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Merit Commission Rules Unchanged After Pocket Veto Upheld

Rebecca Green/WBOI News

On a thin 5-4 vote, City Council decided to uphold a pocket veto from Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry relating to changes in the makeup of the Merit Commission of Fort Wayne’s Fire Department.

A “pocket veto” is when the mayor doesn’t outright veto legislation sent to him from Council, but he returns it to the body unsigned, effectively leaving it in Council’s hands to override.

A dispute between Lahey and the union brought this to the forefront after two firefighters were passed over for a promotion. Union leaders say the firefighters were passed over because of a disagreement with Lahey, but the chief contends the firefighters were not promoted due to safety concerns.

Under the amended ordinance, the fire chief would recommend whether to promote a firefighter, but the final call would have been in the hands of the Merit Commission.

The vote did not fall along party lines: Democrats Geoff Paddock, Sharon Tucker and Michelle Chambers voted to uphold the veto; they were joined by Republicans Jason Arp and Paul Ensley, ultimately making the difference.

Arp led the discussion around upholding the veto. He stated that he and Henry -- who was in attendance Tuesday night -- agreed the current disciplinary structure between the fire department rank-and-file and the command staff is untenable.

“The parties involved have not been able to agree on facts and circumstances and some of the issues that have caused some of the issues between the fire administration and the body, the members," Arp said.

"Having said that, I think we should take a little time to do this right.”

At-large Democrat Glynn Hines wanted to override the veto. He said he’d heard enough stories of inappropriate or hostile conduct among firefighters on the campaign trail last year to solidify his perspective on the matter.

“The showing of a video of traumatized kids traumatizes the firefighters who are on that call to understand that the chief is out there running around, depicting their actions to save lives as ‘inept,’ and I think that’s setting a horrible work environment in terms of how people feel,” said Hines.

With this ruling from Council, the Merit Commission and fire department’s promotion policy will remain unchanged at this moment in time. The Merit Commission consists of two mayoral appointees, two union appointees and one member appointed by City Council.

Arp told Henry he wanted to see new legislation related to the Merit Commission in 90 days, and noted he could re-introduce the ordinance as originally passed in December if that doesn’t happen.

Zach joined 89.1 WBOI as a reporter and local host for All Things Considered. He currently hosts Morning Edition.