Court Upholds Need for Council Approval to Remove Indiana Fire Chief

The Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed a ruling by Boone County Superior Court that under local law, the mayor of Zionsville cannot terminate the fire chief, nor redefine the chief’s duties, revise the chief’s job description, or demote the chief without the approval of the town council.

The case was brought last year by Mayor Emily Styron who sought to demote Fire Chief James Vangorder. The town’s reorganization resolution states that the Mayor cannot “discharge” the fire chief without council approval. Mayor Styron initially sought the council’s support to demote Fire Chief James C. VanGorder, but the unanimous council voted to keep him.

That prompted Mayor Styron to file suit against the council, seeking a court declaration that she possessed the power to demote the chief without council approval. Boone County Superior Court agreed with the council, concluding that the term discharge was not limited to termination, but included removal of the fire chief from his position as fire chief, or even alteration of his job duties. Mayor Styron appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court, explaining:

  • Mayor Styron asserts that the term “discharge” as used in the 2014 reorganization resolution means only the termination of employment, an interpretation that would permit her to demote the Chief of the Fire Department to his last held merit rank so long as he remains a Town employee.
  • The Town Council counters that, as used in the resolution, the term “discharge” not only prohibits the Mayor’s unilateral termination of a department head’s employment but also prohibits the Mayor from redefining a department head’s duties and revising his job description to such an extent that the revised job description deprives the department head of his core management authority.
  • We agree with the trial court and the Town Council.
  • To discharge an employee can mean, but does not only mean, to dismiss an employee from employment.
  • The discharge of an employee includes, but is not limited to, “[t]he firing of an employee.”
  • But, as … dictionary definitions make clear, the term “discharge” includes “[a]ny method by which a legal duty is extinguished.”
  • We conclude that, here, “discharge” means a material change of employment status.
  • The Zionsville Director of Human Resources described such a change in her letter to the Fire Chief when she wrote, “though your appointment as Fire Chief remains in effect, your roles and responsibilities have changed.”
  • The intent behind the language of the 2014 reorganization resolution is clear: the Town Council’s approval is required in order for the Mayor to “release” a department head “from [the] obligation[s]” of that position.
  • The Mayor’s narrow interpretation of the term “discharge” would lead to a result inconsistent with the allocation of municipal power as provided within the 2014 reorganization resolution.
  • Specifically, Mayor Styron’s interpretation would allow her to avoid the prohibition against a unilateral “discharge” by simply demoting and reassigning a department head without terminating his employment.
  • Under the resolution, the Mayor’s proposed power to redefine the Fire Chief’s duties and revise his job description so as to strip him of his core management authority and assign that authority to the Deputy Fire Chief is prohibited.
  • We therefore affirm the trial court’s judgment.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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