Arbitrator reinstates fired firefighter

An arbitrator has ordered the City of Prince George to reinstate a firefighter who lost his job after being found guilty of knowingly possessing a stolen jet boat and trailer.

In a decision reached Sept. 26, Karen Nordlinger found there was "no direct link" between the misconduct for which Benjamin Taffy Williams, 40, was charged and his duties.

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In June 2015, Williams was found guilty of possession of stolen property over $5,000 but in October 2015 he was given an absolute discharge at his sentencing hearing.

The charge was laid in relation to the RCMP's discovery of the items on his 6600-block Bench Drive property. Prior to showing up, RCMP, who had received a tip, called Williams to say stolen items might be on his property and arranged to drop by in the early afternoon to take a look.

Shortly after hanging up, Williams hooked the trailer and jet boat to the back of his truck and took off. Police, who had been keeping an eye on his property, soon arrested Williams.

When the city heard the news, Williams was immediately put on paid leave but under protest because he was worried the suspension would prevent him from running in an upcoming union election.

In an initial interview with city management, he was not asked if he knew the items were stolen but in a subsequent one Williams said it was a "grey area" and described his attempt to flee as a "grievous error."

Management accepted he had been forthright about his arrest and let him return to work. But he was assigned to a different fire hall and was prohibited from accepting any shift trades.

He was also advised that his reinstatement would be revisited if any charges were laid and when that happened in September 2013, he was moved out of fire suppression altogether and into the training branch where he provided training in high angle rescue.

Management also told him the charge and the publicity around it has had a "deleterious effect" on Prince George Fire Rescue Service's reputation and "has the potential to jeopardize the public trust." But Williams remained employed in the training branch until he was found guilty.

As a result of the absolute discharge, however, Williams has no criminal record for the conviction.

During a three-day hearing before Nordlinger, held in July, the city argued, in part, that Williams could no longer be trusted. In giving testimony, city manager Kathleeen Soltis said aspects of his duties required honesty, such as reporting back on fires or safety issues with co-workers.

So-called prevention duties also required honest accurate reports, Soltis testified, but in cross examination she conceded Williams was not involved in such duties.

Prior to the arrest, Williams, who has been a firefighter at PGFRS since 2004, had no discipline record and had earned excellent evaluations. He testified that he believes he has never been dishonest with his employer and never falsified a report to the city.

In his time at PGFRS, Williams had taken 35 extra courses and was taking courses leading to a fire service leadership certificate.

Nordlinger accepted Williams' misconduct was an "isolated incident not likely to be repeated."

She also found Williams is not in a "fiduciary position that requires absolute trust."

"He does not work on his own in most situations. Nor do his duties typically expose him to the temptation of greed," Nordlinger said. "He is a firefighter of some experience and skill. He made some dreadful mistakes in the matter for which he had paid a heavy price. He has exhibited a flawed character, but character can be built or improved by our mistakes and how we deal with them."

Norlinger expected Williams will "have to work very hard" to restore the city's trust in him and noted he has suffered "negative media attention, embarrassment and dishonor" as a result of the trial and conviction.

However, Nordlinger agreed with the city that Williams was not "as fulsome in his apology or his expression of remorse as he might have been." Consequently, Nordlinger decided Williams should not receive any pay, seniority or benefits from the day he was let go to the day of his reinstatement.

The decision is posted on the website for Black Gropper, the law firm that represented the firefighters' union during the hearing. It's also available at www.pgcitizen.ca with this story.

Williams had bought the items from a fellow firefighter, Jeremy Matthew Kostyshyn, who was found not guilty of trafficking in stolen property in September 2015. Shortly after he was charged, Kostyshyn was first suspended with pay, then days later without. Four months later, he was dismissed from the department.

A hearing before an arbitrator for Kostyshyn is scheduled for spring 2017, according to a source.

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