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Preventing Legal Fires - Votes of No Confidence

Fire Chiefs all over the country have received votes of no confidence from members of their organizations. Most recently was the Fire Chief of Cleveland whom the Union members indicated that there serious concerns about the public’s safety and according to the local news, the resolution asks the City Council to investigate the unions complaint about those and other safety issues. In Jackson Beach, the fire union, taking a similar vote, says the chief has fostered an atmosphere of "hostility, retaliation and unethical behavior". There are numerous examples of firefighters across the country attempting to make changes and improve working and safety conditions by using this tool. 

Fire Chiefs are not the only ones affected by votes of no confidence as we see that members of other political entities, government and the private sector receiving these critical reviews of their performance or lack thereof. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister survived a vote of no confidence in the recent Brexit process while questioning her handling of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union leaving her to fight for her political life. In contrast, for elected officials in the United States, votes of no confidence don’t exist in the presidential system. Rather, the legal process is impeachment, and it’s fairly complicated. First, a sitting President or Vice President or other federal official must commit “treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors”, as outlined in the Constitution. “High crimes and misdemeanors” is generally taken to mean “abuse of power” and “misdemeanor” is generally taken to mean “crime serious enough to actually warrant removal from office”. In our profession, fire chiefs are not impeached but the effect of a vote of no confidence may mean a loss of job or some chiefs have resigned as a result of the vote.

What are the common themes in these votes of no confidence? It is generally leadership and management processes fire chiefs should understand as part of their job, but fail to do so. Many of the votes of no confidence demonstrate a lack of support from the Chief for the staff and firefighters, unilateral decision making and excluding firefighters and staff from decision making opportunities, unethical or discriminatory behavior and other similar behavior. Some Chiefs were hired to improve the department and failed to do so coupled with the failure to improve the publics safety and response to the community or neglecting the safety of the firefighters. Some Chief's are simply incompetent and the elected officials who hired this chief will not terminate him or her. There are many other reasons that those in a management position should understand as leaders in their organizations when they are subject to a vote of no confidence. The bottom line is non-performance by the Chief; the elected officials fail to do their jobs and the membership in both career or volunteer departments take a vote of no confidence, hoping that that loss of their support will compel the elected officials to take action to improve the performance of the Chief, the performance of the chief actually improves or terminate the fire chief, hopefully hiring someone better.

One has to remember that not all votes of no confidence go the way it was intended and the Chief remains in position, there is no improvement in their performance and the conditions complained about remain the same or actually get worse.

When making the decision to take a vote of no confidence, there are a few simple rules to remember:

1. What is your goal or purpose? What do you want accomplished by this vote? Consider whether or not you expect a specific action to be taken after the vote. From whom do you expect an action and by when? How will you know when the action is completed? After a vote is taken, what will occur during the next six months or year?
2. What might be the overall results of such a vote? Sometimes the effects are right on target; sometimes there can be unexpected consequences. Effects may be immediate, or it may take time to see a change. Explore all the pros/cons; examine the advantages and disadvantages of any proposed action. Consider how different groups may react: other Chiefs’, the elected officials, other officers and staff.
3. Are the issues compelling enough? Have other avenues of recourse been exhausted? Keep in mind that the Commissioners or Municipal officials hired this Chief and therefore will be inclined to support him or her. A vote of no confidence probably should be done as a last resort.
4. What are the rules for taking a vote of no confidence? A union or local body of employees need to have some type of strategy for taking a vote and to implement the results or actions leading up to the vote.
5. Discuss the issues widely with the firefighters and consider first adopting a resolution laying out the concerns and calling for a vote. Where is there resistance? Have you explored the opposition's perspective? Might they be right? You could do a temperature check in advance of a vote, to see where people stand. Is there widespread concern or buy-in? Will the membership as a whole support the charges?
6. Are all discussions professional and focused on issues and behaviors and not on personalities?
7. Who else would be affected by a vote? Will other relationships the fire department have in the community or with other departments be damaged? How will the community react?

A vote of no confidence is intended to create change but at times it may make the situation worse. My suggestion is to take all of the alternative means to resolve a situation using our negotiation or mediation skills. A vote of no confidence is a decision of last resort.

Cleveland Firefighters -
Questions to Ask -
Impeachment -

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