Mission firefighters warn about ‘toxic and hostile’ work environment

The Mission Fire Fighters Association warned the City Council on Tuesday that Fire Chief Gilbert Sanchez had created a “toxic and hostile” workplace — and requested an investigation.

Firefighters are frustrated with Sanchez and Assistant Fire Chief Rene Alvarez, according to a letter from association President Robert Lopez to members of the City Council. The letter warned that morale had reached an “all-time low.”

“For that reason, and after much discussion and contemplation, Mission firefighters undertook a vote of no-confidence regarding Chief Sanchez and Assistant Fire Chief Alvarez,” according to a copy of the letter provided by the association. “According to the results of the vote, a large majority of our members have lost confidence in both chiefs.”

Reached on Tuesday afternoon, Sanchez referred a request for comment to City Manager Randy Perez. Media Relations Director Roxanne Lerma said Perez would not comment on personnel issues.

“It’s not a letter of: ‘Hey, we want them fired, we want them gone,’” Robert Lopez said. “We want to work with them.”

Tension between the association and management isn’t anything new in Mission.

In November 2016, when Fire Chief Rene Lopez Jr. retired, he wrote a brutally honest letter to then-City Manager Martin Garza.

“Your actions and words have made it clear that the Mission Firefighters Association (union) can override decisions of the fire chief regarding the operations of the department,” according to a copy of the letter released under the Texas Public Information Act. “You have given me 6 months to be more fiscal responsible and to curtail the actions of the union or else. It is difficult to work under these conditions so I must step aside.”

After he resigned, the city hired Sanchez.

“I’ll give it to Chief Sanchez, he inherited a downward spiral,” Robert Lopez said. “And he’s been trying to dig himself out of this hole.”

Firefighters only held a vote of no confidence after talks with management failed, Robert Lopez said, adding that members of the association just want a better work environment.

Members of the association voted Monday.

More than 90% said they had no confidence in Sanchez and Alvarez, according to information released by the association, which didn’t provide exact numbers. Some members abstained, but not a single member voiced confidence in Sanchez or Alvarez.

“And there are frustrations from the firefighters all the way up to the deputy chiefs,” Robert Lopez said.

Firefighters remain passionate about every aspect of the job, but management is killing morale, Robert Lopez said. Even the promise of overtime pay isn’t enough for some firefighters to pick up extra shifts.

“They call for overtime. Nobody wants to come in,” Robert Lopez said. “They’re fed up with it.”

Mayor Armando “Doc” O’caña said he referred the matter to the city manager.

“My position is very simple,” O’caña said. “I think they’re addressing the chief and the assistant chief. From my office, that’s a personnel issue.”

The city manager will perform fact-finding and, if necessary, provide the City Council with updates, O’caña said, adding that the city manager would be collecting information, not conducting an investigation.

Mission purchased new equipment for firefighters, including three new trucks and seven new vehicles, O’caña said. The city also built new fire stations to keep up with growth.

If there’s a problem, O’caña said, it’s not with resources.

“So it has to be a personnel issue,” O’caña said, “between the union and the chief.”

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