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Buffalo fire union aide connects promotions, donations to mayor

The Buffalo firefighters' union alleged Tuesday that its members are being urged to donate to Mayor Byron W. Brown's political campaign to help their chances of landing a promotion.

By joining "the mayor's club," a union member lowers the risk of being passed over, Thomas P. Barrett, vice president of Local 282, Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, told a panel of city lawmakers.

In a subsequent interview, Barrett said he has been told the mayor's club involves a $500 donation, which gets the donor into four party-type events.

Three times in the last few years, individuals were passed over for promotions, despite their higher scores on civil service tests, Barrett said. "It's become, more or less, a pay-to-play scheme," he said during a Common Council Civil Service Committee meeting in City Hall.

Union members are telling the organization's leadership about the message they're receiving, though Barrett said he hasn't heard it directly himself.

He also said he believes that the hiring decisions are not coming from Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. but through the mayor's office, namely Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.

Brown called Barrett's claims "total nonsense."

"Clearly, Mr. Barrett has no understanding of New York State civil service law," Brown said. "If he had even the faintest understanding of state civil service law, he would not be making these ridiculous claims."

The mayor said he has a "clear" record of hiring new firefighters and promoting others in the department.

Barrett's claims during Tuesday's committee meeting came as he commented on recent criticism from Brown's administration about Fire Department overtime.

During a Feb. 8 meeting of the CitiStat accountability panel, overtime figures for the current budget year were scrutinized by Brown, Casey, Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa and then-acting Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez.

Looking at the first six months of the budget year, the department had already spent 75 percent of its overtime budget, Casey said at the time.

The overtime should drop if some vacancies in the department -- including the division chief and three battalion chief positions, jobs that carry higher salaries than lieutenants and rank-and-file firefighters -- were filled, Barrett said Tuesday.

Under civil service rules, the city does not have to promote the person with the top score on a civil service exam but can choose from the top three, under what's known as the "one-in-three" rule.

However, under the terms of the currently expired labor agreement, which is still in effect under state law, the city must provide a written explanation of why a higher-scoring person was skipped.

An arbitrator ruled in February 2011 that the city had not met this requirement in recent cases and ordered it to provide the information.

The city still hasn't, Barrett said.

Barrett said Casey once told him he thought the one-in-three rule was "the best rule in civil service law."

"He just thought that's the greatest thing in the world," Barrett said of the rule giving the administration flexibility in deciding whom to promote.

Casey did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Two of the people skipped for promotions to lieutenant were eventually promoted in a subsequent round. A captain, who is out injured, was skipped for a battalion chief's position, Barrett said. He did not provide their names, nor did he say whether campaign donations played any role in their eventual promotions or lack of promotion.

The mayor and the fire union have what could be considered a strained relationship, with a labor dispute going on a decade following an expired collective-bargaining agreement.