Kevin Scanlon


The Spike is happy to report that justice has prevailed and politics have failed in the case of former Phoenix Fire Department deputy chief Robert "Hoot" Gibson.

The man who for decades kept the fire department supplied with everything from engines to rubber boots was forced to resign six years ago after City Hall officials threatened to file criminal charges against him, primarily for letting his family sell tee shirts out of a fire department shop and for paying unearned overtime to young trainees who weren't eligible for holiday pay. Hoot also was in some trouble for being a big, dumb practical jokester who liked to give people wedgies and wet willies and turn the lights off on them when they were in the bathroom, stuff like that. A woman who Gibson particularly liked to tweak complained to City Hall.

Gibson resigned, after 30 years in a job he loved, because he was persuaded that he was in danger of losing his pension, perhaps even headed for the hoosegow, if he didn't clean out his desk. But not too long after the final celebratory press conference at City Hall, county prosecutors concluded that Gibson's actions, while inappropriate, certainly weren't criminal. After all, we are talking about the whopping sum of $5,000 that Gibson doled out to his hardworking trainees.

In fact, the whole affair seemed to be more about the power struggle between popular longtime Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, who was used to getting his way, and the not-so-popular but smart and ambitious Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who was used to getting her way.

Both Brunacini and Sculley are still in their respective jobs. And now Gibson has returned to his beloved fire department, too.

Gibson took the long way home. He worked as a consultant for the Mesa Fire Department for a while and, a couple years ago, took over as chief of the Laveen Fire Department. In June, Phoenix absorbed the Laveen department (part of a slow annexation of much of Laveen itself), and Gibson -- along with other Laveen firefighters -- was absorbed, too.

"Hoot was just in the right place at the right time," Assistant Fire Chief Bob Khan says. "And that's fortunate for us."

Gibson has been working out of a south Phoenix station as a commander, but Khan says that command post is being redefined as a spot for the guy who heads the department's Spanish immersion program, aimed at developing firefighters with Spanish language skills.

Gibson has been given the title "special assistant to the chief" and likely will go back to doing what he does best -- helping to oversee the purchase of equipment. "Honestly, there's nobody that knows more about firefighting equipment and the apparatuses we use," says Khan, noting that Gibson gets calls from departments throughout the country seeking his advice. "I've had chiefs from all over the country trying to get his extension out in Laveen."

Khan says Gibson's old nemeses at City Hall were aware that Hoot would be coming back, but no one said a word about it to the fire department.

. . . And They're Still Here

Elsewhere, politics have prevailed -- so far -- at the Wilson Elementary School District.

As reported by The Spike in last week's column, the Attorney General's Office is seeking the removal of Rosa Maria Sudea and Hilaria Lopez, two of the district's three board members. The AG contends the two women so blatantly violated the state's Open Meeting Law -- taking action on important issues without letting the public know what was going on -- that each should be kicked out of office and banned from holding a public post for at least two years.

The school board was supposed to consider a proposed agreement last Wednesday, September 4, that would have forced the two women to step down.

But what a shocker: The women, who wield majority control of the board, once again overrode the third board member, Mercedes Robles, and refused the AG's proposal. They say they've done nothing wrong and that it was the district staff who screwed things up.

The Spike has a hard time buying this lame excuse for a couple of reasons. First, Sudea and Lopez have come up with nothing, as far as The Spike's heard, that specifically counters the AG's allegations, just a general finger-pointing in the direction of unnamed staff members. More important, these ladies continually -- over nearly two years -- voted on contracts, personnel matters and other items, even though Robles, former superintendent Roger Romero and others told them the votes were unlawful.

The AG, as well as others who oppose the duo, want this case resolved before the November election. Robles and Sudea are on the ballot; Lopez is not up for reelection this year. In this race, the two highest vote-getters win the two seats that are up for grabs. Also running are George Ruiz and Evangeline Carillo; both of them reportedly got into the race because they don't like what Sudea and Lopez have been doing.

If the court takes Lopez and Sudea out, Ruiz and Carillo will definitely be the other two board members.

As near as The Spike can figure, this whole dustup stems from bad blood between the superintendent and the teachers' union.

Romero, who was in his 12th year as superintendent when he was put on paid leave in March by Sudea and Lopez, apparently had the bad form to demand that teachers be evaluated several times a year, among other things. Long story short, the union supported the candidacies of both Sudea and Lopez. The Open Meeting problems began almost as soon as Lopez took office in January 1999, Robles and others say.

This is a district where a successful candidate gets just over 100 votes. Sudea won her last election in 1994 by a mere handful.

In 1999, "the control started to go to people who have a very specific and self-serving interest that is not the interest of the children," says Robles, who has been on the board since 1988.

Before Sudea and Lopez were elected, the board was enamored of Romero and the innovations he was bringing to the district, including installing computers and creating a high school.

"I've always done what was right for the kids and right for the community," says Romero, who is hoping the court will rule in favor of the AG and invalidate the board's unlawful actions, including placing him on leave. "We've got to get Wilson back to educating kids, and get people out of these personal fights."

The Spike couldn't agree more.

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