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Gary Firefighters Local 359 Vice President Kevin Benford, l-r, Louis Brown, and Larry Tillman

Gary fire chief sends fireman home, fire commission sends him back to work

Contributed By:The 411 News

Legal tug-of-war in Gary over who can hire/fire probationary fireman Louis Brown

Disciplinary action of a probationary firefighter that put Gary Firefighters Local 359 at odds with Gary Fire Chief Sean O'Donnell in March has now escalated into a lawsuit against the city's Fire Civil Service Commission.

At the center of the controversy is Louis Brown, age 28. Brown started with the fire department in February as a member of a class of recruits. He had completed less than 2 months of his 12-months probationary period and training when Chief O'Donnell sent him home on March 30.

On April 19, union members rallied on the steps of city hall to protest Chief O'Donnell's action and then headed inside for a Gary city council meeting. Local 359 president Larry Tillman, other union officials and Brown appealed to the council for support.

What got him in trouble, Brown said, was a verbal altercation with a store clerk. Chief O'Donnell learned of it a few days later.

"What should have happened," Tillman said, "is an investigation should have been held and evidence presented. There is no formal complaint, no police report; only a written note from a person in the store."

"The chief has the authority to propose things, even for a probationary candidate, but we think this firing is premature," Tillman told the council. "We have had situations like this in the past where people have gotten in trouble during their probationary period. It was handled by the chief and the individual remained employed."

"This is the first time an individual has been let go without a formal complaint," Tillman said.

The union was back at the city council on Tuesday to give members an update. Earlier in the day, Tillman had learned of the lawsuit against the Fire Commission.

The City of Gary has asked Lake Superior Court to rule on whether the Board of Public Works and Safety has the authority to terminate the employment of probationary firefighter candidates without the permission or authorization of the Fire Commission.

According to the complaint, Chief O'Donnell's investigation found that "Brown visited a Subway store in Miller on March 28th. Brown was wearing a dark, navy blue sweatshirt with the Gary Fire Department logo and the words “Firefighter Candidate” on it."

The complaint went on to say, "Brown got into a verbal altercation with a juvenile store employee and raised his sweatshirt displaying a firearm in the waistband. Brown said something to the effect, 'you don’t know what I’m capable of.' Neither the store manager, owner, nor the juvenile store employee filed a police report."

Chief O'Donnell terminated Brown due to his behavior.

On May 4th, just hours before members of the administration and the city council were set to meet in an executive session to discuss the dispute between the fire chief and the union, the Board of Public Works voted to approve and ratify the chief’s termination of candidate Brown.

On May 19th, Tillman said, the Fire Commission voted 6-0 for Brown to go back to work. Brown reported to work on May 23rd. Fire Commissioner Juana McLaurin said the Commission has been through this before, "The chief can recommend termination to the Commission. Only the Commission can demote, fire, discharge or suspend."

The lawsuit also asked whether the Gary Fire Civil Service Commission has the legal authority to order the City of Gary to rehire a terminated probationary firefighter candidate.

“The city has every right to appeal the decision of the commission. But the standard practice is the fireman would stay in place until a higher authority has said the commission is right or wrong,” said city council attorney Rinzer Williams. “Never have I seen the city act this aggressively and legally inappropriate.”

Story Posted:06/11/2022

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