Association says fire marshal isn’t qualified; case is in arbitration
The Denton Fire Fighters Association is asking an arbitrator to remove city Fire Marshal Laura Behrens, saying she is not qualified for the position she has held for nine months.
During a two-day arbitration hearing that concluded Thursday after months of discussion with the city, the association said Behrens is an “unclassified civilian” whose appointment violates the meet-and-confer agreement that the association holds with the city of Denton.
The city is fighting the move, saying Behrens is a certified fire inspector and arson investigator and is a master peace officer. She had worked for 10 years as the department’s administration manager before she was appointed last August, and is the first woman to hold the fire marshal’s position.
“I participated in a competitive process,” Behrens testified Thursday before a roomful of Denton firefighters and Dallas arbitrator John Barnard, who is hearing the case.
Barnard said each side has until August to file final written remarks and that he expects to make a decision in September.
The two-day hearing, which was held in the basement of City Hall, included more than a dozen witnesses on both sides of the dispute.
Behrens was appointed fire marshal by Fire Chief Ross Chadwick, who is retiring next week.
Before she took the job as administration manager, she had worked in the fire department for four years as a public education officer in the fire prevention section, and previously served as a community supervision officer for Denton County and as a civilian duty officer for the Denton Police Department.
In a grievance letter addressed to the city on Sept. 6, 2013, Jason Ballard, president of the firefighters association, challenged the appointment, saying the department head had “appointed an unclassified civilian into the vacant fire marshal position.”
In the letter, the association asked that Behrens be removed from the position and that the department follow the hiring process specified in its written agreement with the association. The association presented nine witnesses to support its case Wednesday.
Alberto J. Peña, a San Antonio-based attorney representing the city, presented five witnesses Thursday, including Chadwick, Behrens and former Fire Marshal Rick Jones.
Chadwick testified that he has received many compliments on Behrens since her appointment, and said that she was the best qualified of the eight candidates considered.
Chadwick was questioned, however, by Rafael Torres, a service director for the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters who represented the association during the hearing, on why he did not appoint Behrens as interim fire marshal when Jones stepped down. Chadwick instead named Deputy Fire Marshal Chad Weldon as interim fire marshal.
Chadwick said, in response to Torres’ questioning, that he did not think Behrens was qualified at the time.
Chadwick testified that he had a very transparent hiring process, however, and sought input along the way.
Behrens, who officials say has investigated dozens of fires during her tenure with the city, testified that she helped write the job description for the fire marshal’s position, along with two other positions, in 2012 alongside Chadwick and then-Fire Marshal Jones.
She said she has been on the department’s labor committee since 2009 but had no further input when Chadwick finalized the fire marshal job description in June 2013.
Behrens said she has been aware of the grievance from the association and said she doesn’t agree with the allegations being made.
Ballard said he thought the hearing went well.
“Our intent is to move forward and continue to have a healthy relationship with the city,” he said.
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.