The Mess in La Marque

Law school professors are notorious for coming up with strange fact patterns to use on final exams. However, I find that real life in the fire service can top even the best hypothetic questions a law school professor can dream up.

Take the law suit filed by the La Marque (Texas) Firefighters union last week against the city of La Marque, and Mayor Pro Tem Keith Bell. Sounds pretty typical so far, right? There aren’t many places I am aware of that a suit between the firefighters and the city could be considered unusual. The interesting thing is that Mayor Pro Tem Bell is a firefighter in Galveston. One would think that, in and of itself, would be a good thing, right? I mean, isn’t it every firefighter’s dream to have a politician who “get’s it”, who knows what it’s like to be a firefighter, slogging it out day after day in the danger zone?

To understand the story – and get to the rest of the crazy law school exam worthy fact pattern – we have to go back to last summer (August 10th to be exact), when Bell was supposed to be at work in Galveston, but instead got someone to substitute for him so he could attend a contentious council meeting in La Marque. As the newspaper reported it, Bell was quite vocal at the meeting about a number of fire department issues including the high cost of a new apparatus,  the number of firefighters off on injury leave, and the need for “a review of the fire department budget to make sure spending was in control.” The newspaper even quoted him as saying: “Those guys are trying to rob the city of La Marque.” So much for a brother union member.  Oh yes, one more detail, Bell was wearing his Galveston uniform shirt at the time.

Shortly thereafter, the fire department administration in Galveston became aware of that fact that Bell wore his uniform shirt at the meeting, as well as the fact that he failed to fill out the proper paperwork for the substitution… (we all know how vitally important those pesky sub slips are). As a result he was suspended without pay for 10 days, and his captain was suspended without pay for 15 days and transferred.

The fact that Bell did nothing to endear himself to the La Marque fire chief or the firefighters union at the August 10th meeting, led many to conclude they both had a motive to tattle, but so far no one has admitted to making the call. However, the plot thickens even more. Bell was quoted in the paper as saying: “This is a vendetta. My union was in cahoots with the La Marque Fire Union, and they wanted to teach me a lesson.”

So fast forward to January 15, a lawsuit is filed by the La Marque Firefighters union against the city and Bell. La Marquee firefighters claim they negotiated an agreement with the city last August, but the council has refused to bring the agreement to a vote in retaliation for what happened to the Mayor Pro Tem in Galveston. Where is the case headed? I'm not sure that is even the issue. The bigger question is how many possible law suits could come out of this scenario? Any issue spotters out there want to take a crack at it?

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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