The Boston firefighters union backed off a threat to picket Mayor Thomas M. Menino's State of the City speech Tuesday night, but that did not stop a political feud between the union and the mayor from escalating.
The mayor used the platform of his annual address to say he was "astounded" by the union's aggressive negotiating positions on key reforms. He cited the union's unwillingness to submit to random drug and alcohol testing, as well as its opposition to eliminating what he called "unethical personnel practices," without winning a pay raise in return.
"These union leaders do not seem to realize what everyone in this city knows -- that it is not right to ask for pay raises as a reward for putting a stop to these abuses of the public trust," Menino said.
The mayor's remarks drew applause, but some public officials in the audience clearly refrained from responding.
The union, while canceling plans to picket the mayor's speech at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, held a press conference at which it leveled charges at Menino's administration. It said the city was "engaged in a plot" to interfere with a department Board of Inquiry investigation into the death of two firefighters in August.
The City is trying to manipulate the independent report, thus re-victimizing the families who have had to endure a horribly tragic event, said Edward Kelly, President of Boston Firefighters Local 718.
Firefighters Paul Cahill and Warren Payne were killed in the Aug. 29 fire at a West Roxbury Chinese restaurant. Autopsy results showed that Cahill had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, more than three times the legal limit to drive in Massachusetts, and that Payne had traces of cocaine in his system, according to public officials who spoke to the Globe last year.
Kelly said the independent report, as it currently stands, gives no indication that Cahill and Payne were impaired by drugs or alcohol when they fought the fire. He said he was concerned that the Menino administration would try to "conjure up" some. He cited draft changes submitted by the city legal department to the Board of Inquiry report.
According to two public officials who have read the draft report, the board's original findings did not touch on whether superviors that night followed Fire Department procedures or whether they noticed any signs that Cahill and Payne were impaired. The suggested additions sought answers to some of those questions, the officials said.
The city's legal department also made recommendations for "more substantive analysis," said city lawyer William F. Sinnott. "The sole goal of this process is to arrive at the truth," he said.
In the wake of the fire, Menino has been pressing for random drug and alcohol testing of firefighters in negotiations with their union. The firefighters have been working without a contract for 18 months.
Tuesday's exchange was the most public to date since the feud between City Hall and the union erupted last fall after reports the autopsy results became public. Boston Police and fire departments in many major cities, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, have already adopted random drug and alcohol testing.
Other concessions sought by the administration include tightening sick and injured leave and disability pension policies, which have skyrocketed in recent years. The Globe reported last week that between 2001 and 2007, 102 firefighters were granted tax-free and substantially higher accidental disability pensions after reporting on-the-job injuries while they were substituting for their superiors at higher pay.
On Monday, the state Department of Labor Relations agreed to jump into the fray and begin a mediation process that if unsuccessful, could land the contract dispute in binding arbitration.
But the absence of pickets took some of the drama out of the fight.
When the mayor arrived at the Strand on Columbia Road, there was just one demonstrator with a sign protesting a 9/11 conspiracy.
Bill Gaylord and three other firefighters showed up at the mayor's speech because they didn't get word that the picketing had been canceled.
Gaylord said he wanted to know why city officials and the union didn't iron out a contract when it ran out. "It kills morale," said Gaylord, a 23 year veteran firefighter.
The mayor also used Tuesday night's speech to address another sensitive topic: school busing. Menino said he plans to re-draw bus zones in an effort to save $10 million annually.
Currently, the city is divided into three zones: North, which encompasses Charlestown, East Boston, downtown and Allston-Brighton; West, which includes Roxbury Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and West Roxbury; and East, which covers Hyde Park, Dorchester, Mattapan and South Boston.
Parents can choose to enroll their children at any school within their zone.
But the current situation is costing the city some $40 million per year for transportation and could cost as much as $60 million annually five years from now, Menino said.
"This is crazy," he said. "I will not allow us to pour dollar after dollar into gas tanks, when we could put more of that money into our classrooms." A similar scheme came to naught in 2004, when after a year of public forums, the city scrapped its plan to cut back on busing in the face of criticism from parents who live near under-performing schools and wanted the choice to send them to better schools in another neighborhood.
With reports from Megan Woolhouse Donovan Slack can be reached at email@example.com.