Charlottesville City Manager Tarron Richardson didn’t approve a promotion for the head of the city’s firefighter association, who has publicly battled him over funding issues.
Greg Wright, who was at the center of a heated budget battle before the coronavirus pandemic, was sworn in as a captain on May 29, according to a post on the department’s Twitter.
Wright was sworn in by former Fire Chief Andrew Baxter along with Jamie Shifflett, who was promoted to captain, and Scott Carpenter, who was promoted to battalion chief.
However, Wright’s promotion didn’t actually go through, according to city officials.
The city confirmed last week that Wright remains a firefighter while Shifflett is a captain and Carpenter is a battalion chief.
When asked why Wright’s promotion no longer stood, city spokesman Brian Wheeler said, “All promotions of city employees involve approvals by the city manager.”
Wheeler said the city would provide no further comment on Wright’s promotion because it is a personnel manner.
However, according to spokesman Tyler Hawn, and confirmed by the Charlottesville Police Department’s general orders, the police department’s promotions are approved by the police chief.
CFD follows a rigorous promotion process that involves testing, certifications, interviews and vetting from inside and outside of the department before a field of people eligible for promotion are sent to the fire chief.
Wright declined to discuss the matter last week.
Wright is president of the Charlottesville local of the International Association of Firefighters. The group does not hold the same protections of a typical labor union, because Virginia has not allowed public employees to unionize. The General Assembly passed a law this year, which takes effect July 1, that allows public employees to form unions.
Wright drew the ire of Richardson earlier this year in a battle over staffing for the fire department, which eventually led to Baxter’s resignation earlier this month.
Richardson’s administration has been plagued with allegations of aggression, misconduct and mismanagement, according to city staff, who did not want to be named. In his 13-month tenure, city leadership has been gutted of longtime employees.
Since May 20, the City Council has held multiple closed sessions to discuss Richardson’s performance.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, firefighters were lobbying the city to approve a departmental request for $1.3 million to fund 12 new firefighters to staff ambulances for a department that is stretched thin.
Firefighters donning yellow shirts showed up at budget meetings and made media appearances to discuss the issues.
Richardson has called the staffing problem “an issue I inherited” and said the fire chief needs to better allocate staff.
In late February, Wright emailed the general City Council email address, which is also seen by other officials and Richardson, “imploring” the council to hold meetings between Richardson and Baxter to address the issues.
Wright’s email, and others sent by Baxter, emphasize communication problems with Richardson when discussing staffing and the department’s deployment model.
Wright’s email called Richardson “willfully ignorant” with a “complete lack of a basic understanding” that “cannot be tolerated” as the budget process moves forward.
In response, Richardson directly addressed Wright.
“You are a firefighter who oversees a limited number of employees on a daily basis. Your educational achievements and certifications, as well as your limited work experience as a supervisor will never be a match to any of my qualifications or credentials,” wrote Richardson, who holds a doctorate. “So, let’s be clear about who is ignorant and overwhelmingly shallow as a professional in the field of public administration.”
Richardson wrote that Wright’s “failure to understand the basics” of departmental budgeting is “egregious being that you have been working in your capacity for such a long time.” According to city salary lists, Wright was hired in 2011.
Richardson wrote that Wright has no authority to request meetings with the City Council and told him to “gain a better understanding about your role and responsibilities as a firefighter.”
Wright has defended his email, while Richardson said the language was racially charged.
Baxter told Wright over email that Richardson’s response was “egregious.”
“Many of us in senior leadership roles in our city were genuinely looking forward to new leadership after the chaos and drama that occurred in our city in 2017,” Baxter wrote to Wright. “Unfortunately, what we got was a transactional, unfocused, disengaged, dismissive bully.”
Baxter declined to comment. The city also declined further comment on the apparent dispute.
A next step for Wright could be filing a legal grievance. The Progress is not aware of any court filings at this time.
Although the Charlottesville local association is not a union, it has backing from the Virginia Professional Firefighters Association and the International Association of Firefighters, which could potentially provide Wright assistance if requested.
Another closed council session is scheduled for Thursday, but staff have not yet said what matters will be discussed there.