Weslaco firefighters union lobs leadership complaint

Left: In this file photo, Weslaco firefighters douse a structure that suffered extensive fire damage on Jan. 18, 2021 in north Weslaco. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected]) Right: The Weslaco Firefighters Association's logo (Courtesy: Facebook)

The Weslaco Firefighters Association has issued a no confidence vote against Assistant Fire Chief Jaime Hernandez and is now asking city officials to step in to address the issue.

The Weslaco Firefighters Association Local 3207 announced the 37-to-2 no confidence vote Wednesday in a letter addressed to the mayor and city commission that was simultaneously released to the media.

The letter claims the department suffers from low morale and a high turnover rate, which the union attributes to a lack of leadership on behalf of the assistant chief.

“We believe Assistant Chief Hernandez lacks leadership and operational skills, including the ability to effectively communicate, is abusive and retaliatory with discipline, undermines due process, and is inattentive to the well-being of the fire department,” the letter reads, in part.

“He has created a hostile work environment that places our members and citizens in unnecessary danger,” it further reads.

However, the letter offers no specifics on the grievances the association has with the man.

Reached for comment Friday, Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez said he hadn’t been made aware of any issues until the letter went public.

“I don’t know any specifics. You saw the same letter I saw. That’s all I have to go on,” Perez said, adding that whatever complaints the association has would be investigated.

But, the association leadership say they have tried to make their concerns known within the department’s chain of command, and with city administration during labor relations committee meetings.

While some issues have been addressed as a result of those meetings, some have not, according to John D. Peña, president of the association.

Chief among their complaints, Peña says Hernandez delivers unequal discipline to the firefighters under his command. The union also alleges the assistant chief has withheld access to vital safety equipment, including protective face masks and machines used to detect gas leaks.

In one instance, the department terminated a firefighter. That action is currently under dispute by the association, said Carlos Hernandez, who serves as vice president of the association. Carlos Hernandez and the assistant chief are not related.

“That issue is currently on its way to arbitration. The issue we had there is that the due process was completely ignored by the assistant fire chief,” Carlos Hernandez said.

In the wake of concerns raised early on during the COVID-19 pandemic over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), the union was able to successfully negotiate for the purchase of higher quality breathing protection for its members in the form of what Carlos Hernandez called “half-mask respirators.”

But Hernandez alleges the assistant chief has kept those masks in his office and out of the hands of his firefighters — until Wednesday, when the department began to distribute the masks just after the union went public with its complaints, he said.

“Over 50% of our department was infected with the virus and then to be dealing with this type of leadership on top of that, it’s just uncalled for,” Carlos Hernandez said.

Peña added that the city’s firetrucks are currently without gas monitors, which are used to detect the presence and type of gas leaks.

“Here we are going out to calls where there’s a smell of gas in the building and we don’t have the equipment (to check)” Peña said.

According to the union leaders, the city’s existing gas monitors have been out for service for repairs for months.

“We truly believe that he needs to be reassigned back to his previous position and let somebody else lead us and lead us from the top,” Peña said.

Perez, the city manager, said addressing the complaints may now be a much more complicated process than the union realizes.

That’s because Hernandez, the assistant chief, is subject to the same labor and due process protections as the department’s rank and file.

“So here’s the irony — if we take any action on (the assistant chief), he has a right to go to them and say, ‘You need to provide defense to what they’re saying here,’” Perez said.

“Do you understand the kind of conflict that we have here?” he said.

Nor is this the first time the firefighters union has issued public criticism of the department’s leadership.

Last April, the union criticized the city’s response to the pandemic — from how the city was distributing PPE to frontline workers, to how EMS crews were being dispatched to aid residents experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Now, as then, Perez says the union’s going public with its concerns and addressing their grievances directly to the city commission may have circumvented the collective bargaining process in a way that will make finding a resolution more arduous.

The city’s labor structure mandates that the commission’s authority to directly intervene is limited to department heads. It’s those department heads who have the autonomy to address issues with their subordinates, Perez explained.

“The mayor and the commission nor I can take action on any employee below the fire chief because under civil service, they are responsible for managing. And that’s why you have civil service, so you don’t have politics getting involved with either the city manager, or the mayor and commission trying to dictate what happens with individual police officers and firefighters,” Perez said.

The city manager added it’s not within the city’s best interests to ignore or make light of its workers’ concerns.

“I mean, we do everything … that we can to protect our firefighters. The city has a lot invested in their training and in their health, and so it is not to our advantage in any way to allow them to get sick or anything to happen to them,” Perez said.

“But if they say that’s occurring, we’ll look at it. And if there is an issue we’re going to address it. But none of those specifics were given to me,” he said.

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