Clarksville Online has obtained an exclusive interview with former Clarksville City Councilman Gabe Segovia who was present at the appeal hearing today.
A three-person city panel consisting of City Councilmen Bill Forrester ward 11, Wayne Harrison ward 12 and Clarksville Gas and Water Gas Division Manager Tae Eaton voted unanimously yesterday to uphold Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper’s decision to terminate former Clarksville Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Burkhart. Jeff Burkhart was fired by Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper for insubordination in April, after he refused a transfer to the Building Maintenance Department. Burkhart had been with the Clarksville Fire Rescue for 22 years.
TM: Gabe thank you very much for allowing me this opportunity to interview you but before we begin tell us what you have been up to since your resignation from the City Council and do you plan a return to the political arena any time soon?
GS: Terry, Mostly I have been working in my back yard landscaping. You know, like moving dirt around and planting things; clearing out brush, weeds, thorns, etc. It is an on-going project that helps me meditate.
As for a possible return to local politics, yes. At least that is my goal. I tried last year to run for public office but my wife’s employer (Leaf Chronicle) told her she’d be fired (or be forced to resign) if I became an official candidate, so I will have to find a way around that in 2010.
TM: Gabe because of the time of day the hearing appeal for former Clarksville Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Burkhart took place and with my citizens unable to attend because of work can you tell us who the presiding authority was over the proceedings.
GS: Sheila Michaels, Interim Human Resources Director.
TM: Did panel members appear unstressed & unbiased?
GS: Tae Eaton asked questions that seemed like he was trying to get at the truth. The two Council members took the side of the city attorney every time. Their basic position is that the mayor can do what he wants. That philosophy is what they based their decision on
TM: Did the legal presiding authority, the City Attorney appear unbiased and even handed in has questions or objections?
GS: The City Attorney was very biased for the position of the mayor, but that was his job: to sell the firing of the city employee as a fair and legal thing for the mayor to do. In other words, the city attorney was not supposed to be unbiased or even handed.
TM: Why did Burkhart not feel qualified for the job and was this a true lateral job transfer?
GS: No, Burkhart did not feel qualified for the job, based on his working knowledge of the duties of that job and his ability to actually read the job description. And no, the move was not a lateral job transfer. There are four pay grades separating his former position of Assistant Fire Chief and Building Maintenance Supervisor. Burkhart’s attorney did an excellent job of questioning Sheila Michaels, and proved that according to our city codes, by definition it was a demotion for Burkhart to be transferred to the other position.
TM: Did anyone else support this feel of him not being qualified?
GS: No. But all witnesses agreed that Burkhart has done a good job at the Fire Department. I think Sheila Michaels may have admitted during questioning that Burkhart did not meet the requirements of that job, but I am not 100% sure about that.
TM: Did the deliberations among the appeal panelists seem to be sincere?
GS: No. At least for the two council members, they already had their minds made up. I say this because the only one of the three that actually deliberated the vote was Eaton. Forrester and Harrison didn’t add anything to the debate other than that the mayor can do what he wants.
TM: Do you think that the panel was a setup?
GS: I think it was a necessary step in the appeals process, and that in time it will be clearly shown the sworn testimony of the witnesses that our city code was violated many, many times in Burkhart’s termination. Everything was recorded and can and will be used again in a real court of law.
TM: Do you feel insubordination was really the issue?
GS: NO. I think Piper was out to show the Fire Department who the boss is.
TM: How much do you think politics played in this issue?
TM: Do you think he has a right to sue?
GS: Yes, and after hearing the testimony today I would encourage him to do just that.
TM: How can we as citizens get involved to stop this from happening again?
GS: Stop electing John Piper as mayor.
TM: Did the Mayor really state under oath that he did not or has not read the city codes?
GS: Yes, you could request a copy of the audio recording. It is public record. Check with Sylvia Skinner.
TM: Is there any thing you would like to say in closing?
GS: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Seriously, though, it was plain to see and hear at the appeal hearing today that the current Mayor John E. Piper was under the impression that he could do whatever he wanted to do because he is the Mayor. Fortunately for the rest of Clarksville, TN, he is mistaken.
Besides admitting under oath that he has not read the Charter or Code, he also admitted that he had not read the official Due Process Procedure for the City of Clarksville. That is a specific section of our city law that gives specific detail on how to reprimand a city employee and the steps that must be taken, as well as the rights of a city employee has if he/she feels they have been wronged.
(As a side note, this is also one of the key sections that was used by some of the black police officers when they won their lawsuits against the city for discrimination.) Funny how those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat the mistakes from the past.
But that is exactly what the City of Clarksville is about to experience again with Mr. Burkhart’s termination. You might also remember that Mr. Tony Blakely lost his appeal hearing, and later won his federal lawsuit.
Ironically, Burkhart’s attorney proved that IF Burkhart would have accepted the transfer/demotion, he would have violated the City Code by being hired into a position that he was not qualified for, according to the official language of the job description. Also, the city codes would have been violated if somehow Burkhart accepted the transfer/demotion and kept his yearly salary, because it was about $30,000 more per year than what the job description allows.
AGAIN, IRONICALLY enough, our mayor did not read the job description for the Building Maintenance Supervisor either. But despite all this, the Council members present deemed it his right to do whatever he wanted to do simply because he is the mayor.
Piper admitted that he had not read the City Code, City Charter, Due Process section, or the Job Description. But he stormed straight ahead and did what he wanted to do. To me, that is pitiful.
All this said, I think the most important part of the entire appeal hearing was the part where it was stated that a city employee can legally refuse a job assignment if it is an unusual one that is hazardous or unsafe. Furthermore, it specifically states that an employee cannot be disciplined for declining that assignment. In the actual job description, it states that certain aspects of the job are “hazardous.” The part that is hazardous is the same part that requires specific state certification (licensed electrician) that Mr. Burkhart does not have.
None of that mattered to Forrester or Harrison. The city code-our city laws-were thrown out the window and trumped by one man’s demands that people bow down to him because he is the mayor and they are not.
There are checks and balances drawn into the design of our city government, and rules and procedures in place to protect city employees against this kind of unjust and illegal treatment. If the mayor and appeals board will not abide by the letter of the law, it is my sincere hope that the next court of real law will.
TM: Thank you Gabe Segovia for this very informative look from inside the Former Clarksville Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Jeff Burkhart’s termination appeal hearing.
GS: You are welcome.