St. Louis, MO – Steve Kotraba is St. Louis's acting fire chief, after Sherman George was demoted this (Monday) morning for refusing to make promotions. Kotraba plans to fill the vacancies in question.
The impasse has gone on for three years, ever since a lawsuit claimed the test used to make promotions was biased against blacks. George had refused to make promotions for that reason; he also argues his job as chief gives him discretion on personnel moves.
In May, a judge ruled that the test in question did not intentionally discriminate.
City Public Safety director Charles Bryson wouldn't say much about why he demoted George, but says George can still serve the department. "I have asked and certainly Chief Kotraba has agreed to sit down with former chief George to see what he wants to do and what he wants his role to be," Bryson said.
Bryson says he hopes to have a permanent replacement in place by the end of this month; that replacement will be an internal candidate. Kotraba, who has been a deputy chief, reportely plans to apply.
George, 63, was notified this (Monday) morning of his demotion. His attorney said George is legally fighting the decision.
George's lawyer, Thomas Blumenthal, said he filed legal action, now at the Missouri Court of Appeals level, seeking to have the court intervene and stop the demotion. His legal argument is that the chief has the sole discretion to promote.
City officials have disagreed, saying George was directed by his supervisor, the director of public safety, to move forward with the promotions and did not do so.
"The city charter gives me discretion to promote or not," George said. "They removed my discretion without a vote of the people. That's unsafe and illegal."
George previously has said that he does not see the matter as a racial issue.
"The issue is solely one of safety, and whether the tests, and resulting lists, assess the ability of firefighters to perform supervisory roles in dangerous conditions required by the nature of firefighting," he wrote in a letter to Mayor Francis Slay in August.
George wrote that he has repeatedly proposed a number of alternate testing requirements, but his recommendations have been ignored.
In September, Slay urged George in a letter to end the hold on promotions. He told the chief he feared the issue, if not addressed properly, "will severely damage your ability to lead."
City Hall officials have voiced concern that about one-third of the managerial positions in the fire department are unfilled.