Reporter’s Notebook: NAACP and Council Comments on the Reassignment of Fire Chief Washington

Published : Friday, February 14, 2020 | 5:58 AM

Due to several requests for comments made at Monday’s City Council meeting, Pasadena Now is publishing a rough transcript of the public comment and the ensuing council discussion about the reassignment of Pasadena Fire Chief Bertral Washington to special assignment at City Hall.

NAACP President Allen Edson:

Greetings, Mayor Tornek, Vice Mayor Hampton and all the members of city council. Before I get started, I liked to have all the members of the Pasadena NAACP stand and also my partners from NDLON. And Pasadena job center and those from pop. My name is Allen Edson and I’m the president of Pasadena branch of the NAACP. I’m here tonight to express the concern of the Pasadena branch membership and myself over the termination of a Fire Chief Bertral Washington. In September of 2019 the NAACP was invited to come to the City Council chambers in recognition of the branch fighting for civil rights of African Americans and people of color in Pasadena since 1919. During the meeting I mentioned that the branch is still fighting for the same issues that have existed in Pasadena since 1919. I mentioned that if someone from the NAACP speaks on being around for another hundred years, we have all failed in achieving equal opportunity for our residents of Pasadena.

I suggested that by working together, the NAACP and city leadership saw the discriminatory behaviors in the city and in 30 years we can put the NAACP out of business. I guess I was naive to believe that city leadership would work to solve this bias. A light came on in my head that if the city were to work with the NAACP, it would give African Americans in Pasadena power. The situation regarding chief Washington displays no effort on the part of the city leadership to correct injustice, to give African-Americans power in Pasadena. The reason for the chief’s dismissal has not been made public. Why has a firefighter’s association not spoken up on his behalf? The association is a strong supporter of the firefighters’ bill of rights that puts in place basic procedural safeguards that recognize the unique role of first responders. Regarding the fire chief, the bill of rights says a fire chief shall not be removed by a public agency or appointed authority without providing that person with written notice. The reason or reasons for removal and an opportunity for administrative appeal. That the city provide Chief Washington with his due process. Why did the firefighters’ association not support chief Washington? One of their own? It is known in the community that the association has been working against the chief since he was hired and has participated in undermining his leadership.

Today, we have got three members of the City Council running for office in Pasadena that had been endorsed by the association. It looks like these are proxy votes for the association. A fire department matters. I believe the council has given too much influence to the association beyond labor relations and city affairs. Thank you.

 

Mayor Terry Tornek:

Thank you, Mr. Edson. Mr. Hampton.

 

Councilman Tyron Hampton:

First of all, I’d like to thank the NAACP and all the community members who have showed up tonight for a man who lives in our community. We have plenty of department heads throughout the city who have decided not to live in the city of Pasadena. And I definitely understand that. But we have a fire chief who lives in this city. So I as one city council member was also taken aback when I heard that the fire chief was going to be reassigned to another department. This fire chief has brought diversity in numbers to our fire department.

And if we take that as an actual value of ours, which we talk about on a day to day basis, we want Asians, we want women, we want African Americans to be hired in this community. Our fire department has actually done that. When I look at our fire department, I’m extremely proud of its accomplishments, what it has done. I am extremely proud of our fire department. There’s no other fire department that I would say that looks anything like our fire department. I’ve been to Glendale, I’ve been to Burbank and there are more than just Caucasian Anglo-Saxon men that work and that live in those cities. And that’s what their fire departments look like. And so I as one would say that our fire department is a diverse department of people that are professional and do a fantastic job actually saving lives. And actually some of you that are in here tonight may have had a firefighter come and save your life. I know I’ve called firefighters on numerous occasions and, and they’ve been right on time. So, with that being said, the reason why I mentioned that is because, since I’ve been elected, I’ve heard zero complaints about our fire department. So because a group, a small group of minority individuals who work within the fire department have decided that they have had issues with the fire chief for our city manager to decide to reassign him is extremely disappointing. I expect each and every one of you guys to continue to come back until our fire chief is reinstated.

 

Councilman John Kennedy:

The speaker representing the NAACP, President Alan Edson, he shared with us that, I believe he used the word that the Fire Chief had been terminated. And so I’d like to know on the record, has the Fire Chief been terminated?

 

City Manager Steve Mermell:

The answer is no. And mayor, if I may, I’d like to make some brief remarks.

 

Kennedy:

Well, it’s inappropriate for you to make remarks. I need to finish my remarks first. What appears to be an issue for me City Attorney is the allegation that Mr. Bertral Washington’s due process rights were violated in the process. And so if not tonight, then in a closed session because it’s a personnel issue. We, in my view, need to explore as we have done on other occasions whether the Fire Chief’s due process rights were violated. Can we take that issue up in terms of advising counsel um, in closed session, mayor?

 

Tornek:

I’m going to turn to the city attorney.

 

City Attorney Michele Beal Bagneris:

Thank you, mayor. Members of the council, Mr. Kennedy, the city council can discuss certain prescribed items in closed session and that may be one of them. So we can look into that and the appropriate.

 

Kennedy:

And since you have the floor for the moment, can you share with us briefly without going into any details about the case, the question that Mr. Edson raised about the bill of rights that really in some respect put police officers and firefighters on a whole other level because they have a special covering if you will, that other employees may not have. Can you briefly share with us what rights he may have been referencing as it relates to–

 

Bagneris:

I don’t think that would be appropriate for me to reference those rights at this point.

 

Kennedy:

Okay. I’d like you to do that. If the mayor is in concurrence or five votes of the city council demanded in closed session related to whatever the situation is related to Fire Chief Bertral Washington. I’d also like to find out in closed session or public session, whether the city manager consulted with any member of the City Council before, whatever the disposition of the fire chief is presently, before he made the decision.

I think it’s incumbent, like it is in Washington, D.C. when we’re seeking the truth that the truth is shared with the community. So that’s another issue for us to take up. And then I, for one, I can’t speak for any of my colleagues or the mayor, do not understand how we hired someone to do a specific job. That person was doing the job. No department head is perfect. Not even the titular head, if you will, our CEO, Steve Mermell. No department head is perfect and oftentimes if there are areas where they need assistance, that assistance is provided through additional training, coaching, executive coaching, etcetera. This is not the forum to discuss that, but certainly it needs to be part of the discussion that we would have privately about the disposition of Fire Chief Washington. So just for the record, in terms of contravening or countermanding a decision by the City Manager, what rights does the council have, and would you be able to share those rights in public, to reassign the fire chief back in his role that he was hired to do?

 

Bagneris:

That’s not appropriate for discussion at this point.

 

Kennedy:

Thank you City Attorney. So in summary, I believe that the community is here because it has grave concerns about another African American being treated unfairly in terms of resolving issues. Issues that apparently the whole council is not, has not been briefed about. And if the council hasn’t been briefed, certainly the community hasn’t been briefed. And so the community has a right to know. We can’t just violate the Chief’s rights. We can’t violate the people who put us in office. So let’s address the real issues and I’m looking forward, I’m looking forward to supporting the way forward that our Vice Mayor, Tyron Hampton, who happens to be the city council member for Fire Chief Washington, and let me just say for the record, as the Vice Mayor said, I think for me, if you work in a city at that executive level or department head level, you should strongly consider living here. And the Fire Chief, unlike some other department heads, and I’ve already hit this issue when I first came on the council, made the decision to make a huge investment in this community and purchase a home and really be part of the fabric of life of Pasadena.

So I hope just like the Vice Mayor, that this is not just a one time situation because there are so many other issues as it relates to African Americans being represented vertically and horizontally in this city. And we cannot use the cliche, I don’t know what you’re talking about, John, when your numbers are basically higher than those that exist in the community. Well, you may not have had to endure the racism, jingoism hegemony, et cetera, that black people and other minorities have had to endure. And until you take an extra step to make amends for that past behavior, do not tell me about strictly percentages about you mirror or we mirror better the numbers that are in society. I won’t buy it. And I don’t believe anybody in this, in this room will buy that.

 

Councilman Victor Gordo:

If I may before that, I’m in the cue. I think the issue here that’s been raised, the issue of fairness, the issue of rights of individuals is important and the only arbiter of that one is the law, but also chief Washington himself. And so I would expect that the City Manager, consult before doing anything with Chief Washington himself. I don’t know that it would be appropriate to discuss the personnel matters of an individual who we say has rights to privacy under state law, and then we ourselves moved to violate those rights because the law may or may not allow for the discussion of his personnel matters, whatever the matter may be. I think we need to consult with the chief. and I, and I fully expect that is occurring. I myself have had a direct conversation with the chief and I know that a few of us have. The issue that the City Manager and the Fire Chief are discussing, I’ll let the city manager address it, but if the issue is fairness and protecting his rights, uh, then we can’t make it a political issue. We can’t make a decision and inadvertently violate anyone’s rights, including the Fire Chief who has rights under general personnel policies and procedures of law and under the firefighters’ bill of rights. And so I would expect that we would respect that and allow the chief to make some determinations about any discussions that might be made or any discussions that might be had involving him and his family and his involvement in Pasadena. And so I would ask that the city manager take that into account.

 

Mermell:

Thank you, Mayor. I had prepared some remarks, make some little modifications here, but I want to begin by saying to Mr. Edson and those that spoke with him, as well as our councilmembers I hear you. I hear the concern in your voice. I see the conviction in your eyes. I’m proud to be part of a community that welcomes input from its residents, whether it be praise or condemnation. And city staff and City Council that addresses hard issues head on. I want to make clear a few points regarding this discussion. First, like all city employees, Chief Washington has an absolute right to privacy as it relates to his employment. And I cannot and will not comment on a personnel matter. I do not know if Chief Washington wishes to be the subject of a public discussion, but I will not engage in it because I can not engage in it.

I will continue to work constructively with the Chief to move forward. Briefly let me discuss my role as City Manager and my history of promoting diversity and inclusiveness in our city and among our city staff. In my 31 years of service to the city of Pasadena, and as City Manager, I have always put the interests of the city above all else. In so doing, I try my best to be fair, open and honest in all my dealings. It’s understandable that people want to know that the city’s personnel decisions are free from bias and discrimination and I can assure you that under my watch they have been. Since becoming city manager in 2016, I have hired or promoted nine people to our executive leadership team, five women and four men, all the men and four the women are ethnic and racial minorities. The reality is our executive leadership team is more diverse than the city’s workforce as a whole, which in turn is more diverse than the community we serve. But there’s always room for improvement. And I hear you, council member Kennedy, racial biases, cronyism and favoritism play absolutely no role in our personnel decisions, whether in the hiring process or in evaluating performance. We will always engage in productive dialogue regarding diversity and inclusion. These will always be priorities for the city as long as I’m city manager. I thank our speakers tonight for coming forward with their concerns which I take to heart as we move forward. Thank you.

 

Tornek:

All right, this is not an agendized item so we can’t have too much discussion on it. The fact that so many of you have taken the time to turn out tonight demonstrates how intensely you feel about this and you’ve heard expressions of concern from members of the council. I do want to tell you that, uh, from my point of view, we have to be as Councilmember Gordo said, we have to be very careful about people’s privacy rights and what we discuss and what information is shared publicly. It’s not within our purview to share people’s personnel records, or share their evaluations. I’ve had a lot of phone calls on this issue as you can imagine, but I have to tell you that we have to be really careful about safeguarding people’s rights.

I also tell you that we have to be very careful about having elected officials, politicians get involved in the details of hiring, firing and management. The reason we have the form of city government that we do, the reason that we have a City Manager form of government where the council only hires three people is because our forefathers in Pasadena and foremothers have decided that it’s not a good idea to have politicians mucking around and making hiring and firing decisions who gets, because that’s the road to cronyism and perdition. So I think that you need to weigh very carefully. You may be advocating for someone that you like and that you’re concerned about, but you gotta be very careful about what the precedent is that you establish when you start getting elected officials dictating to the City Manager who’s supposed to be responsible for running the show, who should be hired, who should be promoted and who should be reassigned.

So with that all in mind, everyone around this council dais is concerned about this issue. I will have further discussions with the City Attorney to be guided by her in terms of exactly what we can share and how we should proceed. I ask you for your patience in this matter because it’s a very delicate matter. They’re both big city policies involved and the future of an individual. So I appreciate your coming out here tonight. I’m sure you’re not satisfied with the outcome of this discussion, but you haven’t heard the last of it and I ask you to give us some time to work this through and share with you what we can. Let’s proceed. We have a couple of minutes left on public speakers.

 

Hampton:

Mr. Mayor, I appreciate your comments. City Manager. I appreciate your comments, but I think with such a high-level position in the city, especially someone who interfaces with people on a day to day, Fire Chief, Police Chief, it is important that community members come out and speak whatever their voice, their opinion. And I think that they are entitled to their opinion because like I said, I’ve had zero comments about concerns about the fire department. And now for our police department, for the last chief that we had who was buying guns from his Lieutenant, that’s an issue and you should’ve done that.

blog comments powered by Disqus