Data breach further heightens tensions between union employees, MFPD board

Union official not convinced public supports MFPD board.

By MIKE ANTHONY

The inadvertent disclosure of Mehlville Fire Protection District employees’ personal information on the district’s Web site has further heightened tensions between union employees and the district’s Board of Directors.

But Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer told the Call he believes leaders of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters continue to rely on the same rhetoric and tactics they have used since he and Bonnie Stegman first were elected to the board in April 2005.

In a television news report stemming from a Board of Directors meeting last week, an attorney representing Local 1889 and the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters contended Hilmer and the board have declared “war” on the district’s firefighters.

“This particular chairman and this particular board have declared war on their own firefighters,” attorney Rick Barry said in the televised report.

And as reported by the Call last week, an IAFF official said he’s not convinced the disclosure of employee’s personal information on the district’s Web site was unintentional. Mark Woolbright, a captain with the Pattonville Fire Protection District and IAFF 2nd District vice president, further said, “… These employees risk their lives every day and this is the environment that they continuously have to live with and this appears to be just something else that stems from hatred from the board and the fire chief …”

But nothing could be further from the truth, Hilmer said.

“I harbor no animosity toward any current employee or former employee. All I’m doing is the job that I got elected to do five years ago and that was to clean up the fire district, make it better and cut people’s taxes,” he said. “I’ve delivered on all those and I continue to. Obviously, they don’t like that. I’ll repeat it: There is no ill will toward anybody there. And quite honestly, I don’t know what the seminal event is they think that suddenly this hatred just got kicked on. I haven’t acted any different in the past five years.”

Officials recently posted on the district’s Web site —

— a list of employees’ 2009 salaries and benefits.

But the document also included an em-bedded spreadsheet containing employees’ birth dates and Social Security numbers.

“The district has done everything in its power to remediate this unfortunate accident that happened and to continue to dredge the issue up only harms the employees,” Hilmer said, noting the district has contracted for one year to provide identity-theft protection for employees.

District officials will continue to assess the situation, he said.

“We’re going to assess the situation as it goes on. That’s all you can do,” Hilmer said. “I feel like a broken record talking about some of this stuff. We’ve addressed the situation, yet Local 1889 will bring their own hired guns down here, their attorney and someone who doesn’t even live in the district, much less work at the district, to stir the pot up on, quite frankly, everything except to do with this snafu.

“And I’ll use the phrase over and over — I just feel like it’s such a broken record. Their attorney’s threatening to sue us and if that’s what they want to do, go ahead.”

Relations between union employees and the Board of Directors have been strained since shortly after the election of Hilmer and Stegman, who campaigned on a reform platform. Board Secretary Ed Ryan, who was elected in April 2007, ran on that same reform platform.

Since June 2005, Hilmer estimates Local 1889 and its supporters have filed more than 25 lawsuits, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints and other actions against the board and district.

“… At what point do they at least give a modicum of respect to the people their bosses, the residents, put in there? And this is something that has gone one election cycle after election cycle and yet we’re treated to the same tired diatribes of somehow just because we’re running this fire district responsibly that we hate people,” Hilmer said. “What’s interesting is the only people I ever hear this from is the employees’ union. I’ve received hundreds of cards, letters and people who will call my house out of the blue to say thank you for what you’re doing at the fire district. These are people I don’t know.

“It’s sad that the only people I hear negative things from are the employees. And what really amazes me is if you think about what we’ve done in five years. There is no fire district in St. Louis County that has the newest equipment like we’ve bought, brand-new firehouses we’re building. You look at their pay scale. It’s kind of ironic if you look at their pay scale when you go to the Web site that spawned this whole Social Security controversy, these people make six-figure salaries and benefits. And I guess the one thing I’ve learned over the five years, I could give them everything they want in terms of money and benefits, they still wouldn’t be happy.”

Hilmer cited Local 1889’s vote of no confidence for former Chief Ray Haddock in October 2002 after voters twice had rejected a proposed tax-rate increase.

“(Haddock) gave them everything they wanted, drove the district to the verge of bankruptcy and they gave him a vote of no confidence when the pot ran dry,” he said.

Woolbright said union officials repeatedly have tried to work with the board, but to no avail.

“… This is like no other situation I’ve seen and I represent 200 departments across four states and I’ve never seen a relationship this bad nor have I seen a lack of respect from an employer board as well as the chief that basically shows no respect or no regard to the profession and to their employee group,” he said.

Asked if he believes the public supports the job Hilmer and the board are doing, Woolbright said, “We’re not convinced of that. We’re getting a tremendous amount of feedback from taxpayers and residents that they want some stability amongst their fire department and within their fire department,” he said.

Hilmer said he’s often asked why he serves on the board.

“They don’t understand why I’d want to go through so much abuse and take such a large task on,” he said. “I tell them: Well, it’s certainly not for the money. I get about $2,000 a year in director’s fees to do this … I look at my mother. My mother has to stay at home to take care of my father and my brother, both of whom are disabled. And certainly she’s not alone. Many people do this in south county, but I see a lot of people who don’t have a chance to have a voice at the fire district. They dutifully have to pay their property taxes every December, like we all do, and I just think they were getting the raw end of the stick.

“And those are the people that I’m really there trying to represent. They’re the ones who need to call 911 and they deserve the best things possible for what they spend. And that’s what drives me is the people …”