Fire Truculence

Is it a case of rogue firefighters or meddling city managers? Whatever it is, the Phoenix Fire Department isn't used to the scrutiny it's getting from City Hall.

"I have no doubt in my mind it saved my life," says Mike Bielecki, a firefighter who's on leave now while he works as a policy adviser for Governor Jane Hull.

Bielecki was feeling fine when he went to the center for his required routine physical a year ago. Doctors were worried about a heart murmur and convinced a reluctant Bielecki to get checked out by a specialist. He did, and the heart doctor discovered a blocked valve. Bielecki says he was told he'd have been dead in two years if the problem hadn't been caught and treated.

Bielecki sees the health center not only as a way for the public to get the most from its firefighters, but as "an act of good faith to the firefighters who are willing to put themselves in harm's way."

Nick Brunacini, the chief's son, has been with the department for 18 years. His sister, his brother and a sister-in-law are also Phoenix firefighters.

Nick was recently promoted to battalion chief, but not until the City Manager's Office reviewed test scores and investigated the department's past practices in promoting off the list of eligible candidates.

In August, city personnel manager Don Walsh notified fire officials that a new policy for "making personnel decisions regarding the relatives of employees in management positions" was to be followed. Starting with the pending battalion-chief promotion, Walsh--not fire officials--would make a recommendation to City Manager Frank Fairbanks, who would then make the selection.

Four days later, Walsh issued another memo, this one to Fairbanks recommending that Nick Brunacini be given the promotion. Brunacini was at the top of the promotion list with a score of 90.3216; his closest competition had a score of 87.6987. Walsh noted that it had been the department's practice to take the candidate from the top of the list, unless the top choice had demonstrated a lack of ability for the job, for instance, by serving in an acting capacity and not performing well.

Nick Brunacini was deemed fully capable and given the promotion. So it was a surprise to the younger Brunacini and his superiors when, just two months later, City Hall again reached down and this time blocked the transfer of Brunacini to another fire station.

The reassignment was not strictly routine; the battalion-chief job at the central station paid a bit more money than those at other stations and had a lot more action--scheduling fire crews as well as fighting fires. But Brunacini was well-qualified because he'd earlier served an eight-month internship at the station doing the job. It's the kind of assignment that leads higher up the management ladder. That kind of assignment had always been made without so much as the batting of an eyelash at City Hall, according to fire officials.

Brunacini's friends say it's another slap at the department administered by Sheryl Sculley.

Sculley says she's heard from Marsha Wallace that "this is an issue," but that she knows nothing else about it.

Wallace says the City Manager's Office does get complaints about nepotism in the fire department, "so we have to take extra special care that we're not doing anybody any special favors."

The City Manager's Office realized it was time to come up with a policy on promoting family members, Wallace says, because firefighters' sons and daughters, the Brunacinis included, are now getting to an age and stage in their careers that they're reaching the higher ranks.

She says the city manager promoted Nick Brunacini because his father couldn't.

As for the reassignment to the central station, "We are suggesting that there should be more structure to that process so other people who want it can apply."

Crafting a new policy for command officers was easy for City Hall. What to do about a low-ranking supplies clerk turned data processor is proving more difficult. Especially when she's a union member and protected by a ream of state and federal employment laws.

In fact, before Marsha Wallace gets into the details of the Barbara Johnson affair, she reels off what sounds like a classroom lecture in labor law. "Today, more than ever for government officials . . . the job of supervisor is extremely complicated and difficult," Wallace says.

There are new laws covering family leave, disabilities and fair labor standards. And Barbara Johnson, as evidenced in the stack of grievances filed with the city and the e-mails on fire department and City Hall computers, knows the laws as well as any city administrator. She has written lengthy missives that cite sections of federal laws Johnson thought fire officials were ignoring.

Johnson did not return numerous phone messages left on her home answering machine for this story. Earlier this year, she circulated a letter to city council members and the media, including New Times, asking for help in pursuing her complaints.

In May, she e-mailed Barbara Koffron at the fire department personnel department, apparently to clear up some confusion over Johnson's belief that she was being harassed.

"Let there be no mistake," Johnson wrote, "it is my belief that 'retaliation' has been both present and constant since September 1996 [Gibson's ouster] through the present."

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