AUSTIN (KXAN) — KXAN News has obtained the Facebook posts a senior Austin firefighter is accused of making that resulted in his 30-day suspension.
Capt. Gregory “Lance” Zenkner posted political comments during the two months leading up to this week’s federal election, the images show. Someone saw the posts online and forwarded more than a half dozen to his bosses at AFD according to online comments associated with the posts.
One, posted Sept. 11, 2016, refers to Hillary Clinton’s comment that Donald Trump’s supporters were “a basket of deplorables.” It reads, “Hey Hillary, I’m not one of your minority, hands-out, entitled, easily-offended, whiney, unemployed, drain on society voters. I’m a hard working, tax paying, gun owning, mortgage paying, productive member of society. And I’m the deplorable one?”
Another is part of an online thread and reads: “I doubt those future felons are reading about Washington or Lincoln. It’s about Omabey (sic) and what an incredible job he did. No FACTS about how he divided this nation and how he IS and will go down as the worst PRES in history!”
Even though the 2016 election was tumultuous, leading many voters to take to social media to express their opinions and reactions, Austin Fire Department policy states: members are “prohibited from… statements that ridicule, malign, disparage… or otherwise express bias against any other person.”
Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr wrote in a disciplinary memo signed Oct 31 she respects her employees’ right to free speech.
“However their role as public servants dictates they are held to a higher standard for what they say and do, both on and off duty.” Kerr notes even though Capt. Zenkner did not identify himself as an AFD firefighter in the posts, Facebook readers could easily make that link by clicking on his profile.
KXAN News asked for an interview with Chief Kerr. A spokesperson told us by email: “We do not discuss discipline outside of what is written in the memo.” A copy of the memo can be found here.
AFD’s Michelle Tanzola confirms executives did not issue any reminders of the social media policy leading up to voting day. There have not been any other issues with other employees, she wrote.
“He screwed up,” says Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks, adding Zenkner is a “good guy and a go-getter” who most recently was a captain overseeing cadet training. He has since been transferred, Nicks says.
Nicks also says Zenkner’s punishment of 30 calendar days is excessive. “There are guides in state law what the punishment should be for public employees. 15 days, reasonable punishment, 15 days or less. And the Chief again exceeds her jurisdiction in this punishment.” Nicks adds the suspension is a burden on employee morale.
The head of the fire or police department may suspend a fire fighter or police officer under the department head’s supervision or jurisdiction for the violation of a civil service rule. The suspension may be for a reasonable period not to exceed 15 calendar days or for an indefinite period. An indefinite suspension is equivalent to dismissal from the department.
City employment records show Zenkner, 48, will earn $112,850 this year. He joined AFD in 1995. KXAN News also reached out to Zenkner and did not immediately hear back.
Zenkner’s suspension comes in the wake of numerous, minor suspensions of AFD staff for minor accidents involving damage to fire trucks and equipment. In those cases where employees backed into curbs or hit overhanging tree limbs, they each lost several hours pay, according to various city memos. Tanzola said at the time the department is addressing those issues through counseling and retraining.