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City needs to clean up its procedure for promotions in the Fire Department

You practically need a scorecard to keep track of who’s being promoted in the Buffalo Fire Department and which of those people donated how much to what candidate. The Brown administration denies any quid pro quo, but it certainly is odd that for the past three years, not one of the top three leaders of the department had sufficient civil service rank to oversee even a fire scene, and that firefighters believe it is in their benefit to give – and generously – to the mayor’s re-election.

The record on donations is nothing if not confusing. One of the recent top three, Deputy Commissioner Vincent R. Gugliuzza, had been a leader of the fire union, and was also Mayor Byron W. Brown’s top campaign donor among city employees in his last election.

Indeed, some firefighters have concluded, based on recent events, that City Hall was in some way tying promotions to campaign contributions, which would not only be unethical, but would demonstrate that to the administration, residents’ safety came second – or lower – to firefighters’ willingness to pony up.

The result: Firefighters who never before contributed to a political campaign suddenly made donations. Of the six fire captains promoted to battalion chief in September 2013, five contributed to Brown’s campaign in 2012. The sixth captain did not contribute to Brown, but someone in his household did, according to campaign reports.

Still, it is true that just three of the 23 firefighters promoted to lieutenant last September gave to Brown. One of those promoted even gave $5,000 to Brown’s primary opponent, Bernard Tolbert.

Yet Gugliuzza – who was ousted from his job two weeks ago and who says he doesn’t believe campaign contributions and promotions are linked – gave $5,700 to Brown’s 2013 re-election campaign as a “thank you” for the promotion. That was an expensive thank you, certainly more fulsome than most people would ever consider offering.

Yes, it is possible that the best candidates for the three positions in question – the commissioner and two deputies – did not need to be qualified to command a fire scene, let alone a station. But it strains credulity.

And, yes, it is possible that firefighters donated to Brown’s campaign because they support his work as mayor, though that, too, seems unlikely, especially when the donations run into the thousands of dollars.

Politicians are supposed to understand the importance of appearances. If residents believe an elected official is playing fast and loose with the rules, they can turn on him quickly. If this administration is not walking a fine line regarding staffing and contributions, it is presenting that appearance. It should stop.