Kensington Fire Department files wrongful termination suit against Montgomery County
Volunteers say workers were cut for opposing ambulance fee
The Kensington Volunteer Fire Department filed a lawsuit against Montgomery County leaders Tuesday, saying that staffing cuts approved in December were in retaliation for opposing the county's proposed ambulance fee.
The suit, filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, says 20 administrative positions supporting various volunteer fire departments were defunded under the county executive's $32 million mid-year savings plan to punish them for publicly admonishing the fee before it went to referendum in November. The County Council approved the savings plan Dec. 14.
"These people were terminated because they executed their constitutional right to participate in the political process," said John King, a Rockville attorney representing the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department and the two administrators it lost due to the cuts.
The suit names Montgomery County, the County Council, County Executive Isiah Leggett, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Chief Richard Bowers, and the county's budget management and human resources directors are defendants.
The court complaint says the recommended and approved budget reductions will disproportionately affect volunteer fire and rescue departments over county-owned ones and that the "retribution against the [Local Volunteer Fire Rescue Departments] and their administrative personnel was pre-meditated."
King said the plantiffs, administrators Augustine "Mike" Kelley and Shawn St. Claire, are asking for reinstatement to their positions as well as the others cut in the decision, lost wages, $10,000 per plaintiff in general damages, and additional reimbursement.
Patrick K. Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett, said the allegations in the suit are "unfounded" and the county did not target the volunteer departments. He said a recommendation to consolidate the positions has been under consideration for nearly 10 years and was deemed necessary when the ambulance fee was not approved.
The county's fire service is a combined operation with about 1,300 career, uniformed personnel and professional civilian staff 1,000 of whom are able to respond to emergency calls. The service includes an equal number of volunteers, 810 of whom can respond to calls, according to the most recent county data.
The ambulance fee was expected to bring $14 million in revenue for the upcoming fiscal year, the county faced with a decision to either remove firefighters and ambulance workers from paid county stations or administrative support from volunteer organizations, which are funded by Montgomery County.
"It was a question of frontline versus administrative personnel," Lacefield said.
County attorney Marc Hansen said the county council can legally defund positions if it is deemed necessary.
"They were well within their legal right to make the decision they made," he said. "It was not a happy decision, but it was with their right to do so."
Hansen said no other volunteer fire department has filed suit against the county for the cuts.
The Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association the political arm of the county's volunteer firefighting departments supports the suit lawsuit, noting that only one non-volunteer position was cut in the savings plan.
"The only logical explanation is that the cuts proposed by County Executive Ike Leggett are direct political retaliation for the volunteers' stance against ambulance fees last year," a statement, signed by MCVFRA President Marcine Goodloe said in an e-mailed statement. "We hope the lawsuit will put a halt to the firing of these essential personnel..."
Bowers could not be reached for comment.