EAST LIVERPOOL - Legal opinions are being sought regarding the recent hiring of two city firefighters, both of whom have a connection to fire Chief Bill Jones.
The hiring of firefighters Jason Glista and Aaron Jones dominated discussion at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, initiated by resident and former city auditor Terry Sprague, who took issue with both residency requirements and hiring the two candidates who scored lowest on the civil service test for firefighter.
Sprague pointed out it is state law that firemen can live anywhere in the county or in adjacent counties.
"Firemen are our emergency responders. We need them suited up and heading for a fire now. Their value is non-existent when they take more than five minutes to get to the station," she said, noting those who are "called out" would be "utterly useless" if living farther than five minutes from the fire station.
Sprague also said merit and fitness are two qualifiers for the firefighter position, saying, "To the average individual, a high score is considered to be meritorious (according to its own qualities). I don't know of any person taking testing of any kind that would not expect to be chosen for a position if they held the highest score."
According to civil service results, the highest score was earned by Nicholas Carson of Bergholz, at 99.19, and the lowest by Glista, Canfield, with 78.39. Second lowest was Jones, now of East Liverpool, who earned 78.65.
Glista has dated the chief's daughter, Jones is his son and both had completed training before being hired, which was not a requirement of those taking the exam.
Resident and former council member Brian Kerr also weighed in on the issue, questioning whether or not the "truth is going to come out" and whether there was any wrong-doing in hiring the two men.
Firefighters' union President Bob Smith addressed the issue, pointing out that Councilman Ray Perorazio - a retired city firefighter - had worked in the department with his brother and other relatives, as have other firefighters.
Smith said he has worked with both the new firefighters and "supports what went on 100 percent," saying what Sprague should be complaining about is the fact that houses burned near her home are still standing.
Smith admitted he had scored 13th on the civil service exam, saying, "I've saved dogs, cats and people and have delivered babies. I did everything you asked me to do, but I scored 13th. Maybe I shouldn't have been hired either."
Chief Jones told Sprague he agrees with her about residency and said city firefighters are required to live in the area once their one-year probationary period ends. He said Glista is preparing to move into a house in November when it is completed.
His son, formerly of Alliance, took a leave of absence from his job there to take firefighters' training. When he returned, his job was gone, so he moved to the city, Jones related.
"I didn't want my son to be a firefighter. For 22 years I've been in this and for 22 years I've been threatened with layoff," Jones said, emphasizing his son was hired only because a position opened up when another firefighter took ill.
He had said previously his son was hired after others on the eligibility list were asked if anything had changed, making them eligible for the position, and because the younger Jones already was trained.
The chief also said that, had the city hired two untrained candidates, it would have cost considerably more, saying, "(Sprague), being an auditor, I'd think she'd understand better."
Saying, "We can't get them in class overnight," Jones explained that, even if an untrained candidate had been hired and entered the August class, he could not have completed that training until after January.
During that time, he would have to be paid his wages and benefit package as a full-time firefighter, a cost of $24,000. Had training not been available until January, that cost would have risen to $44,000.
He demanded of Perorazio and Kerr, who own their own businesses, "Would you hire a trained man or an untrained man? These two men were hired because of their training. They should not be punished due to their relationship with me."
Jones removed himself from the interview process for both Glista and his son and 10 different firefighters scored them on their agility tests at different stations.
"We tried to do everything above board and think it was. It was done to civil service commission regulations," Jones insisted.
Distancing himself from his former union colleagues, Perorazio said, "I have to worry about what my constituents think. I don't want painted by the same brush (as those who think the hirings were legal)," admitting that the friendship he had with Jones and Smith is now probably at an end.
Perorazio said if training was a condition of employment, it should have stated such on legal ads for the civil service exam, saying the law states "whatever you want out of a candidate has to be on the legal notice."
Perorazio said he is "going to do what is right and this is wrong, wrong wrong," adding the two firefighters should not be fired but that the city "has to start doing things right."
He has contacted the state and the civil service commission regarding the hirings.
Service-Safety Director Ryan Estell, who is actually responsible for hiring the firefighters, said he has also spoken with the state, Law Director Charles Payne and the civil service commission to make sure it was done according to law, saying, "I'm sure it was. I would not ruin my career to hire someone's son."
Nonetheless, he has forwarded information to Payne's office for review.
Council members seemed to agree that a legal opinion is a prudent idea, with Russell Dray saying, "It does seem a little shady, but if the rules were followed."
Scott Barrett said he is in favor of hiring those who live in the city but against hiring relatives, while Ryan Stovall said he supports Jones 100 percent. A police officer himself who took a civil service exam for the city, Stovall said, "I put myself through the police academy so it made me look better (as a candidate). If you want to be a fireman, take the training. No, it's not required but it just makes sense."