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Santa Maria Fire Chief Leonard Champion addresses the City Council during a March 5, 2010 meeting. The Santa Maria firefighter' union has filed a federal lawsuit against of the city of Santa Maria and several top officials, including Champion.

The Santa Maria firefighters union has filed a federal lawsuit against Santa Maria and several current and former city officials, arguing its leadership was retaliated against for lawful union-related activity.

The defendants in the case, which was filed March 15 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, are Fire Chief Leonard Champion, Human Resources Director Jayne Anderson and former City Manager Rick Haydon.

The plaintiffs are five firefighters in leadership positions of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2020, which is the exclusive bargaining representative for Santa Maria Fire Department employees at the rank of firefighter, engineer and captain.

According to the complaint, the union’s issues with the city of Santa Maria began in March 2016 when then-interim Fire Chief Scott Kenley proposed opening up the captain’s exam to external candidates.

While the entry-level position of firefighter and the upper management positions of battalion chief, deputy chief and chief have been filled through open recruitment, the department had never allowed external candidates to apply for the promotional positions of engineer or captain.

The proposal was vehemently opposed by union leaders, but resolved itself when three internal candidates successfully cleared the exam and were promoted to fire captain.

“Opening up the process to external candidates fails to explore options for increasing the number of qualified internal candidates, and involves hiring individuals who may test well but do not possess vital knowledge of the layout of the city, the culture of the department, and the talents of existing personnel that they may supervise,” the complaint reads.

The issue was exacerbated when Champion chose to open the testing to outside candidates in February 2017, the complaint stated. The union expressed its disapproval and stated that Champion needed to confer with union leaders before moving forward.

Without advance notice to the union, Champion publicly posted the job notice 12 days before he had initially indicated he would, according to the complaint. The union then contacted California Professional Firefighters (CPF) — the state arm of the union — and requested that a “do not apply” notice be sent out to CPF members.

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The “do not apply” notice was sent to union members statewide 11 days after the job was publicly posted.

In late February 2017, Champion sent a memo to all department members expressing his dismay over the CPF alert, the complaint contends. The next month, Champion notified the five union board members that they were under investigation over the publication of the “do not apply” notice and could face disciplinary action, including termination — an act that the union argues was illegal retaliation.

The union suit requests more than $25,000 in damages and asks for general, special, compensatory, statutory, exemplary and punitive damages, lawsuit costs and attorneys’ fees.

Mark van de Kamp, city spokesman, said the city has not filed its response to the suit and has no comment.

Attorney Michael McGill, of the Westlake Village-based law firm Adams, Ferrone & Ferrone, which is representing the union, said Champion’s investigation retaliated against the union board for exercising their First Amendment rights and that it interfered with their ability to represent their members.

McGill said the federal lawsuit was filed following a yearlong unfair labor case filed with the state's Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) by the union over the same allegations. PERB recently issued a decision in favor of the union.

In the March 29 PERB decision, a PERB administrative law judge ruled that Champion’s decision to post the job notice without meeting with the union violated state law, that the union’s request for a “do not apply” notice was legally-protected activity and that the investigation of the union board over the notice was retaliatory.

The PERB decision becomes final if it is not appealed.

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Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.  Follow him on Twitter @razisyed

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City Government

Razi Syed covers city government for the Santa Maria Times. He is a graduate of Fresno State University and New York University.