Lightfoot accused of scrapping Chicago Fire Department promotion list to punish controversial City Council member

Ald. Jim Gardiner — a Chicago firefighter on a leave of absence — is accusing the mayor, with whom he has clashed repeatedly, of scrapping a promotion list because he was second in line to be promoted to lieutenant.

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Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was accused Thursday of scrapping a Chicago Fire Department promotion list — and saddling taxpayers with excessive overtime costs — to get even with a controversial City Council member who was second in line to be promoted.

Last year, Lightfoot lashed out at Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) over profane, threatening and misogynistic text messages Gardiner sent to people, including Lightfoot’s political consultant Joanna Klonsky and Anne Emerson, chief of staff to Finance Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd). Lightfoot also asked then-Inspector General Joe Ferguson to investigate.

One week later, Gardiner rose on the council floor to issue a rare public apology for the embarrassment his messages caused. He received a rare rebuke from the Cook County Democratic Party and remains under federal investigation for allegedly retaliating against some Northwest Side constituents for political purposes. 

Now, Gardiner is turning the tables on Lightfoot — with a recent lawsuit to back up his claim.

Gardiner, a Chicago firefighter, is on a leave of absence from the department. He said the mayor, with whom he has clashed repeatedly, tossed CFD’s 2009 promotion list simply because he was second in line to move up to the rank of lieutenant. The list has been up since 2013. CFD policy is to exhaust the list before putting up a new one.

“That’s an ‘F-you’ to me. `F-you. You’re one out. You waited 13 years for this. F-you. We’re tearing down the entire list.’ It highlights a pattern of being vindictive in trying to get back at people who have been known to disagree with her or not be on her side,” Gardiner said. 

“They never tear down a list like that with only 60 people or 100 people [left]. They always got to the end. But she basically screwed over 15 or 16 African American males to send a message to me. For somebody who continues to promote the fact that she’s all about helping the Black community, she sure found a way to screw over the Black community by tearing down a list to get back at a white male.”

Ald. Jim Gardiner sits back down after addressing his City Council colleagues in 2021 and apologizing for text messages he sent.

Ald. James Gardiner sits back down after addressing his City Council colleagues in September 2021, when he apologized for text messages he had sent.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Two white firefighters awaiting promotion to lieutenant have filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court accusing the city of violating their rights by scrapping the list and suspending promotions, even though there were 40 vacancies as of April — and even more now. 

That has forced firefighters to work excessive amounts of overtime while the city races to finalize a new list from a lieutenants’ exam administered by the city in 2019, the firefighters’ attorney said Thursday.

That attorney, Ruth Major, told the Sun-Times it sure looks like the Lightfoot administration was determined to avoid promoting Gardiner. 

“In April of 2022, the city promoted 41 people to the lieutenant’s position from the 2009 list. Number 42 was an employee who was on medical leave. Number 43 was Ald. Gardiner. The city stopped at 41 and did not fill any more vacancies and has not since. ... To meet the needs of ... the lieutenant’s position, the city is incurring substantial sums of money in overtime,” Major told the Sun-Times.

The hiring plan requires the city to document the reason for retiring the promotion list. But, in response to a Freedom of Information Request filed by one of the aggrieved firefighters, Major said the city responded that no such document existed.

“The purpose of the hiring plan is to prevent the city from manipulating hiring decisions. It’s supposed to be a transparent system that sets forth the expectation of the parties. Under Illinois law, it’s a contract,” Major said. 

“What we’re alleging is that, by suspending the process of filling the vacancies until a new list someday becomes available, in order that the people on the 2009 don’t get promoted, that is manipulation of the hiring process.”

The firefighters, David Barron and Michael Lynch, filed the lawsuit Aug. 30.

Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, would not comment on the pending litigation. The lawsuit, which Major hopes to turn into a class action, seeks promotions, back pay and lost seniority for the roughly 60 firefighters whose names appear on the now-scrapped list.

Gardiner himself faces two federal lawsuits. One accuses him of harassing, intimidating and falsely arresting a constituent who picked up a cellphone Gardiner’s ward superintendent left at a convenience store. The other accuses him of violating the First Amendment rights of 45th Ward residents by deleting their criticisms of him from his official Facebook page. The city has refused to represent Gardiner in either suit.

Though one of his obscene text messages suggested otherwise, Gardiner has maintained he has “never withheld, nor have I ever instructed or condoned my staff to withhold city services from any resident.”

It’s not the first time Gardiner and Lightfoot have clashed.

Shortly after taking office, Gardiner accused the mayor of rewarding his vanquished predecessor John Arena with a $129,996-a-year job in the Department of Planning and Development.

A few months later, Arena resigned from that post after Gardiner accused Arena of using his job as city planner to continue fighting the man who beat him.

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