UPDATE: 10 On Your Side’s Deanna LeBlanc is reporting that Portsmouth has overturned the suspension for Firefighter Rusty Quillin, according to the fire union.
PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – A week after a firefighter in Portsmouth was suspended without pay for speaking with the media – the fire union spokesman tells us – they plan to fight to get it overturned.
“This is wrong. Basically they’re attempting to restrict his first amendment rights,” said Nathan Clark. Clark is currently running for city council in Portsmouth and is a member of the Local International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 539. He is acting as spokesman for now. He says that because he is a retired Portsmouth firefighter, the city can’t punish him for speaking with the media.
The firefighter in question is Rusty Quillin, a captain with 20 years of service. He’s also President of the IAFF Local 539 – the Portsmouth fire union. He spoke to us in November and December, over concerns frozen vacancies were impacting department response, putting firefighters and the public at risk.
According to Clark and a source with knowledge of the suspension, Quillin is accused of violating Administrative Policy #13 which directs employees to funnel media inquiries to specific city staff members.
“This is so clearly protected speech that one has to wonder what Portsmouth is thinking about,” said Virginia Beach Attorney Mike Imprevento. He has represented unions for two decades. He says cities can restrict some employee comments.
But union speech is protected under the law.
“There’s a man in civilian clothing who is a union president. the union has a right to speak out on matters of public concern,” he told WAVY.com.
We called every member of city council, plus the mayor and the city manager. Most did not answer. Councilman Bill Moody called the move “extremely disappointing,” and a “blow against transparency” for the city.
Councilman Mark Whitaker said he believes Quillin did a “disservice to the public” in talking to WAVY. He cited a December interview where Quillin talked to 10 On Your Side. In that interview, we reported that the nearest ladder truck to a fatal fire was out of service that day. While Quillin did not talk specifics about that incident, he did say it highlights the overall impact of the budget and staffing constraints. Whitaker believes Quillin “politicized” the fatality and presented misinformation.
“It’s trying to get the information out, to correct the problem, to try to prevent a possible tragedy from happening,” said Clark. He says the union is still working out its legal options with its parent organizations the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters.
Clark says the number of vacancies within the fire department is approaching 40. We tried to confirm that number with city officials. Spokeswoman Dana Woodson would only say they have 114 fire fighters on the payroll at this time, and four vacancies that can be filled under the current budget. She would not comment on vacancies frozen by city council last year.