Carrie Austin rises to defense of African-American fire commissioner

SHARE Carrie Austin rises to defense of African-American fire commissioner
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Richard C. Ford II | James Foster/Sun-Times file photo

The chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee lashed out at a powerful colleague on Thursday for daring to ask newly-appointed Fire Cmsr. Richard Ford II to explain his qualifications for the job.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Ariel Reboyras (30th) was long gone when Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) unleashed her tirade against him.

But his ears must have been burning. Austin was so protective of Ford, who is African-American, and so furious about a line of questioning never directed at his newly-retired Hispanic predecessor Jose Santiago, she had to play a game of solitaire to, as she put it, “stay calm.”

Ald. Carrie Austin.

Ald. Carrie Austin | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“When Commissioner Santiago sat in the seat, nobody asked about his qualifications. That was a disservice and a disrespect to you…That was very insulting,” Austin said.

“You’re not sitting there just Johnny-come-lately. [You went] from the bottom to the top. And all of a sudden your qualifications are gonna come into question?” Austin said.

“When I see him tomorrow, I’m gonna let him know how insulted I am….because I never recall him ever asking that of Commissioner [Jose] Santiago. It was, ‘Hooray, Hooray, Hooray’ when he sat here. I think that’s very unfair to you. That’s a disparagement on you and this Department of Fire. If you can’t respect the head, then who in the hell do you respect?”

Contacted later, Reboyras said he meant no disrespect.

“The intent was to show my colleagues how qualified this individual is to be the next commissioner. That’s all it was. He is well-qualified. The intent was not to diminish what he’s done,” Reboyras said.

The question that triggered Austin’s outburst seemed harmless enough at the time.

“Can we hear from you a little bit about your career and how you got here to this point today as acting commissioner?” Reboyras said.

Ald. Ariel Reboyras

Ald. Ariel Reboyras. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Sun-Times file photo

Ford laughed somewhat nervously, then launched into a detailed recitation of his rise to the top of the Chicago Fire Department.

After Thursday’s budget hearing, Ford insisted that he was not offended.

“I don’t think Ald. Reboyras meant to be insulting at all,” he said.

But Ford said he was not at all surprised by Austin’s tirade.

“The alderman is very defensive of all her departments. She thought there was an insult there. I don’t believe there was,” he said.

Before the verbal fireworks that ended Thursday’s hearing, Ford acknowledged a leadership vacuum in the Chicago Fire Department that is nearing crisis stage.

There are 22 exempt vacancies. That means that, if there are two major events at the same time, the Fire Department won’t have enough officers to cover it. Ford would have to rely on the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System and have a suburban chief call the shots at a Chicago fire.

“We’ll do whatever is required in order to maintain safety in the city,” Ford said.

“I would call in, if needed, suburban chiefs –– not suburban companies.”

The problem that caused the unprecedented number of vacancies among Fire Department brass dates back to 2012.

That’s when the city stopped giving raises to command staff whenever the union rank-and-file got a raise.

Specialty pay was also cut for command staff. Vacation rules were changed to force those who were promoted to take all of their accumulated vacation time at one time.

The cumulative effect was that promotions ended up costing some firefighters as much as $20,000-a-year.

Ford said he’s working with the budget office to remedy the problem. But, he noted that 57 Fire Department employees under his command earn more money than he does.

“We’re now trying to install those benefits that were afforded to us earlier,” Ford said, hoping to make promotions by Nov. 1.

“Within the 2019 budget, there is an increase to fix the problem that existed.”

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