Discipline Rejected by Commission

Posted on Tuesday, September 01, 1998 at 12:00PM

On July 20, 1998, in a 3-2 decision against the City of Alhambra Fire Department, the Alhambra Civil Service commission ruled in favor of fire engineer/paramedic Ronald Thurston in his appeal of discipline imposed upon him by the Alhambra Fire Department.

Thurston was disciplined with a six-month pay step reduction for charges, the most serious of which was alleged “insubordination,” after he engaged in a four-minute, union-related debate with a temporary, off-duty, non-union member captain.

While the commission made it clear in its decision that it does not condone “disrespect’ in any form, the commission held that the evidence submitted by the city was inconclusive and, further, that the discipline imposed by the city was not warranted. At the hearing, Thurston was represented by the Petersen Law Firm.

At the time of the alleged incident, Thurston, who comes from a long line of firefighters in Southern California, had been with the department 11 years. In addition to an impeccable record with the department, and no history of discipline, he was an active member of the board of directors in the Alhambra Firefighters’ Association.

Furthermore, based upon his charity work within the community, rank-and-file members of the department chose him to receive an award for Firefighter of the Year by Assemblywoman Diane Martinez of the 49th Assembly District.

The entire discipline, and resulting five full nights of hearings, was based upon a four minute debate regarding union issues which turned into a heated discussion between Thurston and the then off-duty, non-member temporary captain. Thurston contended that as he was walking through the hallway he overheard his name mentioned through an open door in a conversation.

As he approached the open doorway the nonmember captain also provided false information regarding the union to the then on-duty captain, attempting to persuade him to leave the union. The discussion became heated when this non-union captain retorted with personal slanderous insults directed at Thurston.

Thurston candidly admitted to the commission that at this point he might have used profanities directed toward the non-member captain in response. In keeping with the paramilitary structure and order, the then on-duty captain who was present appropriately took control of the situation and ordered Thurston to leave the room immediately. In his statement regarding this incident, this captain stated that Thurston “quietly walked away” when he received this direct order.

Over strenuous and continued objection by the Petersen Law Firm, the commission refused to hear any evidence regarding union animus throughout the course of the hearings, ruling that it was irrelevant. However, strong inferences demonstrated that from the beginning, the charges against Thurston, an active member of the union, wreaked of retaliation and possible discrimination.

This was based upon his expression of views regarding union issues during this incident with a non-union member in direct violation of the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, Government Code 3300, et. seq., as well as the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the California Constitution. Although the Petersen Law Firm was not permitted to introduce any evidence of union animus during the hearings, it did elicit testimony and evidence during the hearings from which it later argued potential union animus and potential violations in the closing argument.

First, while the evidence demonstrated that the non-member captain slandered Thurston during this exchange, he was never investigated nor disciplined for his part in this incident. Second, the evidence showed that this non-member captain did not initiate a complaint against Thurston, as is often done during the ordinary course of business.

Rather, he was encouraged to go forward by other non-member officials within the department. One witness who testified on behalf of Thurston told the commission that this non-member captain actually told him that he did not want to pursue this but that he was being forced to do so by another nonmember superior.

Third, Alhambra Fire Chief James Ballard refused to attend Thurston’s award ceremony last year for Firefighter of the Year. In his letter to Assemblywoman Martinez, Ballard openly denounced Thurston as a candidate for the award, suggesting that he be nominated to further “the current conflicting union activities.”

To add insult to injury, Ballard thereafter flagrantly posted a copy of this letter for public view by all members of the department. Finally, during Thurston’s Skelly hearing, Ballard indicated that while he understood that the incident involved essentially an argument between two members of the department, that he was pressed to go forward with this discipline because he had a corroborating statement by the then present on-duty captain, which supported the non-member captain’s version.

However, Ballard was unable to meaningfully reveal during cross-examination any portions of this statement, which purportedly corroborated the non-member captain’s version.

The City of Alhambra Civil Service commission “did the right thing” in this case. Thus, the commission deserves kudos for taking a tough political stand and rendering a fair and just decision.

Also noteworthy was union President Robert D’Ausilio’s active participation in seeing this case through to its completion. His commitment and contribution were significant to the outcome of the case.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.