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Fire Chief’s Reassignment Sparks More Discussion at City Council

Issue could be taken up in a future City Council closed session meeting

Published on Wednesday, February 26, 2020 | 11:08 am

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For a transcript of these discussions, please read our Reporter’s Notebook today]

On Monday, councilmen John Kennedy and Tyron Hampton again took City Manager Steve Mermell to task during the City Council meeting for the reassignment of Fire Chief Bertral Washington.

Kennedy called it “somewhat quizzical and disheartening that the City Manager chose to remove one of the highest-ranking African-American employees of the city of Pasadena during Black History Month.’’

“It gives us, those of us who have experienced racism and disparate treatment over the years, a very bad taste, and we are not going to be silenced by time,’’ Kennedy said. “There are a whole host of questions that so far have [not] been answered by our City Manager.’’

Kennedy again put out a call to have the matter agendized for closed session and called for a briefing by the City Manager or the City Attorney in closed session.

Washington was reassigned to the City Manager’s office on Feb. 10 to perform work on the city’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program. Washington’s supporters, including the Pasadena NAACP, have questioned the timing and reason for the reassignment.

Got Used Oil

Kennedy and Hampton said the move was made without consultation with the City Council, and without council members being given reasons. Mermell and City Attorney Michele Bagneris declined to discuss the reasons behind the move during the open session, citing confidentiality reasons regarding city employees.

For his part, Mermell said, “I made a public statement to the council two weeks ago. I wasn’t planning on making any further statements this evening. If necessary, I know the city attorney is prepared to explain why we don’t speak about personnel matters in public. And I’ll leave it at that.’’

Some two dozen Washington supporters turned out for this meeting, applauding as one speaker after another pushed for answers. This is the second time Washington’ s supporters have showed out en masse to express their issues with the City Manager’s decision. Washington’s supporters, including NAACP members also spoke at the Feb. 10 meeting. There was no meeting on Feb.17.

Pasadena Now first reported last Friday that Mermell has asked to meet with NAACP President Allen Edson to discuss diversity in city hiring.

The NAACP called on the African-American community and allies to “raise their voices and speak on the topics of diversity in key public safety appointments, internal systematic dilution of the African-American leadership, and community advisement.

This Monday’s discussion also took place four days after the NAACP – saying it was “extremely disappointed with the lack of transparency and the lack of empathy for all of the community of Pasadena’’ – called for an investigation into Washington’s reassignment.

Washington’s supporters have called on Mermell to provide more information on his decision without violating Washington’s rights.

“I think the biggest question that I have really is associated not so much with diving into his personnel file, but whether or not this particular council is actually doing any type of investigation whatsoever,” said Dr. Christian Gonzalez. “I’m not asking as to what actions it’s taking, what actions it will take. I just want to know if the requests that have been made previously that this be investigated, that this be looked at, that the facts be analyzed, whatever the facts are, that this is being done in an adequate manner.”

Both Kennedy and Hampton said that councilmembers, as well as the public, are owed as much.

“I don’t have to talk about the personnel matter. I understand it’s your decision, ultimately, I get that – but I don’t feel like any of us had a heads-up.’’

Hampton went on to tell Mermell, “I meet with you twice a month, I talk to you regularly on the phone, and him being terminated never came up in our conversations.’’

“So I think it is fair to give a councilmember, and multiple councilmembers and the public, an idea why this man who lives in this community, who does so much for this community, was treated this way,’’ Hampton added. “It’s not a fair process, especially what happens to women and people of color in this city, and we have to, as a council, have to hold people accountable for that.’’

Additionally, Kennedy said, “The council has the authority to rescind any action by the City Manager … by a vote of five members of this body. So we do have authority over the CEO of the organization, the City Manager.”

Bagneris, the City Attorney, did in fact address the matter later in the discussion – also disputing Kennedy’s statement that the council can rescind Mermell’s reassignment of Washington.

“Personnel matters are not appropriately discussed in public session with respect to public employees,’’ Bagneris said.

“The fact that the City Manager is the reporting authority for employees such as the fire chief, under our City Charter, the City Council really does not have the authority to make those hiring decisions, those employment decisions. They work through the City Manager.’’

Bagneris acknowledged that, “It is frustrating, I know, for people to hear that they can’t understand why a certain action was taken.’’

But, she added, “The rules that apply are such that those privacy interests are very important, and (it’s) not appropriate to disclose a basis for any action or no action, or whether there was an action.’’

Mayor Terry Tornek said that, since the Washington reassignment, he has “been hearing from a great many of you, people in the room and not in the room.’’

“There’s been ongoing discussion about this issue,’’ Tornek said.

“I’m very much aware of the concerns expressed in the community. I’m mindful of Chief Washington’s rights, and his future. And so I will tell you there will be continuing discussions on this subject and we’ll try to find our way to making it less opaque in terms of how people are understanding or not understanding the actions that are taken.’’

Tornek went on to say the council is “hamstrung by a variety of conflicting rights here.’’

“There’s a firefighters bill of rights, there’s a personnel privacy right, there’s the City Manager’s responsibilities in terms of hiring and firing employees – this is a complicated matter,’’ Tornek said.

“But in addition to the councilmembers that have spoken tonight, I know all the members of the council are concerned about this issue, and we’ll try to make this right and make it clearer to the community.

“I want you to understand that everyone around this dais takes it very seriously.’’


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