On lawyer’s OK, Fire Department to overhaul discipline process
STRASBURG — The Strasburg Fire Department will likely have a new set of guidelines for handling discipline.
Members of the department’s restructuring committee voted on Thursday to have Town Manager Wyatt Pearson rewrite the department’s bylaws, contingent on approval from the town’s attorney.
The rewritten bylaws would create a committee to handle discipline matters and provide a procedure for appealing the committee’s decisions.
During the meeting, Milton Painter, the department’s interim president and a member of the committee, described efforts to create a new set of procedures for handling discipline as a way of ensuring a fair process.
“The stuff that is handed out needs to be consistent, fair, balanced, all that stuff,” Painter said.
Under the planned provisions, the president, vice president, chief and assistant chief of the department would form a committee that would be tasked with determining the discipline department members receive for potential rule infractions.
After that committee comes to a determination, the person who is disciplined could appeal the committee’s decision to a “trial board” of life members of the department who have served the department for 20 years. If the trial board upholds the discipline committee’s decision, the person can again appeal to the department’s board of directors.
In the current rules, the department’s fire chief or the department’s president hands out discipline, depending on whether or not the alleged offense is “an administrative offense” or “an operational offense.” The assistant fire chief acts in place of the fire chief if the accusation comes against the fire chief, while the vice president acts in place of the president if the accusation is against the president.
Members can currently appeal to the department’s board of directors.
The changed rules would give broad leverage to the department’s president throughout the appeals process. Under the rules, the president appoints the members of the trial board and has a vote both on the discipline committee and on the board of directors, which makes final determinations.
Town Manager Wyatt Pearson said that the potential for conflicts of interest within the committee is somewhat limited because the president only holds one vote out of four for the initial discipline determination and one vote out of seven for the final determination.
In addition, James Cook, the Leesburg Fire Chief and a member of the restructuring committee, said that the discipline committee should have alternate members to act if the case involves a member of the committee.
“That discipline committee needs to have alternates,” Cook said.
In addition to changing the process for handing out discipline, the restructuring committee tasked Pearson with rewriting how the bylaws governing disciplinary matters. The changes would generally follow the rules under Shenandoah County’s personnel handbook with slight differences to account for the fact that the department is a volunteer organization.
The bylaws would also no longer include any references to specific infractions that could result in discipline. Instead, the discipline committee, trial board and board of directors would use a set of yet-to-be-created guidelines to determine appropriate punishments.
Although the restructuring committee supported the potential changes, it voted on them only contingent on a favorable review by the town’s attorney, Nathan Miller. Miller had previously expressed concern that the committee couldn’t approve any bylaw changes without support from two-thirds of the department’s membership, Pearson said.
That decision, Pearson explained, came from a part of the department’s bylaws. But another part offers an avenue that only requires support from two-thirds of the department’s board of directors.
Cook argued that the latter provision would allow the committee to make changes to the bylaws without receiving a vote from the department’s membership.