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Town of Normal and firefighters are repairing relationship after 'no confidence' vote in chief

Mick Humer stands outside a fire house
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
Mick Humer has served as the chief of Normal Fire Department since 2007. He previously worked for the Urbana Fire Department.

The union that represents firefighters in the Town of Normal and town administrators say they are trying to move past a rift created in the wake of a no-confidence vote in Fire Chief Mick Humer's leadership.

In a September letter to the mayor and council obtained by WGLT under the Freedom of Information Act, the Local 2442 of the International Association of Firefighters union said 84% of membership voted no-confidence.

“We have fallen victim to an increasingly negligent and dangerous work environment propagated by Fire Chief Mick Humer,” said the letter. “The predictable consequence of this lack of leadership is a work environment that is both toxic and unsafe.”

The union referred to Humer’s leadership as “feckless” and said “the ability of the union and Chief Humer to work in a trusting and collaborative way to solve the problems that are being faced was compromised.”

“We have reached a breaking point and continued operation of the department without adequate leadership will inhibit our abilities to deliver the highest quality service,” said the union. “We stand ready to cooperate in finding a better way forward for the fire department.”

City Manager Pam Reece said Friday she fully backs the chief.

“I have utmost confidence in Chief Humer, and my support of and confidence in Chief Humer has never wavered,” said Reece.

In a 16-page supporting document, the union laid out a series of issues and disputes with the chief, some of them dating back years. Union President Chad Pacey said there was no single precipitating event that led to the letter.

Chris Koos and Pam Reece
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
City Manager Pam Reece, right, said Friday she fully backs the chief.

"This is not something the membership of the Normal Firefighters nor the Executive Board took lightly. To be honest it is probably one of the most uncomfortable things we have done in our careers. It is not something we wanted to do," said Pacey.

Pacey said going into this, the union did not expect the chief would leave as a result of the vote or letter. He said they wanted a seat at the table and to have effective labor-management meetings.

The union's concerns

The letter cited a variety of material and process complaints:

  • Failing to update policies and standard operating guidelines
  • Lack of planning for growth and new patterns in the community
  • Lack of strategic planning
  • Systemic lack of communication in a variety of organizational areas
  • Lack of health screenings, a wellness initiative, or a fitness plan
  • Issues over the acquisition of backup turnout gear, powered stretchers, equipment to sound what are called station tones to prevent sleep disruption at stations not involved in a callup
  • A union demand for rehab periods (rest and recovery) following prolonged incidents or training exercises as a preventative for sudden cardiac death following heavy exertion and a wellness program
  • Lack of increase in staff since 2006 despite a 78% increase in calls through 2022
  • Persistent staffing issues

Throughout the letter, the union decried the way Humer does and doesn’t relay information to the department, even criticizing the chief’s insistence on in-person meetings instead of Teams or Zoom "a grave breakdown of information sharing."
“Chief Humer's lack of communication, as well as his inconsistent dissemination of information, has caused disarray at all levels within the department. His apparent inability to comprehend the importance of effective communication and dissemination of information through appropriate channels further demonstrates his incompetence,” said the letter.

On staffing, the union decried Humer’s "lack of understanding of labor-management systems," in particular during an incident in 2022 in which Humer tried to hold over an entire shift because there were no other staff available to work special event duties during an ISU homecoming weekend.

“This action is only permitted when a disaster or emergency is declared by Town officials, not when lack of foresight and planning are to blame for insufficient manning of special events,” said the union.

Local 2442 said assistant chiefs and battalion chiefs took care of the scheduling issue, and no members had to stay past working hours.

The next year, the union objected to Humer’s suggestion to use volunteer firefighters from other departments to staff special events, something the union says violates state law.

The union alleged the chief retaliates against workers, which has caused "low morale."

“Humer consistently issues retaliatory threats when concerns are communicated to the department administration rather than engaging the union and its members in constructive conversations,” said the letter.

They also viewed Humer’s discussion of potentially hiring part-time staff to alleviate shortages as "threatening."

Word of the no-confidence vote began to spread before formal notification went to the town. City Manager Pam Reece inquired, and she and Humer held a meeting with Union President Chad Pacey and the union executive board. In an email to the mayor and council the day following the meeting, Reece characterized the dialogue as "a good, heartfelt discussion."

“I am confident union leadership understands the current strain between Admin and labor. I'm also confident they will focus positive energy on re-building our long-standing strong Labor-Management relationship,” said Reece. “I have 100% confidence in Chief Humer. I believe in our public safety team, and I know the EMS and Fire Suppression services provided by NFD are second to none. I also expressed that brighter days are ahead, but it won't be easy to repair our relationship,” emailed Reece.

Reece also acknowledged in the email that staffing had been a challenge in recent years due to vacant positions and difficulty in hiring paramedics, though that's improved.

“We've hired 14 firefighters in 12 months, resulting in only three remaining vacant positions to fill. For your awareness, we have completed another recruitment process and are about ready to extend conditional offers of employment. Thus, we continue to take measures to fully staff the department and plan for the future,” wrote Reece.

Since that email, the fire department has come up to full staffing and is developing a wait list of qualified applicants, Reece said.

She also noted the town has replaced ambulances, fire engines and fire trucks, is moving forward with construction of a new Station 2, and increased pension funding levels.

Unfair labor practice complaint

Also the day after that meeting, union president Chad Pacey expressed "deep concern" about an incident in which he said Chief Humer stopped by fire station 3 the night before – on the evening of the meeting.

Humer "verbally attacked (Lt.) Dave Polley, to a personal level, after naming him in our meeting. I understand that all parties are frustrated and upset, however, we are all professionals and must conduct ourselves accordingly. That is not acceptable behavior. His actions last night are indicative of the problems that led to the vote of no confidence being brought forth to begin with,” said Pacey in an email to Reece.

That incident resulted in the union filing an unfair labor practice complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board on Oct. 3, saying Polley’s activity on the no-confidence vote was protected and Humer’s actions were retaliation.

“Chief Humer also stated that the City's position is that contract negotiations would be hell,” said the complaint.

As a result of Humer's actions, “Lt. Polley needed to leave his shift early,” according to the filing.

This situation developed in what would normally have been the runup to new contract talks. Pacey said the union was aware of how that might look, but decided they had to go ahead with the letter in spite of that.

"This had nothing to do ... if there is a book on what to do for negotiations, this is not on the list anywhere. It was not a tactic at all," said Pacey.

According to last week’s town council packet, no negotiations took place. Neither the union nor the town filed an intent to bargain letter within a prescribed window of time. That triggered an automatic one-year extension of the contract. The town council approved a 3% raise for firefighters for that year. Contracts typically run for four years.

Since October, both the union and the fire department administration have made efforts to calm the situation.

“Chief Humer and I have been talking productively with the union leadership for months now. I believe both the union and the town and certainly Normal Fire Department administration are in a position to continue to build relationships and look to the future,” Reece said Friday.

She said efforts are being made to broaden both communication and dissemination of information, in response to the union actions.

“Regular meetings can open conversations. When the chief and his administrative team are having labor-management discussions, I think they've agreed to take notes and send out meeting materials so all of the membership and all the department can have the communication directly from the chief and understand the status of issues that they're discussing,” said Reece.

Reece declined to respond to the issues the union raised "bullet point by bullet point."

“We dispute a number of the issues that the union raised in their letter, which is exactly why, in our open communications and conversations with the union president, we've talked about these things. And we've decided let's look forward, let's build relationships. And let's continue to do what's best for the department,” said Reece.

She said some of the claims are not factual, some not valid, and some have been dealt with at the bargaining table.

“…Through the years 2012, 2014, 2016, 2020, a number of topics were addressed. Some issues raised have already been resolved,” said Reece. “I think the union just wanted to point out some concerns that they had, and maybe they felt things weren't resolved fast enough … in their 10-year look back of things that they were concerned with.”

She said all the parties have agreed to stop looking in the rearview mirror and plan for the future.

“So, (there are) many things to continue to discuss in the future, but nothing that I can discuss at the moment,” said Reece.

Rebuilding trust

Humer cited the scheduled WGLT interview with Reece in declining to speak himself about the situation.

“I have had numerous conversations with Union President Chad Pacey. We have been meeting regularly. We are committed to working together and agree our time is best spent looking to the future. Most importantly, both the Town and the Union share a deep commitment to ensuring the department remains an emergency service leader in Central Illinois,” said Humer.

Pacey acknowledged that given the tone of the letter — including words like toxic, feckless, and incompetence — it will be difficult.

"Those are pretty harsh words. And, you know, to a certain degree I don't think all the trust will ever be rebuilt. I think that goes on both sides. But we are working positively and moving forward," said Pacey.

Pacey said things are improving and that labor-management meetings of late have been "effective and productive."

"Change is hard, right? It's one of the hardest things. It doesn't happen overnight but I think we are taking big yet small steps towards doing that. With holding labor management meetings there are items specific to that letter that are being addressed and some of the longstanding things that are coming to fruition," said Pacey.

He said in one recent session they talked about specific issues contained in the letter.

"And ultimately at the end of that meeting as it concluded, I feel both parties walked out feeling good about the direction we're headed in," said Pacey.

Pacey said they have agreed to provide agendas for their labor-management sessions, so things are not missed. He said that has helped, as has a change in the way the administration communicates with rank and file — daily communication with shift officers and that gets disseminated to rank and file.

"I don't know. I don't know how to define what the new normal will be. We're taking it day by day. We are working hard behind the scenes and out in front trying to push forward and work together. I think there is measurable effort on both sides," said Pacey.

“What the situation has presented is an opportunity for us to continue to build relationships with the union leadership and the union members. We can address some issues. Everyone can always be better,” said Reece.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.