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Suit Claims Staffers were Fired Over Union Activities

ST. LOUIS COUNTY (Mo.) -- A firefighter and a paramedic allege in a lawsuit filed against the Mehlville Fire Protection District's board and chief that they were fired because of their roles with the district's firefighters union.

Bob Strinni, a firefighter engineer who lives in the south St. Louis County fire district, and Jeri Fleschert, a lieutenant paramedic who lives in Lonedell, filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis with the backing of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington. Strinni, who began working for the district in 1994, is president of IAFF Local 1889. Fleschert, hired in 1985, is the local's secretary.

The board - Aaron Hilmer, Bonnie Stegman and Ed Ryan - fired the two in June after an internal investigation.

Hilmer, the fire board's chairman, said Thursday that the terminations had "absolutely nothing to do with their positions in the union." Hilmer said the board began the investigation after learning that someone had stolen personal property from an employee and that the employee then was harassed.

Hilmer said the investigation "had corroboration by other employees of a hostile and harassing work environment," Hilmer said. "After weighing all the evidence, the two employees were terminated for violating the district's anti-harassment policy."

The three board members and Fire Chief Jim Silvernail are named as defendants.

Lawyer Rick Barry, who filed the suit, called the board's actions "a mean-spirited campaign calculated to demoralize its firefighters and paramedics."

Relations between the board and the local have been strained since spring 2005 when Hilmer and Stegman, self-described "reform" candidates, gained control of the three-member board.

The two sides have not been able to agree on a new labor contract, and the suit alleged that last spring it became evident that the board was focused on breaking the union and firing its two principal officers.

The suit asks for compensation, damages and benefits and that the employees be reinstated.

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