A D.C. fire battalion chief, who was demoted after criticizing the mayor and the fire department has gotten his old job back after the department was threatened with a lawsuit.
Battalion chief Bill Phillips, a 30-year veteran, was notified Tuesday, the day that the American Civil Liberties Union had planned to file suit against the department, that he would be reassigned to his firefighting command, beginning Monday.
"Yesterday's decision to reassign him came just hours before the deadline we had given the department," said Art Spitzer, legal counsel for the ACLU, "Clearly if they had not been under threat of the lawsuit, it would not have happened."
In addition to giving the 51-year-old Phillips his old job back, the department deleted from the firefighters' code of conduct a prohibition against "general criticism of the fire department or other departments of the District of Columbia government."
ACLU lawyers pointed out that a U.S. District Court judge had ruled in 1977 that a regulation requiring District of Columbia employes to get permission from their supervisors before talking to the press was unconstitutional.
"I feel great," Phillips said yesterday. "The reassigning isn't everything. What's more important is winning a case that affects every employe in the District of Columbia . . . What I have been after is to get the employes from under the muzzle."
Phillips was reassigned after he charged in a quote in a Washington Post Article and later in a radio talk show that fire department promotion practices discriminate against whites. In the May 26 Post article, he was also quoted as saying he had "been in the department too long to watch (Mayor Barry) f... it up any longer. . . ."
Phillips was reassigned to the civilian-run property section of the department shortly after the article appeared. Fire chief Norman Richardson, who said Phillips would study the department's system of distributing uniforms, hats, paper and supplies, insisted that the reassignment was not punitive.
"For many years, I have felt that the civilian-run property department was not adequately taking care of the firefighters' needs and I am hoping that Phillips' experience and expertise can help straighten that out," Richardson said at that time.
Through a spokesman, Richardson said yesterday that he was unaware of Phillips' opposition to the reassignment until contacted by Phillips and his ACLU lawyer.
The spokesman said that after discussions with the ACLU, Richardson decided it would be better to reinstate Phillips than to fight the lawsuit.