling and $115,000 in related penalties.
Mr. Levy, a Brandon-based labour mediator and arbitrator, said Monday he’s surprised to hear Mayor Brian Bowman and senior civic officials continue to voice support for Mr. Lane in the wake of arbitrator Arne Peltz’s ruling last week that the chief’s disrespectful behaviour toward the city’s paramedics merits public condemnation and a financial penalty.
Rather than expressing continuing confidence in the embattled fire paramedic chief, Mr. Levy says the mayor should remove the chief from his position if he does not voluntarily resign.
"It seems the fire chief has burned a lot of bridges in terms of people being able to trust him," Mr. Levy told the Free Press this week. "How will he be able to do his job based on the harm and the question that has arisen due to his behaviour? How will the department have any faith in a person who behaved in such a manner?"
Mr. Peltz’s criticism and associated fine imposition were in connection to a respectful-workplace grievance filed by the city’s paramedic service, as a result of an inflammatory presentation made by Mr. Lane at an international firefighters conference in 2015. Mr. Lane’s subsequent refusal to admit he was wrong and failure to issue a timely apology were among the main criticisms in Mr. Peltz’s ruling. He also called the chief’s testimony during the arbitration hearing evasive and "constantly shifting."
Mr. Bowman and the city’s chief corporate services officer, Michael Jack, maintained their support for the chief after the release of the arbitrator’s ruling. During a Tuesday-morning radio interview, the mayor repeated his statement of confidence in Mr. Lane and added, somewhat contradictorily, that he backs both the chief and the paramedics union in the ongoing dispute between the branches of the fire paramedic service.
It’s a bizarre new chapter in a tale that has been strange and difficult since the amalgamation of Winnipeg’s firefighting and ambulance services in 2000. And the continuing endorsement afforded to Mr. Lane by the mayor and senior administrators suggests city hall is not eager to go to battle with the firefighting service and its formidable union.
This is not, as recent unrelated events have demonstrated, a council and administration that is reluctant to offer pointed criticism and take direct action when mistakes are made and public sentiment is inflamed. When a lawyer misses a deadline and limits the city’s ability to recover costs associated with a troubled water-treatment plant, blame is assigned and action is taken (the lawyer has subsequently sued the city for wrongful dismissal).
When planning for an infrastructure project takes a sudden left turn and residents cry foul over backroom shenanigans and unexpected "rogue" roadway options, condemnation is swift and an audit of the project is ordered (two city engineers left their public-service jobs, citing unfair public criticism from councillors and administration).
But when the head of the fire paramedic service engages in behaviour which an arbitrator deems stubbornly inappropriate — behaviour that could cost taxpayers $115,000 in compensatory payouts — the view from city hall is that business should proceed as usual.
In other words, when it comes to controversy within the city’s firefighting service, where there’s smoke, there’s no fire. Odd, indeed.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.