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Arbitrator confirms LFD firing decision

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By LPR Staff
Editor/POST-REGISTER

Ten months of controversy swirling around a former Lockhart firefighter drew one step closer to a close on Tuesday when a North Texas arbitrator announced his decision to uphold the City of Lockhart’s choice to suspend him.

Just before noon on Tuesday, Weatherford attorney Phil King notified City Manager Vance Rodger

s of his decision to uphold the city’s “indefinite suspension” of Michael Harris, a Victoria resident who worked at the Lockhart Fire Department from 2003 until he was put on administrative leave in December 2007.

The suspension was the result of an administrative review of department employees’ backgrounds, which revealed that Harris was a registered sex offender, convicted of the misdemeanor offenses of lewd conduct and indecent exposure in the early 1990s in New York State.

Under the rules of Civil Service which were enacted in Lockhart by popular vote last year, Harris was entitled to a hearing before an arbitrator to determine whether the suspension was proper. That hearing was held in June, and finally led to King’s decision this week.

“The indefinite suspension of Firefighter Michael Harris is affirmed,” said a written statement from King, released by Rodgers on Tuesday afternoon. “All relief requested is denied.”

The “relief” Harris requested during the hearing was a return to his post with the Lockhart Fire Department, and an opportunity to prove that he could be trustworthy and a good employee. During the hearing, Harris had expressed regret for his past activities and assured the arbitrator that he had changed since his misdemeanor convictions nearly 10 years ago.

The criminal charges themselves, however, were not the catalyst behind Harris’ separation from the department, according to Fire Chief Jerry Doyle and the city’s attorney in the proceedings, Julia Ganaway of Austin. Instead, he was suspended because he had “failed to cooperate with the investigation,” and “not been truthful while securing employment with the City of Lockhart.”

Harris, however, maintained that if Doyle did not know about his sex offender status, that he should have, and no attempt was made to hide his criminal background from his prospective employer. In fact, he said, he had signed an authorization for the city to run a criminal background check prior to his employment; he said he thought Doyle had run that check prior to offering him the position.

King agreed with Doyle’s and Ganaway’s assessment of the situation – that Harris had been untruthful during the disciplinary investigation and deceptive when securing employment. According to Rodgers, King added to his opinion that Harris had committed acts showing “lack of good moral character,” and that his actions “constituted conduct prejudicial to good moral character.”

It was for those reasons Doyle said during the hearing that he would be hesitant to welcome Harris back, had King ruled in his favor.

“Firefighters – all emergency service personnel – are held to a higher standard than other municipal employees,” Doyle said in June. “I don’t think, with this information out now, that the citizens would welcome him back or trust him in their homes when they are in a vulnerable position.”

Harris, who has 10 days to appeal the arbitrator’s decision, did not respond to a request for comment.

The City of Lockhart has changed its policy regarding the employment of emergency service personnel. While not standard practice was in place in 2003, when Harris was hired, that criminal background checks be completed on all prospective employees, that policy has been put in place, Rodgers said Tuesday. The policy extends beyond the fire department and emergency service department, and applies to all city employees and volunteers that are expected to work with citizens, particularly with children.
kathibliss@post-register.

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