Union takes cautious approach to new fire chief


When Tim Butler, St. Paul’s new fire chief, introduced himself to the public at a media event inside Station 18 in Frogtown last month, he made a point of lavishing praise upon the city’s firefighters, who, he said, “provide the foundation of our rich history and our bright future ahead.”

Consider it step one in the process of mending a relationship that grew openly hostile under the watch of Butler’s predecessor, Doug Holton.

Butler professed “great admiration and great respect for the people in our department,” and he pledged to seek advice from leaders of St. Paul Firefighters Local 21, who, in turn, reacted to Butler’s hiring with cautious optimism.

Chris Parsons, secretary of Local 21, said two union members, including President Pat Flanagan, sat on the search committee that recommended Butler to Mayor Chris Coleman. Parsons called Butler “by far and away the most qualified candidate for the job.”

The union also applauded Butler’s early interest in hearing what firefighters have to say, particularly at a time when changes – including a new strategic plan for the department – appear on the horizon.

“If we’re going to put forward a new plan, a new way of delivering services to the community, then the input of Local 21 has to be taken into account,” Parsons said. “We are the experts in the area.

“With Tim Butler, we’re hoping to get somebody that’s open-minded and will seek input. There’s no better way for an employee to feel valued than to have their input sought.”

Many firefighters did not get that feeling from St. Paul’s last fire chief. Union members filed more than 50 grievances during Holton’s four-year tenure in St. Paul, which ended shortly after firefighters gave him a 366-to-6 vote of no confidence.

Holton accepted a position as chief of the Milwaukee Fire Department in April.

“The last chief had to have his hands in just about every aspect of the department,” Parsons said. “He was very poor at delegating duties to the lower ranks. He wasn’t the kind of chief who would stand up for you. He wasn’t an advocate.

“We have a clean slate with the new chief, so we’ll see where it goes,” Parsons said.

Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org