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Hillsborough fire rescue union rejects new contract, blaming chief for discontent

TAMPA — The union representing Hillsborough County firefighters has overwhelmingly rejected a new contract in a vote that union leadership said is a response to ‘‘union busting’’ and demonstrates widespread discontent with Fire Rescue leadership.

The three-year contract would have for the first time required random drug testing of county firefighters and paramedics.

Derrik Ryan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2294, said his members don’t oppose the new testing procedures. He said the vote announced Tuesday night reflects a lack of confidence in Chief Dennis Jones.

"I know how this will be spun but that not’s what took place," Ryan said. "This is all about morale and the members being unhappy with this fire chief."

Senior assistant county attorney Rudy Haidermota said the county was "disappointed" in the vote and wants to get back to the bargaining table quickly "to reach an agreement so that we can focus on serving the citizens of Hillsborough County."

Of the 950 union members, 749 voted, a record turnout, Ryan said. All but 68 voted against the contract.

Contract negotiations already are in over-time. Union employees are working under the existing contract, which ended in September.

The county was pushing for a contract that for the first time would have explicitly banned the use of drugs outside of work hours. It also would initiate random drug testing — five employees, every other week.

A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found that drug testing procedures for Hillsborough first responders are far weaker than at most similar-sized fire departments in Florida. Employees aren’t randomly tested — they know urine samples are collected only in January or July. Unlike other departments, they also aren’t tested for alcohol.

TIMES INVESTIGATION: Overdoses, DUIs, stolen drugs: Florida’s third-biggest fire rescue department has a problem

The Times found 47 drug- and alcohol-related incidents involving county fire rescue employees since 2010. In 2016, an off-duty fire medic died of a drug overdose, and another overdosed while at work. One employee stole morphine from an ambulance and replaced it with saline; police found materials to evade a drug test, including powdered urine, in the home of a firefighter investigated in the death of his son.

About 20 employees failed a drug test or were arrested for drunken driving.

"From the onset of negotiations, the union was advised that our top priorities included random drug testing and showing up to work for a higher percentage of shifts," Haidermota said.

In the weeks before the vote, the union board called out Jones and his leadership team for not joining the bargaining employees in the random drug tests.

In a "show of good faith," Jones and administrative staff agreed on Friday to be randomly tested as well.

Ryan said morale issues have percolated behind the scenes for more than a year. But the divide hit a crescendo two weeks ago. That’s when an altercation took place at a charity event between Jones and a popular union leader, vice president Jose "Pep" Prado.

Prado was placed on paid administrative leave, the county confirmed. But the county would not comment on the incident, citing an ongoing investigation. Another union elected board member recently was told he could no longer provide training for county firefighters in his spare time, Ryan said.

"We think this is union busting," he said. "They’re not even hiding it."

The union has hired an outside consultant to survey membership about the root of the morale issue.

After the vote, Ryan said he won’t seek another term as union president and has asked members to elect someone else to represent the membership when negotiations with the county restart. He expects that won’t take place for another month.

Ryan acknowledged responsibility for the breakdown between union leadership and the county management, and said at some point he "lost the locker room."

But he said Jones has as well.

"When a coach loses the locker room, there’s no getting it back. There are two options: resign or be terminated," Ryan said. "He needs to do some soul-searching because he’s definitely lost the locker room."

RELATED: Random drug testing, better mental health services sought for first responders after Times investigation

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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