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Commission Rules Against Firefighter in Hawthorne Case

June 14, 1990|KIM KOWSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Hawthorne Civil Service Commission has ruled that Fire Chief Roger Milstead was justified in refusing to promote firefighter Dennis Patriquin in 1987 after a one-year tryout in the job. Patriquin alleged that he was denied the promotion because of his political activities.

The commission's 4-1 ruling came after a seven-month personnel hearing for Patriquin, 45, who said he was denied the promotion because he gave information about departmental pay policies to City Councilwoman Ginny Lambert. The councilwoman supported a controversial proposal to dismantle the department in favor of county fire services.

"I'm disappointed in the decision, but the decision was not unexpected," said Patriquin's attorney, Robert Swensen.

The commission's ruling, issued last week, is final and cannot be appealed, Personnel Director Douglas Gates said. However, Swensen said, he may seek to have the commission's findings overturned by a Superior Court judge on the grounds that Patriquin did not receive a fair hearing and that the commission's decision violated his constitutional rights to free speech.

Civil Service Commissioner George Walter, whose four-year term expired in May and who cast the dissenting vote, said Tuesday he believes that Patriquin was denied the promotion for his politics rather than for anything related to his job performance.

Mayor Betty Ainsworth, who appoints all commission members, removed Walter from the commission Monday night, replacing him with chiropractor Dennis Wild. Walter said he believes that his decision on the Patriquin case led to his replacement, but, Ainsworth said, his term had expired and she wanted to give someone else a chance to serve on the commission.

There is disagreement over what effect the commission's ruling will have on a lawsuit by Patriquin that seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the city, the Fire Department and its top officers.

A Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit in 1988 on the grounds that Patriquin had not exhausted his administrative remedies.

The city, which does not normally allow probationary employees a hearing before the Civil Service Commission, agreed to review Patriquin's complaints, to determine whether his rejection from the probationary rank of fire engineer was unconstitutional. In exchange, Swensen agreed to appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit, rather than to file a new one.

The case is now pending on appeal. No decision is expected until next year.

Much of the testimony at the civil service hearing centered on Patriquin's behavior between July and September, 1987, when his yearlong probationary status as fire engineer expired. A fire engineer drives the fire engine and manages the water pump. Patriquin was making about $41,000 a year in the job.

Swensen argued that before the three-month period in question, Patriquin consistently received favorable evaluations during his 17-year career with the Hawthorne Fire Department. Patriquin's standing in the department only began to change, Swensen argued, in July, 1987, when Patriquin confessed to having given Councilwoman Lambert documents about overtime pay and departmental expenditures--all records that by law are open to public scrutiny.

Lambert and Patriquin favored a study to determine whether it would be more economical to contract with the county for fire services. Opposed by the Fire Department, the politically divisive proposal stirred strong emotions in the community before it finally fizzled when the council voted 3 to 2 against the study in early 1988.

The commission's majority opinion, however, focused simply on whether Milstead was justified in revoking Patriquin's probationary promotion based on his behavior during the three months before his probation expired.

"The only part of his personnel record I considered was what was entered into evidence during the hearing," Commission Chairman Les Wixon said in an interview. "I didn't consider the whole file."

The commission's majority found that between July and September, 1987, Patriquin had "exhibited a negative attitude and was a demoralizing influence" in the Fire Department, had "failed to work in a cohesive manner with his fellow firefighters and his superiors," and "had suffered from emotional instability and poor mental concentration."

In addition, the commission ruled that Patriquin had sought to discredit Milstead, a former business partner who was promoted to fire chief in July, 1987. Patriquin testified that he merely told Lambert that he did not believe Milstead was right for the job, but the commission ruled that he had violated Fire Department regulations that prohibit firefighters from committing any "act tending to bring reproach or discredit upon the Department."

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