The union representing Santa Maria firefighters is suing fire Chief Leonard Champion, alleging he has retaliated against union members for challenging his proposed hiring practices.
Santa Maria IAFF Local 2020 filed a lawsuit in United States District Court on Friday alleging Chief Leonard, former City Manager Rick Haydon and the city of Santa Maria deprived them of their First and 14th Amendment rights.
Individually named plaintiffs include Jill Hoover, Clint McIntosh and Anthony Morales.
Plaintiffs say the dispute began around March 25, 2016 when then interim fire Chief Scott Kenley proposed the department’s captain’s exam be opened to applicants outside the Santa Maria Fire Department.
The union “openly and vocally” opposed the open applications, but the matter was resolved when three internal candidates were promoted to captain.
On Jan. 17, 2017, newly appointed Chief Champion revived the idea. Plaintiffs objected again, citing “a well-established practice,” of promoting from within the department.
They say opening the hiring process to external candidates for fire captain exposes the citizens of Santa Maria to serious harm due to the lack of community-specific experience.
“A candidate from the outside would be unaware of the institutional knowledge required for the position,” read the lawsuit which was quick to preempt claims of nepotism.
“This is not a scenario where Plaintiffs were simply attempting to look out for their own members; Plaintiffs were looking out for the citizens of (Santa Maria). These candidates would not have the requisite information to properly conduct their jobs such as knowing the City, the practices of the Department and the personnel.”
The plaintiffs say the fight over open applications strained the relationship between the union and department leadership.
On Jan. 25, 2017, Chief Champion notified the union by email that he planned to administer the captain’s testing to external candidates.
Ms. Hoover and Mr. Morales claim they happened to be at a union conference and a union representative from California Professional Firefighters suggested they issue a “Do Not Apply” email notice to other unions advising the matter “was being handled contrary to law by Champion.”
Plaintiff’s say in March 2017, Chief Champion notified the union’s executive board they were under investigation for the “Do Not Apply” alert and subject to possible discipline, up to termination. After board members were interviewed by the department on May 22, 2017 and on July 6, 2017, Chief Champion notified them no disciplinary action would be taken.
“As a direct result of Plaintiffs exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and participating in labor, organizational, social and political activities as a member and Executive Board member of the Association, Defendants took the adverse actions against them,” reads the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs say the improper investigations violated their constitutional rights. They are seeking over $25,000 in general and punitive damages.