- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

AUGUSTA, Ga.

As Ronnie Few looks forward to becoming the new chief of the District of Columbia's Fire and Emergency Services Department, he leaves behind in Augusta a department torn by three years of personnel favoritism, increased union activity, racial divisions and a special grand jury investigation.

On the very day Mr. Few was being named D.C. chief, his firefighters were "testing hydrants" in south Augusta in spite of a city water ban one last symbol of a tenure that just never seemed to "get it right."

True, the chief is being praised by a small coterie of Augusta city officials for "progress." And, indeed, he did implement a plan requiring that all new recruits become licensed emergency medical technicians. (The employees there prior to his arrival are encouraged to undergo the same training, which almost all of them do.)

But as the late Al Smith used to say, "Let's look at the record."

After Mr. Few came to Augusta from his chief's job in East Point, Ga., allegations surfaced that he falsified a receipt regarding a moving company that was supposed to transport his belongings to Augusta. Two city commissioners later confirmed this controversy became part of a local grand jury investigation into possible wrongdoing at the fire department.

It wasn't long after he settled into his new headquarters station, where the Georgia state flag with its Confederate battle flag emblem is faithfully hoisted every day, that the chief began encouraging black firefighters to join a black union and recruit members.

On August 10, 1997, I wrote an editorial about one such union meeting attended by on- and off-duty black firefighters. Incredibly, two on-duty firefighters commandeered a fire truck to drive to the conclave, and they left a white firefighter outside and ordered him to watch the vehicle. He later reported being barred from going in because he was white.

Mr. Few later apologized to the white employee, after media reports, but it soon became clear a militant union was flourishing in a city that, until then, did not legally recognize or encourage municipal unions.

A black city equal opportunity officer, Brenda Byrd-Palaez, began to take the chief to task in blunt memos to Augusta's administrator in connection with the chief's alleged racial slights. She repeatedly questioned why some whites had been "harassed" and "had their jobs threatened." She also questioned why one of the on-duty firemen who initiated the truck joyride to the union meeting had never been punished.

Early in 1999, Ms. Byrd-Palaez requested a review of the Augusta Fire Department's role in an International Association of Black Firefighters Conference. But she hit a brick wall, citing a total lack of cooperation from Mr. Few.

She tried to ascertain whether firefighters who arranged the conference and attended used vacation time, since they weren't working for the taxpayers. "I requested copies of the daily staffing reports for the months of October and November 1998 to verify whether these individuals participating in the conference used vacation time," she wrote in a memo. Ms. Byrd-Palaez received stonewalling memos back from Mr. Few that even questioned the authority of her office. Frustrated, she turned the alleged vacation-time tampering over to the city administrator, who did nothing.

Following this controversy, it was clear that departmental morale had been affected. Several firefighters told me that excusing their colleagues to attend the union conference led to understaffing at several fire stations, thus affecting the safety of our community. It was a serious accusation, one that Mr. Few simply refused to discuss.

Ironically, by implementing selective personnel and salary policies that favored a central office clique around him, Mr. Few has now unwittingly helped heal the racial divide he created. Most firefighters were united in their anger last fall Mr. Few gave them only a 1.5 percent pay raise when he could have given them more. He saved the extra pot for substantial raises for favored employees.

Commissioners' ears are still burning from complaints by veteran Augusta firefighters who, on average, earn $26,708 annually. Many, in their own way, are glad Ronnie Few is moving away. And some wryly advise D.C. authorities to double-check his moving receipts.

Phil Kent is a political columnist for the Augusta Chronicle.

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