December 18, 2014

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North Ridgeville firefighter disciplined for working another job while ‘sick’

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — A city firefighter accused of working a part-time job for another fire department on days he called off sick in North Ridgeville will serve 10 24-hour unpaid suspensions. The sick time he used will be deducted from his vacation days.

Arbitrator Harry Graham issued the decision this week against Ralph Conte, an eight-year veteran of the North Ridgeville Fire Department. The suspensions will be served once a month until they are completed, according to the decision.

Fire Chief John Reese said the discipline is “the severest suspension we’ve ever had in the Fire Department, short of termination.”

In addition, the six eight-hour periods of time he called in sick so he could work as a part-time firefighter for the Valley View Fire Department in Cuyahoga County will be restored to his sick time bank and deducted from his vacation account.

“He was made to substitute sick days with vacation days,” Reese said.

Conte was represented by Michael Piotrowski, a Columbus-area attorney who represents the Columbus Fraternal Order of Police. He did not return calls Thursday.

The case came to light in July 2013 after an investigation by North Ridgeville police. The probe began when fire officials learned Conte was working in Valley View — and that he possibly was doing so on days he called in sick.

Piotrowski said last summer the accusations against Conte were “a simple mistake on his part” rather than any deliberate wrongdoing, and that Conte had repaid the city for time he worked in Valley View, which amounted to less than $500.

Conte worked the side job while on extended leaves when two of his four children were born, and used personal, vacation or comp time to do so, Piotrowski said.

Graham stepped in after Conte filed a grievance, and he urged the two sides to come to an agreement after hearing from both, Reese said.

The arbitration ruling also stipulated that Conte could lose his job for any findings of “gross misconduct” between now and Jan. 1, 2016.

Conte is allowed to continue working for Valley View, and he can do so while serving suspension days.

“If he’s not working here and we’re not paying him, I can’t really tell him what to do,” Reese said. “That’s his own time.”

Another provision of the agreement calls for Conte to be offered future overtime to make up for overtime opportunities he was prevented from taking while the case was under investigation, Reese said.

The incident was the first disciplinary incident involving Conte.

“I’m sure he’ll put it behind him and be fine,” Conte said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.