An image of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's face on a roll of toilet paper recently circulated on the Internet has sparked turmoil within the local firefighters union whose members created it.
The image, and another of Fire Chief James Clack's face in a toilet bowl, were determined to have been created and distributed online last month by two members of the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 union who are now being disciplined, president Rick Hoffman said.
Hoffman acknowledged recent conflict between the mayor's office and the Fire Department over closing fire companies but said he and the union "unequivocally" condemn the images.
"No way in hell would I stoop to these levels. I don't think anyone deserves that," he said, offering an official apology to Rawlings-Blake. "Here I am trying to build a decent foundation for us to work together, and the mayor's face gets posted on toilet paper. It's degrading and embarrassing."
The mayor's office declined to comment on the issue.
Other members of the union pointed the finger at Hoffman, saying at a protest outside the union hall Monday afternoon that he has undermined trust among union members in recent weeks by allowing the image to circulate without publicly condemning it and by suspending another union leader for alerting city officials to the matter.
"We're a labor union, we're not a gang of thugs, and we should be conducting ourselves professionally," said David Zepp, a protest organizer.
Lenore Scharf, a 24-year paramedic with the Fire Department, said she was suspended from her position as the union's first vice president at the end of a July 31 meeting of the union's nine-member board of directors. Hoffman asked the board to suspend her for "misconduct, libel and slander" relating to her sharing concerns about the image with Larissa Parrish, a labor relations specialist in the city's Office of the Labor Commissioner, Scharf said.
"This has all been very upsetting," Scharf said.
Hoffman would not comment on Scharf's suspension or what caused it.
Neal Janey, Scharf's attorney, said firefighters facing disciplinary action routinely request Scharf as their union representative, and her suspension leaves "hanging in limbo" the status of about 100 disciplinary cases.
"This woman has been tirelessly, tirelessly at bat for so many people for so long," said Rodrick Jackson, a firefighter/paramedic and 10-year union member at the protest who called Sharf a rare advocate for minority union members.
Henry Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers, an organization that advocates for black firefighters, said Scharf has been a "sensational" union representative. Burris tried to mediate a meeting between Hoffman and Scharf during the protest, but that idea fizzled after Hoffman said Janey could not participate.
Janey said he has asked the International Association of Fire Fighters to review the case. If the IAFF doesn't take up the case in the next week, Janey said, he will ask a federal court for an injunction against the suspension pending a resolution.