A disgraced San Luis Obispo firefighter — charged with assaulting a man in a bar when off duty — got his job back Wednesday after he acknowledged he was dishonest and had violated the city’s code of ethics and its organizational values.
John Ryan Mason was reinstated by Chief Charlie Hines in a controversial decision triggered by Mason’s appeal of his November termination and due in part to the city’s wish to avoid a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
On Thursday, Hines said rehiring Mason was one of the most difficult decisions he’s had to make in his 38 years of fire service.
“The process, which could have taken two years, would have cost more city time and money while under a cloud of uncertainty,” Hines said. “It would have been polarizing to the community and the Fire Department. I wanted it to end sooner than later.”
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Hines, who faces criticism for the move, said the agreement gives Mason a very short leash. That, he said, was a key factor in his decision.
Had Mason successfully won the appeal, he could have sought back pay. The agreement prevents Mason from doing so.
Mason was a fire engineer and paramedic when he got into a fight with another man in the bathroom of Pappy McGregor’s Bar and Grill in June 2011.
The victim, Jory Brigham, 33, of Los Osos, suffered 17 facial fractures in the altercation, and Mason was charged with assault and battery.
Brigham declined to comment Thursday.
In September, a mistrial was declared after a jury failed to produce a verdict in Mason’s trial. After three days of deliberation, eight jurors voted to acquit Mason while four believed he was guilty. The District Attorney’s Office later decided not to retry the case.
A six-page agreement between Mason and the city, made public Thursday, outlines the stringent and unprecedented findings that dictate his return.
Mason, who had worked for the department for more than a decade and had a clean disciplinary record, will be demoted to an entry-level firefighter.
He will earn $56,160 annually compared to the $92,140 he made prior to being fired.
He will be on a five-year probationary period during which time he may be fired without the right to appeal for any misconduct similar to what got him fired previously or for any on- or off-duty misconduct involving controlled substances.
The agreement states that it can’t be used as an admission by Mason in any civil or criminal cases brought against him.
Mason, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, waived his right to seek back pay or benefits for the time he was on unpaid leave or following his termination, which totaled 14 months. Hines originally fired Mason in November because he had violated the city’s code of ethics, evaded questioning by police and diminished public trust and department morale. Hines also determined Mason was dishonest about events on the night of the fight.
“You admitted to striking the victim, repeatedly, and then leaving him without calling for emergency assistance for an obviously badly injured person,” wrote Hines in the November notice of dismissal. “As a firefighter and paramedic, your duty is to serve and protect, and you hold a position of high public trust.”
The decision to rehire Mason infuriated City Councilman Dan Carpenter, who said he has lost confidence in city staff to make the right decisions.
However, the City Council only has the authority to hire and fire the city manager and the city attorney.
“I am completely outraged at this decision,” Carpenter said. “It re-victimizes the person who was obviously beaten to a pulp. The fact that a firefighter of our city walked away from a scene where the guy was unconscious and bleeding profusely and did not call paramedics rises to a level unbecoming any firefighter.”
Hines and Deputy Fire Chief Garret Olson personally told fire staff of the decision Thursday morning.
The San Luis Obispo city firefighters union issued a brief statement late in the day saying that it supported Hines’ decision.
“We understand that this is a complicated personnel issue, and we believe in the process that was used,” said Erik Baskin, union president.
Mayor Jan Marx said she is always concerned about city employees who have anger-management or substance-abuse problems.
“But I think that the agreement has built in sufficient safeguards so that the public and the city is protected,” said Marx. “He can be terminated with not rights to appeal with any misstep. It is now up to him to prove himself. It is not clear he will be able to make it, but I for one hope he is able to do so.”