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Days from mandatory retirement age, fire commissioner loses bid to stay on job

When Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose A. Santiago (left) retired in August, he was facing disciplinary action from Mayor Rahm Emanuel for failing to file a complaint against his drive for using the N-wordy, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

After six-and-a-half years of leadership stability under fire, there will be a changing of the guard at the helm of the Chicago Fire Department.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is saying goodbye to his second fire commissioner after trying and failing to find a legal path to keep Jose Santiago as a civilian fire commissioner, even after Santiago reaches the mandatory retirement age of 63.

Sources said Santiago has already had his “goodbye conversation” with Emanuel after joining the mayor Tuesday for what could be their last official act together: the somber ceremony that retired the badge of former Chicago Fire Department diver Juan Bucio, who died during a Memorial Day rescue on the south branch of the Chicago River.

“Commissioner Jose Santiago answered the call to serve our great city four decades ago and Chicago is better and stronger today because of his service. Jose embodies what is best about Chicago’s bravest, and what is best in our city,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a statement.

Emanuel has not yet settled on a replacement for the $202,728-a-year commissioner. City Hall sources flatly denied the job has been offered to at least one high-ranking official, who turned it down.

The selection is complicated by the fact that Santiago was one of the few high-ranking Hispanics in the mayor’s cabinet and that a wave of retirements — tied in part to a pay differential — soon may leave the Chicago Fire Department without a single deputy commissioner.

“Our plan was to keep [Santiago] around. But you just can’t do it,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Look at the code. A civilian commissioner is not allowed under the code. We tried to find a way to get there. But you can’t get around that. It is what it is. We looked at it. It’s not 100 percent clear. But it looks like it’s not allowed.”

The top mayoral aide pointed to Section 2-36-120 of the Municipal Code: “Membership of the uniformed service.”

It states: “The following employees of the fire department, namely, the fire commissioner, deputy fire commissioners, all chief officers and all subordinate officers, and all firefighters, fire engineers and paramedics, shall constitute the uniformed service and shall be known and designated as members of the fire department.”

Santiago refused to comment on his imminent departure.

Sources close to the retiring commissioner said he wanted to stay on and even “showed them where an executive order would work” to make that possible.

But Emanuel reportedly refused without explaining why.

Former Mayor Jane Byrne had a civilian fire commissioner in William Blair, who famously gave the order to spray water from a fire hose on Dan “Spider-Dan” Goodwin as the daredevil reached the 37th floor of the John Hancock Center on Veteran’s Day, 1981.

The Chicago Police Department has had two civilian superintendents: O.W. Wilson after the cops-as-robbers scandal in the old Summerdale police district and former FBI agent Jody Weis after the Special Operations Section scandal and the furor that followed off-duty police officer Anthony Abatte’s brutal beating of a female bartender captured on a videotape played around the world.

Santiago has had no such high-profile scandals. But that doesn’t mean his reign has been smooth sailing.

Fire deaths are up — from 27 all of last year to 31 already this year, even before the most deadly cold weather season hits.

Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas has accused Santiago of treating emergency medical services, an overwhelming majority of 911 calls, as a poor “step-child” as Emanuel dragged his feet for years on a promised five-ambulance expansion.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has lit repeated fires under the Fire Department. He has criticized it for slow ambulance response times and not moving forward on civilianization that could save millions. He also concluded that at least 20 of the 111 black firefighters hired after a marathon discrimination lawsuit had not been medically cleared by a department physician before starting work.

Ferguson also blew the whistle on timekeeping scams and accused CFD of shelling out $5 million-a-year to provide a uniform allowance to firefighters and paramedics that’s more like an “automatic cash bonus” because it’s “completely unmoored from any determination of actual need or use.”

Earlier this year, five female paramedics filed a federal lawsuit accusing their superiors of sexual harassment.

The suit alleged that the Chicago Fire Department “directly encourages” the illegal behavior by failing to “discipline, supervise and control” its officers, by intimidating and punishing women who dare to report the harassment and by maintaining a “code of silence.”

Discrimination against women also forced the Chicago Fire Department to change its policy impacting pregnant employees and nursing mothers and spend $2 million — and $1.7 million more in legal fees — to compensate dozens of women denied firefighter jobs because of a discriminatory test of upper body strength that City Hall has now scrapped.

As if all of that wasn’t enough of a headache, 32 members of the Fire Department’s exempt ranks returned to their career service ranks after Emanuel discontinued the longstanding practice of boosting the pay of exempt-rank members in response to union contracts that increased pay for the rank-and-file.

The fire officials are seeking pension changes, expanded health insurance benefits and pay raises, but have, so far, been unable to persuade Emanuel to sweeten the pot. They recently got a four percent pay raise, far short of the 11 percent they were seeking.

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), a former Chicago firefighter, noted that there are “a lot of engineers and battalion chiefs” who made more money than the commissioner.

“Until the city straightens out the pay of the exempts, it’s gonna continue to be difficult to get exempts,” said Sposato, who described himself as a friend of Santiago and talked to the commissioner five times-a-week.

“We’re like 22 exempts short in this city. That’s a lot of exempts. It’s probably a record amount…Nobody wants it now because of the pay…The mayor personally told me he’s gonna address that and straighten it out. I have all the confidence in the world that he will.”

In 2016, Santiago defended his 60-day suspension of a lieutenant who refused to send underlings into an area where they might be exposed to Ebola but said the city would accept an arbitrator’s ruling overturning the suspension.

At the time, Santiago said the decision not to appeal the arbitrator’s ruling had nothing to do with the vote of no-confidence in him vote taken by the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2.

Santiago is a former U.S. Marine decorated for his service in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm.

He ran the 911 center for the final year of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration — and presided during the Blizzard of 2011 fiasco that shut down Lake Shore Drive — before returning to the Fire Department under Emanuel as a deputy commissioner.

In February 2012, he was chosen to replace Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, one of the most decorated firefighters in the city’s history.

Hoff abruptly announced his retirement after declaring that he was “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus – the issue that triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

At the time, Emanuel had taken aim at treasured union perks that included the clothing allowance; holiday and duty-availability pay; pay grades; premium pay; non-duty lay-up coverage; a physical fitness incentive and a 7-percent premium paid to cross-trained firefighter-paramedics.

The mayor subsequently backed away from all of those concession demands in a pre-election contract that won him the surprise endorsement of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, a union that had endorsed mayoral challenger Gery Chico over Emanuel in 2011.

The contract that expired on June 30, 2017 and now must be replaced called for Chicago firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians to get an 11 percent pay raise over five years, but ends free health care for those who retire between the ages of 55 and 65.

Local 2 returned the favor by signing on to a deal that gave Chicago 15 more years to ramp up to a 90 percent funding level for police and fire pensions.

It was not known whether Emanuel planned to renew his push for those abandoned cost-saving concessions—and was seeking a commissioner willing to support those changes. That is, if the mayor seeks and manages to win a third-term.