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Scot Lehigh

Flaherty and the firefighters

By Scot Lehigh
October 23, 2009

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THIS WEEK, Michael Flaherty proved he can be tough on his opponent. But as the Boston mayoral election nears its close, this question remains: Can he also be tough on his allies?

On Monday, Flaherty turned in his best debate performance so far, offering a sharp critique of eternal incumbent Tom Menino.

That was the good news for the Flaherty campaign. On Wednesday, however, there came the bad: Federal prosecutors charged two former Boston firefighters with faking injuries to defraud the city’s pension system. They also charged a department clerk with lying to a grand jury investigating the abuse.

Nor does that seem likely to spell the end of the federal inquiry. Abuse, after all, appears rife. In 2008, a Globe investigative report detailed the extraordinary percentage of firefighters who have claimed career-ending on-the-job injuries in recent years. Many of those claims came when firefighters were filling in for superiors, thus allowing them to receive disability pensions based on a higher pay rate.

Wednesday’s indictments are another reminder of the controversies that have tarnished the Fire Department’s image - and that’s a problem for Flaherty, since Boston Firefighters Local 718, the firefighters’ union, is a close ally of his. Indeed, on the same day the federal charges were announced, the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert highlighted the extensive effort the union has made to help Flaherty and erode public confidence in Menino.

In recent days, it has run a radio ad and posted a YouTube spot raising concerns about whether the city will respond quickly enough to emergency medical calls from Boston residents.

Just a few weeks ago, the union tried to spark worries that residents were in peril because the city doesn’t have a stand-alone hazardous materials unit, even though five fire companies have hazardous materials training.

Over the summer, Local 718 tried to paint Menino as gambling with people’s lives because the administration responded to summer sick-time abuse by temporarily closing a few fire stations rather than paying overtime to staff them.

Delve into the details, and there’s a common denominator to the union’s tactics: It has stoked public fears in an attempt to protect or expand its turf, stave off reforms, or leverage more money.

Although firefighters have complained for years that Menino has been unfair to them, the broader facts are that the department has some serious, and long-identified, problems. Only in the last few years has Menino made a concerted and consistent effort to win reforms.

And so, an old question recurs: Would a Mayor Flaherty be resolute enough to deal with the aggressive union?

On Wednesday, the councilor tried to allay those concerns, saying he would try to settle the contract dispute with Local 718 in his first 100 days in office “with a contract that will include mandatory random drug and alcohol testing and a five-year deal not to exceed 14 percent,’’ plus a commitment to better equipment maintenance.

Good luck on that one.

“We have long since offered 14 percent over four years,’’ notes John Dunlap, the city’s director of labor relations. “We offered more than that over five years. However, the negotiations have always broken down over the union’s expectation that they need to be paid extra in exchange for drug and alcohol testing.’’

In our interview, Flaherty, who has sided with the union in the flap over closing understaffed fire stations and the need for a hazmat unit, was reluctant to criticize any of 718’s political tactics.

“I recognize that they are engaged in their own battle with this administration,’’ he said.

On the larger issue of the Fire Department itself, he seemed hesitant to move much beyond saying that “I recognize we need to bring reform to the Boston Fire Department.’’

Here’s something else Flaherty needs to recognize: Unless voters are convinced that he possesses the toughness necessary to reform a department stubbornly resistant to change, he is unlikely to become Boston’s next mayor.

And with 12 days left in this campaign, that’s a hurdle he has yet to clear.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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