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Jamaica Plain firefighter sues over suspension for the way he complained about the crappy sidewalk and driveway in front of his quarters

A firefighter on Tower Ladder 10 at the 746 Centre St. firehouse in Jamaica Plain today sued the city and Fire Commissioner Paul Burke for the four-day suspension he says he got after the department had done nothing about the poor condition of the sidewalk and driveway outside the station and he wrote directly to the city's chief of streets.

In his suit, filed in US District Court in Boston, firefighter James Riley says his four-day suspension violated his First Amendment rights. His union, the International Association of Firefighters, Local 718, is also a plaintiff.

Riley says he and other firefighters at the station first complained to their captain about the conditions outside the station in April, 2021, that the handicap ramp was uneven and that the concrete apron in front was severely cracked, to the point that pedestrians walking by the station risked injuries and baby strollers started getting stuck in the cracks.

The suit continues that the captain forwarded a complaint and photos to the BFD facilities department, which allegedly did absolutely nothing. The captain tried again in February, 2022, and that this time, he was copied on an exchange of e-mails with a consultant about getting an estimate to make repairs. A month later, the suit continues, somebody in Facilities told the captain it was just a matter of getting some bids on the work.

But nothing happened, and in June, the captain sent his fourth plea for help, after a child fell and scraped his knee while walking in front of the station, the complaint states. In April, 2023, in response to yet another plea, somebody from Facilities said repairing the area in front of the station would cost $25,000, but that it was late enough in the fiscal year, there was no money to do that, the complaint states.

On Sept. 26, 2023, Riley, writing from his IAFF address, as a member of the union executive board, e-mailed Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city's chief of streets, to detail the non-resolution of the issue - including with photos - and ask when something would be done.

Riley alleges that Franklin-Hodge replied the same day: "Thank you for the note - we'll look into it."

But, Riley continues, on Oct. 11, he was notified he'd been suspended for four days for sending a "hostile" note to Franklin-Hodge, from his union e-mail address in an attempt to "intimidate the City of Boston official into action" and in violation of the BFD chain of command. The notification added the suspension would be noted in his permanent record and was being done for "the good of the department and the good of the fire service."

He appealed the suspension and the union filed a grievance. On Jan. 2 of this year, a hearing officer upheld the suspension, although ruling it was just for failing to observe the department chain of command, that he had not threatened the chief of streets.

Riley states that in 16 years with the department, he had never been suspended and that this suspension violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association. He is asking a judge to order the city to strike the suspension and any records of it from his personnel file and to award him back pay, punitive damages and attorney's fees.

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Comments

There must be a competition in the city hall for the most spiteful.

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This was done in the finest traditions of the Boston Fire Department.

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It is Mayor Wu's Boston.

And I was a supporter.

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Maybe it's not a competition but a teamwork.

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Sidewalk condition predates Wu as mayor

It's pretty chilling that a civil servant cannot raise a quality of life issue to a city official without getting a reprimand. And let's be clear, this is a basic quality of life issue, and he's not even complaining about his own department.

Do you believe this would have been handled differently under an earlier administration? If so, where's your evidence?

You mean there are people who fix the sidewalks?

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If that kid who got hurt on the sidewalk wanted the city to care about them than that kid should have been born a motor vehicle.

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City Hall and the BFD command were extraordinarily stupid to suspend him.

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The courts have held pretty consistently that speech regarding workplace conditions is protected even in the private sector. I can't see how the City wins this if it goes to trial.

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The suspension was for going outside the chain of command and trying to use his union title as an intimidation tactic. The Captain of the firehouse and the Chief of the streets department were already talking and a plan was being proposed to resolve the issue. Riley decided to make his own attempt to complain and went about it in a very dumb way.

Why would someone in a different department -- even the head of it -- care about the firefighters' union? He doesn't have to negotiate a contract with them.

If anything, the use of a non-City email account -- like a union email -- would indicate that he's not speaking in his capacity as an employee of BFD, but rather as a member of the union about working conditions.

The government generally has far less leeway to restrict the speech of its employees than private employers because of that pesky First Amendment, even ignoring the fairly broad protection afforded to speech regarding working conditions at all employers.

It's odd.
Going out of chain of command... Suspension is excessive, unless he had multiple discussions in the department where he was told "It's grinding through the gears & cogs of gov't machinery and It'll get done (eventually)" and he decided to go around them then.

In general, contacting another agency for something legitimately in their line, via direct, office-to-office channels is not a problem. I recall a friend who chose poorly - public employee who blasted another department on the department's twitter or something - made things a bit hot for themself.

Email to the City streets/sidewalks person doesn't sound as bad as that, but... If he did that from the Union email account... Then it might be in the union newsletter or on the website or mentioned in the meeting. That starts to rise into the danger zone.

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on the federal level, contact with another agency, no matter the direction, requires supervisor notification. At least back in the day.

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That area in front of the Firehouse has been a mess for as long as I can remember. It's pretty treacherous in the winter.

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And the mayor is doing an excellent job.

My advice is to stop complaining about things like a sidewalk that is impassible. They could come after you next.

This is actually the typical response that many city employees face when they speak up about something that needs to be fixed. There are plenty pf people in the trenches that send in for repairs and it ends there and things don't get fixed.

City employees are routinely told to shut up and in some instances are told not to speak to certain people. In fact it is a big no-no-to talk to a reported and they have to send the press to their department spin doctor.

What has worked in the past has been a group of local people who will take pictures, pull records about accidents there (such as the kid falling if it was documented) and then send that to the press, post it on a web site (plenty of free sites out there), and a copy to every city councilor, and maybe a few state reps that may have jurisdiction.

When it comes from within you are a pariah to be dealt with but when it comes from outside the fold it becomes an embarrassment to be corrected.

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Even in the private sector you will find that employees aren't allowed to talk to reporters, I work for a private company and in the employee manual it very clearly states that if I am asked by a reporter about something I am to say no comment and notify management. It helps to have one person be the one talking rather than hear 10 different stories from people who might not know anything.

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I live in JP. The fire fighter is 100 percent right. It is dangerous. And that area should be more safe. BOSTON mayor does not care about the citizens of Boston. 311 is a joke. They only care about bike lanes. And more on affordable housing. Our problem is our mayor. It’s sad that he has to suffer a suspension. When he should be getting a promotion for looking out for the citizens a Boston in order to make sure that they are safe he’s doing his job. He’s a public server and he’s trying to make sure that we’re all OK. I want to thank him and will go down after his suspension and shake his had. Cause my kids walk by there everyday. What a sad day in the city of Boston. When a a fire fighter is suspended for looking out for the well-being of the citizens, a Boston. What’s next.

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You can't blame the first non-white woman mayor for the Boston's sidewalks and street issues. They've been like this through all of the cis-white male mayors of the city. Maybe if they had done something it wouldn't be so atrocious now.

Not that it matters but I was born and raised in JP and the streets have been like that since I was a kid. Remember, JP was thought of as a "shithole" where ppl didn't want to live...never understood it but alas now look at it...JPLANDIA!

We have been complaining about that spot for years, I see lots of elderly navigate that stretch and it is treacherous...

It could have been threatening, or hostile, to an extent that it merited suspension. We would need to see the exact text to know how unprofessional - or how totally acceptable - it might have been. Until then I don't see how any conclusions can be drawn.

It's in the complete complaint, linked at the bottom of the story

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Why hide the text of email at the bottom of the story in a linked pdf file? Maybe because it was threatening.

Here’s the text, copied from the complaint pdf. I challenge anyone to find a threatening phrase or tone in this anywhere.

Mr. Franklin-Hodge, I am writing you to ask for assistance with an ongoing issue in front of the firehouse at 746 Center St JP [sic]. The sidewalk and handicapped ramps have been marked up for replacement by the city since the summer of
2022. To date there have been some hot top placed to help ease the issue but not permanent resolution. Most, if not all, of the ramps going down Center St (sic] were repaired and replaced last summer by the city. As a firefighter who proudly works in the neighborhood and spends time outside the firehouse interacting with the constituents we are constantly asked when this issue is going to be resolved.
We have no answer and can only direct them to make a 311 complaint. I strongly believe the [sic] is a safety issue for the citizens and guests who walk by here on a regular basis. Is the city going to wait till someone is injured before resolving this public safety issue? Please see attached photos taken recently for reference.
Thanks Jim. (Attachment H.)

Protect this man at all costs.

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You can just go in and read it yourself, you know. It's one click away. I'll even help you out: Section III, Line 30. It comes across as polite, earnest, and even somewhat ashamed that he isn't able to give any satisfying answer to people who ask him when it's going to be fixed.

Why hide the text of email at the bottom of the story in a linked pdf file?

Aww. We're sorry you have a massive boo-boo on your finger that prevents you from clicking the link, and that all those lead paint chips you ate in your misspent childhood mean that you don't read very well. Too late to do anything about the lead poisoning, but maybe you can yell up from the basement and ask ma to kiss your finger and make it better.

I had kind of assumed that the text of the note wasn't available, since... yeah... if that note - the one quoted in these comments - was characterized as inappropriate or threatening to whoever received it, then this seems ridiculous.

A neighbor told me an old man down the street kept getting citations for his overgrown front yard, he's on oxygen and living on Social Security and couldn't do it himself or pay to have it done , she thinks he got five 25 dollar citations.
A firefighter complains about a broken sidewalk and gets suspended from his job? Can anyone say tyrants?

Someone cleared his yard up, not sure who but good for them,

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Shouldn't we all be grateful that they let us use their bike path?