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FRIDAY, APRIL 13, 2007

Firefighters' harassment complaints unresolved
10 employees filed claims with Decatur department

By Chris Paschenko · 340-2442

Ten Decatur firefighters have filed harassment complaints with the city over the past two years. The complaints apparently are unresolved, forcing one employee to resign amid unsanitary working conditions, current and former staff members said.

Rosemary Peek resigned in September, saying the city didn’t address her 2005 harassment complaint.

Peek, who was hired in 2001, said that on more than a dozen occasions she found feces on toilet seats at the fire station and urine spread about the women’s restroom. She said someone also had disturbed her personal items.

“The chief didn’t do anything about it, and I was basically retaliated against,” Peek said. “It created a hostile working environment. After filing grievances and getting threatened ... I was moved.”

Peek said she had faith that the city would act swiftly, using its strict harassment policy to correct the problem.

“Laws are set up to protect against harassment, and apparently some people don’t have to follow that,” Peek said. “Firefighters were given verbal warnings to stay out of the women’s bathroom. I called my lieutenant, Chief (Charlie Johnson) and told them I wanted it stopped today. They came out and interviewed me, and that’s the last I heard of it.”

Johnson declined to discuss personnel matters, and Council President Billy Jackson, the liaison to the Fire Department, was unavailable Thursday for comment.

Peek said she wrote a letter to Jackson in March 2006.

“I got a letter of apology from the chief three or four days later,” Peek said. “I filed with the EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) in April of last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. I can’t get a lot of questions answered.”

The “put up or shut up” mentality forced her resignation, Peek said.

“And I got to where I couldn’t put up with it no more,” she said. “I was passed over for training, and it was given to males with less seniority than me.”

When Peek first reported her situation, she said her lieutenant spoke with a battalion chief, who then ordered men to stay out of the women’s restroom.

“When it started, it was every shift about a dozen times over three or four months before I reported it,” Peek said. “I was hoping it would stop. Every shift the lieutenant went in and inspected it and documented it.”

Peek said the conditions were “nasty.”

“I told my lieutenant I’d had enough and to do an investigation,” Peek said. “I was asked what appropriate actions should be taken at the time. I said, ‘Either put a lock on the door so I’m the only one with a key or put a camera in the bathroom so you know who’s doing it.’ My suggestions were refused.”

Peek said she gave a copy of her letter of resignation to Johnson, all five City Council members, Personnel Director Ken Smith and fire Lt. Craig Corum, president of Decatur Firefighter’s Union Local 1437.

The Daily contacted Corum and learned Peek, Corum and eight others associated with the union had filed one or more harassment complaints with the city since 2005. The firefighters reported harassment interfered with their work performance or created an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

“A lot of the complaints deal with harassment or things that are not being handled,” Corum said. “We have over and over reported it to administration, and nothing was done about it. That’s why it went to the Personnel Department.”

Corum said he thinks the Personnel Department did its job.

“Ken Smith said he did find retaliation,” Corum said. “Charles Howard, the Personnel Department’s lawyer, was here for four weeks investigating the harassment claims and other problems within the Fire Department, such as overtime and personnel issues.”

Howard called 30 firefighters to City Hall and interviewed them, Corum said. The complaints were submitted to Decatur Mayor Don Kyle four weeks ago, after Kyle returned from surgery, Corum said.

“My retaliation started when I filed harassment charges with the personnel director,” Corum said. “I started getting write-ups from November, one right after another. I was falsely accused of (violating) a policy that doesn’t exist.”

Kyle and Smith declined to discuss specific personnel issues, but Smith said disciplinary letters filed against firefighters over the past two years have been sealed, meaning the letters can’t be used as evidence to demote or discipline.

“The Personnel Board ... decided in the interest of balance and fairness to seal records,” Smith said. “It’s a way of removing it from files, so they get back to the business of fighting fires. It will not impact on individuals in demotion or discipline or what ever the case may be.”

Corum’s five written warnings are among the sealed records, he said.

“I’m not saying the city won’t do nothing,” Corum said. “But I’d say a year or more is too long. It’s the city’s responsibility to address the complaints, and if nothing is done, then the policy is useless. They cannot allow this to continue.”

Smith said employees are encouraged to report harassment to supervisors, department heads, himself or the mayor.

“The policies are geared to make it stop,” Smith said. “That’s why we have a very open harassment policy. ... We do periodic training with the EEOC. About eight or nine months ago, we had 98 percent or about 490 people who attended.”

Peek said harassment crosses race and gender boundaries.

“In my 51/2 years, there were some great guys there,” Peek said. “But one bad apple can spoil the bunch. I still keep in touch with my lieutenant.”

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