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A group of Columbus firefighters ended up in hot water earlier this month over two all-expenses-paid trips financed by potential vendors — a first test of the city’s new ethics rules.
The trips to fire truck factories in Wisconsin and Florida were paid for by companies that hope to land an estimated $1.2 million contract for two new city fire trucks. The city’s ethics rules prohibit employees, elected officials or volunteer board members from accepting any single gift of more than $50 a year from any company seeking to do business with the city.
No one was disciplined for the trips, but city department heads since have gone through additional training to educate them on the new rules, approved in June by the City Council. City officials said they also will take steps to ensure the companies receive no favorable treatment in the development of the bid requests for the fire trucks or the awarding of the those contracts.
The six firefighters, ranging in rank from firefighter to a deputy chief, are part of a selection committee preparing the bid specifications for the fire trucks. The trips were authorized by Fire Chief Dave Allmon.
When Mayor Kristen Brown found out about an overnight trip July 30 to Ocala, Fla., to visit the facilities of fire equipment manufacturer E-One, the firefighters immediately were recalled to Columbus.
“This activity is exactly what the ethical code of conduct is meant to address,” Brown said.
The matter was considered so important that the city paid $1,980 for the return airline tickets, said Jeff Logston, the city attorney.
Logston said the Florida trip also violated the mayor’s policy that all overnight travel has to be approved by her.
Allmon said such trips have been standard practice in the past and are common in the firefighting field. He said he did not know that the trips were a violation of the ethics rules when he approved them.
“The trip was a misunderstanding on my part,” Allmon said. “I thought the trip would have some educational value for the selection committee. I didn’t make the connection that having the travel expenses paid for by a vendor would be a gift or a violation of the policy.
“The bottom line is, it does fall back on me — nobody else,” Allmon said.
Allmon said the fire department staff has been educated on the policies.
Visit to Wisconsin
Brown said she did not want the public to get the impression that the trips would influence decision making on the fire engines. The city is putting procedures in place to prevent that, including requiring the bid specifications to be approved by the Board of Public Works and Safety. The board will scrutinize the specifications to ensure that they do not favor either of the companies that paid for trips.
The board also will approve the final contract to purchase fire engines, she said.
Earlier in July, the committee traveled for a day to Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wis., on a company plane. The company is the largest manufacturer of fire trucks in the United States, said Dawn Ruchala, senior marketing and communications manager for Pierce.
Ruchala said 10,000 to 12,000 firefighters travel to the company’s factory each year for fact-finding trips. She said it is a common occurrence for the company to pay for a trip for potential customers who have never visited before. The company’s dealers also pay for trips to the facility, and some customers pay out of pocket to make the trip.
She said the company considers the trips to be a key component to its marketing strategy and a deciding point for potential customers.
“That usually for us is one of the big differentiators, to come and meet our people — the people that manufacture the trucks — to understand the process,” she said.
‘No free lunch’
Ruchala said she could not discuss how many trucks the company builds a year, its annual sales or the impact of a potential $1.2 million purchase from Columbus.
“Obviously every truck we sell is important to us. It doesn’t matter if it is big or small,” Ruchala said.
Roger Johnson, a city safety consultant and former state fire marshal, who is president of the Indiana Firefighters Association, used to work in sales for a firefighting equipment company.
Before he retired, Johnson said these sorts of junkets were common. However, that is changing, and Johnson said he supports the city’s ethics stance.
“No matter who they say is footing the bill, there is no free lunch,” Johnson said. “It is put into the price of the firefighting apparatus or the fire equipment. They do not fly people around, depending on the fact that they can get the business, and not put that money somewhere in the price of the equipment.”
Logston said the firefighters did garner useful information while on the trips, but the method was inappropriate.
“If the city deemed that the trip and the inspection of the manufacturing facility was valuable enough, the city could have paid for (the trip) itself and evaluated the appropriate number of people to go,” Logston said.
The ethics rules passed by the City Council were in the form of a resolution, which carries less weight than an ordinance, Logston said. The rules also removed any penalties for ethics violations. However, Logston and the mayor said that even if possible penalties were in place, these incidents would have be used as an opportunity for education, rather than punishment.
“The good news is that we have got something in place today. It doesn’t have the force of law, but it is policy,” Brown said. “And we are making very good progress toward seeing that these types of gifts extended to employees ... are not accepted.”
Education ‘key component’
During the discussion of the ethics rules, council members said they were not keen on putting punishments in place when there was no evidence of a problem. Council President Ryan Brand said that the trips showed a breakdown in communications on what was acceptable behavior.
“We left this in the hands of human resources and City Hall to go forward with said training on ethics resolution,” Brand said. “We were adamant that education was a key component on this.”
Brand said that he did not believe the incidents called for punishment but better education of employees.
“I think this pushes us along a little more quickly to really start the educational process on this resolution,” Brand said. “We can’t have people pleading ignorance to what we discussed during those council meetings.”
Logston said that any discipline of a public safety employee must be approved after a hearing before the Board of Public Works and Safety. No such hearing has been held, and there have been no demotions related to the incidents, he said.
The names of most of the participating firefighters are a personnel matter and are not being released, Logston said. However, former Deputy Chief Doug Harrison was the highest-ranking official on the trip and has since stepped down from his administrative position to serve as a firefighter/paramedic, Logston said. Harrison’s departure from the leadership role was a mutual decision between him and the city administration and unrelated to the trip, Logston said.
City officials said Harrison would not be made available to comment on the trips or his decision to step down.
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