ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Diego Arencón isn’t the only Albuquerque fire union member who has drawn a city paycheck for attending an out-of-state firefighters conference. He’s just the only one who has been suspended for it.
Arencón, the local union president who has clashed over various issues with Mayor Richard Berry’s administration since it took over City Hall in December 2010, was handed a 30-day suspension this week. Among the accusations against Arencón detailed in a notice of final action written by Fire Chief James Breen was that Arencón attended an International Association of Firefighters conference in Pittsburgh in September 2009 without approval from then-Fire Chief Robert Ortega and for documenting the trip as “paid status” on his time sheets.
However, Ortega in a 2011 letter said he was aware that Arencón was going on the trip.
And in 2007, two years prior to Arencón’s trip to Pittsburgh, then-AFD Commander Tige Watson attended a conference hosted by the same association – the international firefighters union – in Houston. It focused on Emergency Medical Services topics.
Watson was paid in comp time for his attendance at the conference and – unlike Arencón – had his air fare, hotel, and car rental paid by the city. The union picked up those costs for Arencón.
Now a deputy chief with the department, Watson has not been disciplined.
Watson and Breen said in an interview Thursday that the two men’s trips were completely different: Watson was doing official city business as the newly appointed commander over the department’s EMS division, and Arencón was doing union work as the union president.
Union officials and Ortega chose Watson to attend the 2007 conference, according to recently retired AFD Lt. Kenneth Goodyear.
Arencón was chosen by virtue of his position as union president to attend the 2009 IAFF event, where he had a speaking engagement about diversity in public safety.
Breen pointed to the union contract that expired June 30, 2008, which states firefighters can get paid time for city business away from their normal workstation, but union officers or members must get approval from the fire chief to get paid for conducting union business.
That contract also states that the union president shall be granted time off without pay to attend “conventions, conferences and seminars.”
But that contract was not in effect when Arencón attended the conference for which he was disciplined.
The contract had been changed to allow the union president “to conduct union business on a 40-hour work week,” according to a letter obtained by the Journal.
The letter, from Ortega dated Nov. 17, 2011, also states that Arencón told the chief he would be attending the conference in 2009.
Goodyear said he attended several IAFF conferences on paid status during his eight years as local union vice president and was never disciplined for it.
Goodyear said it appears to him that Arencón is being treated unfairly.
“It really is just union busting,” he said. “It’s happening nationally, and it’s coming here now with this administration. They’re trying to portray us as money hungry – like we’re trying to cheat the system. But we’re not on golf junkets when we go to these conferences. We work at these things. We learn about our job, which is to protect peoples’ lives and property.”
Two retired deputy chiefs wrote letters to Breen in support of Arencón. Kevin L. Pearce and Robert Montoya wrote that union officials attending IAFF conferences on paid status was common practice prior to the Berry administration.
Pearce wrote that he attended five such conferences as a union official while being paid by the city. And while he was deputy chief of AFD Human Resources, he allowed numerous union officials, including Arencón, to do the same.
“From the time I was at fire department administration to my retirement, union presidents and representatives were allowed to attend IAFF conferences on paid status,” Montoya wrote. “The networking with departments all over the nation was seen as a valuable tool to predict future safety requirements that would be coming.”
Breen said he did not want to speculate on practices under the previous administration.
“But this administration does the right thing,” he said. “We enforce the terms of the contract.”
The city hired a private investigation firm, Robert Caswell Investigations, to look into Arencón’s conduct in 2009.
Neither Caswell nor his partner, Bob Casey, could say how long their investigation took or how much they were paid by the city. City administrators also said they didn’t know how much the investigation cost.
Caswell and Casey said they interviewed Ortega, who told them he was aware Arencón was going to the conference. But Ortega also told Caswell and Casey that Arencón reported directly to then-Deputy Chief Craig Sadberry.
The investigators said Sadberry told them he didn’t learn of Arencón’s trip until 30 days after the union president returned, and Arencón didn’t properly document the trip.
The investigator’s other findings that were the basis for Arencón’s suspension were:
♦ Using the city’s email and Internet systems, while on “paid status,” to solicit political campaign funds for and campaign on behalf of former Mayor Martin Chávez. A September 2009 email shows Arencón requested a $6,000 donation from the firefighter association for a mailer to support Chávez.
♦ Causing “discredit to the Albuquerque Fire Department and (becoming) a detriment to the proper order and discipline of the organization.”
Breen also wrote that Arencón was not truthful about the allegations during a Nov. 17 hearing.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal