TAMPA — Deep in the 78-page union contract for Hillsborough County firefighters is a sentence that is of considerable benefit to one person — the man who negotiated the contract for the union.
The sentence says: "The union president, or his designee, shall be exempt from the 180-day assignment requirement to Hills- borough County Fire Rescue Field Operations for the purpose of promotion."
What does it mean?
Unlike everyone else in the department, union president Derrik Ryan can go straight from his desk job to a promotion without first working in the field.
It's possible that the perk is even greater. Fire officials recently said the clause allows the union president to earn points that boost his ranking on the promotion list without ever stepping foot on an engine or going to a single fire, though the county attorney's office disputes that interpretation.
Regardless of its scope, the provision was not there before Ryan took over as president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2294 in 2013. The language first appeared in the union contract that he negotiated and which took effect in October 2014.
And in either case, Ryan, a captain, would be in much better position to get promoted to battalion chief if he ever left his post as union president. A promotion could raise his county pay in the final years of his career, boosting his pension payout.
Ryan's salary from the county is $87,588. He also reported $28,000 in annual compensation from the union, according to the organization's 2014 tax filings.
In a brief interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Ryan, 50, said he would only benefit from the provision "if I elected to go down the promotional path, which I have not," adding that he may retire soon.
He said he would not divulge his interpretation of the clause in the contract unless the newspaper provided him details on who or what prompted the questions.
The International Association of Firefighters Local 2294 represents nearly 1,000 county firefighters. After Ryan was asked why he negotiated a provision that only benefits one of those members — himself — the phone line went dead. A follow-up call to Ryan's cellphone was not answered and he did not respond to a voicemail.
The union and county are now negotiating a new contract. The existing deal expires in September.
Senior Assistant County Attorney Rudy Haidermota said the union proposed the language during the 2014 contract negotiations and its members overwhelmingly approved the contract. The article remains an open subject in the current negotiations.
"We're going to look at it and make sure it's fair and equitable," Haidermota said.
According to the contract, to become a battalion chief, a firefighter must spend the 180 days prior to getting promoted working in the field.
But the current contract negotiated by Ryan exempts the union president from that clause.
Haidermota, though, rejected a more expansive interpretation that also allows Ryan to earn points toward a promotion while serving as union president.
Firefighters earn points that improve their ranking for promotion by "acting out of classification," meaning they volunteer to be on a list of employees who can step up and temporarily assume the duties of a superior if needed. The more years on the acting list, the more points they earn.
An employee's ranking for promotion is important because the fire chief must choose from the five highest-ranked people when filling a vacancy.
Employees on special duty stop earning acting points after 180 days, and Ryan shouldn't be able to either, Haidermota said.
"He shouldn't be on any acting list because he's not acting," Haidermota said, adding that Fire Rescue Chief Dennis Jones is "on board with that interpretation."
But Ryan's name was on the "acting battalion chief" list recently provided to the Times by Hillsborough County Fire Rescue.
And two senior fire officials, Louis Carnell, chief of personnel, and Chip Branam, chief of operations, said Ryan is exempt from the 180-day cap on acting points that applies to other firefighters on special duty.
Carnell speculated the exemption for Ryan was "put in there by someone in the union to protect that position and maybe get people to want to do that position."
"It would realistically be very hard to fill that position for our body," Carnell said, "if you tried to put a cap on that and said your union president is going to lose time. I'm sure there would be attorneys involved."
Even if Ryan doesn't take advantage of the carve-out before retiring, he has at least negotiated a nice sweetener for his successors.
The point of the 180-day rule for promotion is to prevent employees in administrative jobs from returning to duty and immediately getting promoted over rank-and-file firefighters who risk their lives in the field, Branam said.
"Would I prefer somebody that's up to date, current, sees everything, has been dealing with the regular stuff every day, actually riding on fire engines taking calls? I think I would prefer that" for battalion chief, Branam said. "But then again, the position of union president brings a whole different level of expertise to it."
Given the confusion over the rule, Haidermota said, "It's clear to me we need to look at the language and clarify it in the next contract."
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.