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January 10, 2013

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer

The MV City of Portland IV fireboat

Portland councilor wants full report on fireboat accident released

By Randy Billings
rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — City Councilor Edward Suslovic is calling on the city to release a detailed report about the 2011 fireboat accident that caused more than $50,000 in damage and led to unpaid suspensions for two crew members.

Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, said Wednesday that the city should provide the detailed documents to the public, including the former fire chief's report on the accident, so it's clear what happened and the matter can be put to rest.

"In order for any organization to move forward, you have to openly confront the failures of the past," Suslovic said, a day after the city announced an arbitrator's decision on the crew members' appeal and said no more information would be released.

"I just don't see how the Fire Department can move forward until this cloud is lifted," Suslovic said.

The city's $3.2 million fireboat was damaged on Oct. 15, 2011, when it struck an underwater object near Fort Gorges.

City officials said crews were on a sunset training mission when the accident occurred, even though an internal investigation revealed that one of the firefighters, Capt. Christopher Goodall, had a dozen family and friends aboard the boat.

The city suspended Goodall for 80 hours and firefighter Joseph Murphy, who was piloting the boat, for 24 hours as a result of the accident, which the city said could have been avoided.

The city previously said it would withhold details about the accident until the firefighters' appeal of their suspensions was concluded. But in the news release announcing the independent arbitrator's conclusions, the city said it would not release any additional information, citing employee confidentiality.

That left unanswered questions, including what type of marked underwater obstruction the boat hit, how fast the boat was going, and what Goodall was doing when he should have been watching for obstacles.

The city had said it would eventually provide a detailed account of the accident, Suslovic said, noting that City Manager Mark Rees had repeated that promise several times in person.

"I've been told that for 15 months now," he said. "I want to see the full report."

Rees did not return a call for comment. But City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city has never promised to make a full report available.

"It's possible that there was some confusion about what a 'final written decision' is," Clegg said in an email.

The Portland Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access Act request for information contained in the former fire chief's investigation that did not directly deal with personnel issues.

But acting corporation counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said state law prohibits the city from disclosing any investigative materials, even though the arbitrator upheld at least a portion of the punishment doled out by the city.

"In fact, (state law) specifically provides that all underlying information is confidential and cannot be disclosed," West-Chuhta said in an email.

Attorney Sigmund Schutz, who represents the Press Herald, said the city should be able to release any portion of the report that doesn't identify an individual employee.

"There is no good reason why the city's disciplinary process should not be completely transparent once employee discipline has been upheld," he said. "The purpose of confidentiality is to protect the reputation of a public employee accused of misconduct when the employee turns out to be innocent ... not to protect details from becoming public when discipline is imposed and has been upheld.

"The city's position may technically be legal, but is bad policy," Schutz said. "The Legislature should take a look at changing the law to fix this loophole."

Suslovic said he is planning to challenge the city's position.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman, who was recently appointed to the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, said she would like the city to release a full account so lingering questions can be answered, but that may not be possible.

"I think transparency is the better road to take, but here I think we're stymied by the law," she said.

The positions of other members of the Public Safety, Heath and Human Services Committee are unclear. When contacted Wednesday afternoon, Councilor Jill Duson had not read the arbitrator's report. Councilor John Coyne did not return calls for comment.

The suspended firefighters appealed their punishments, with the help of Local 740 of the International Association of Firefighters, the union representing the city's 234 firefighters.

The independent arbitrator ruled that the boat should have never left the "Destroyer Channel," but when it did, the arbitrator said, Goodall should have alerted Murphy to the marked underwater object.

"As engineer, (Goodall) should have alerted the pilot to possible hazards and, as lookout, should have been more aware of his surroundings," the arbitrator wrote.

The arbitrator, however, reduced the punishments of the men because of their good employment history and ordered the city to pay $878 in back wages to Goodall and $278 to Murphy.

An attempt to reach Goodall and Murphy through the union Wednesday was unsuccessful.

City officials have said the firefighters were not punished for having civilians aboard, since the city did not have a policy against it.

When asked about the dispute over the release of more information, Mayor Michael Brennan said he trusts city staff's opinion that the arbitrator's report is the only document the city can legally release.

"I don't mind providing information to the public," he said. "I prefer to err on the side of making information available, but at the same time, we can't violate state law."

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
rbillings@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @randybillings





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