El Mirage City Manager B.J. Cornwall Directed By City Council to Reinstate the Firefighters He Laid Off

El Mirage firefighters emerged victorious this week when the City Council voted 4-2 to reinstate the firefighters that City Manager B.J. Cornwall laid off in August.

But they knew their victory was merely symbolic.

The vote in firefighters' favor may have sounded like an order -- directing Cornwall to reinstate the firefighters -- but since the elected officials do not have authority over personnel matters, the decision apparently still lies with Cornwall.

The unemployed firefighters have not been rehired.

"The city manager has an agenda and he doesn't care about the City Council or its direction," said Tim Hill, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona.

Hill spoke Monday night, urging the council to return the firefighters to work and not give up the federal grant that covered 90 percent of their salaries this year.
The council had approved the federal grant to hire six firefighters in preparation for a second fire station that was slated for construction in the community. But they said a miscalculation led them to believe that the city's share for those firefighters was $57,000 for the first year. The actual cost is more like $193,000, and $1.5 million over the life of the five-year grant.

Having realized their error, Cornwall said they determined they wouldn't be able to afford those extra firefighters. Instead of just coming clean and admitting that to fire union reps, Cornwall went through contract negotiations.

Although they didn't agree with Cornwall's demands, fire reps ultimately accepted his proposal to avoid layoffs in the fire department. But, it wouldn't have mattered. Cornwall didn't say to the union representatives that the employees were being laid off because they didn't fit into the city budget. He simply told them they that contract negotiators waited too long to accept his offer.

"There's something that isn't right here," Hill said. "I think it's obvious."

The El Mirage City Code [31.20(E)] authorizes Cornwall to make hiring and firing decisions of all employees. He told New Times on Monday night that he would review the council direction and take it under consideration.

City Attorney Rick Flaaen said the council has the ability to direct, or order, the city manager to do certain things, but in this case, given that it involves a personnel decision, the council can only made a recommendation.

Flaaen said that even if Cornwall refused to follow the City Council direction, his refusal would not constitute insubordination since he is not obligated to follow the council direction on personnel matters -- like, hire back the same firefighters who were laid off.

An important point because that means that if the City Council wanted to fire Cornwall for not following its direction/recommendation, they won't be able to use insubordination as a reason to fire him "for cause."

If he is canned "for cause," El Mirage wouldn't have to shell out a severance package worth about $100,000, or six months of his salary. Since he serves "at the pleasure" of the City Council, they can get rid of him whenever they want -- for any reason or no reason at all. If they relieve him of his duties without a reason, however, they are going to have to pull out the checkbook.

The flap started when El Mirage -- facing a $1.2 million budget shortfall -- declared a fiscal crisis. He laid nearly 20 employees, including the firefighters and went back to renegotiate its contracts with police and firefighter labor associations. More on that here.

Criticism follows Cornwall because even he slashes employee positions and pay, making El Mirage the city with the fewest employees per capita in the Valley, he remains the highest-paid city manager per capita in the Valley.

His salary rivals the salaries of city managers in the Valley's three largest cities.

Cornwall pulls in about $200,000 a year, not including additional perks, such as car allowances and health benefits, to manage a community of about 34,000 residents.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo