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Reporter’s Notebook: Bertral Washington

Published on Wednesday, February 26, 2020 | 11:23 am
 

Due to requests from our readers, we are again presenting a rough transcript of a discussion Monday’s City Council meeting regarding the reassignment of Bertral Washington at Monday’s City Council meeting. The transcript includes public speakers.

Naja Benson: Thank you for pronouncing my name correctly. Good evening I know the removal of Bertral Washington has been brought before this council and you have also heard the outcry at the last meeting before from our community. Last year, I put on a benefit concert for [a] young boy who was in need of a new heart at UCLA medical center. His dream was to one day be a firefighter and this young boy was eight years old. He’s now nine. And I’m privileged to say that he has a new heart. I wanted to fulfill his dream of being able to become a firefighter. And so I reached out to my good friend, Bertral Washington and he was able to get the fire departments involved and they came out and they cheered him on. They gave him a firefighter uniform. They put up a banner for him and it just made his day because we didn’t know if he would have another day.

What he did for this young man was a testament to his character, a testament to his patience and a Testament to his kindness for someone that he completely did not know and a family that he did not know. In the case of Mr. Washington, I do not have all the facts. I know the board can’t comment directly about what is going on due to privacy issues, which you guys expressed in the last meeting. But I would like to say this: Martin Luther King once said that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.’ The removal of Bertral Washington has affected this community directly. So it’s affecting each and every one of us. So all I’m asking from each and every one of you that sits up here is to take a look again and see how we could have addressed this differently. And what changes possibly can be done to either bring him back, or bring some justice to the situation.

I do not believe it’s fair to remove someone from a position without telling an entire council about what’s going on. I know I do not know all the inner workings of the council and how it works. I don’t know all the rules, Mr Tornek and how it plays out, but I just wanted to present this for you and, and tell you about how I felt about it and how our community feels about it.

 

Mayor Terry Tornek:

Could you please bring your comments to a close?

 

Benson:

That’s all I have to say, Mr Tornek. But that’s all I wanted to present. So I just wanted to say thank you for letting me come up here before you and I just hope that you guys readdress this issue. Thank you.

 

City Clerk Mark Jomsky: Dr. Christian Gonzalez

Dr. Christian Gonzalez: Good evening. My name is Dr Christian Gonzalez. I wanted to just address a couple of things and I’ll be very poignant. Like many individuals in this room, we’ve been following a lot of the news and media surrounding, Mr. Bertral Washington. I think the biggest question that I have, really is associated not so much with diving into his personal file, but whether or not this particular council is actually doing any type of investigation whatsoever. 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, in the manner that each and every one of us in this room would want to be treated if we found ourselves in the same position as Mr Bertral Washington, whether it be being reassigned, removed, however you want to phrase the terminology.

So my question specifically again is, is this council investigating? Is there any action that has been asked by our friends in the NAACP, organizations and many other countless organizations that are in this community that contribute to this community? Is there any investigation being done on this particular matter? Again, I’m not asking about his personnel file. I’m not asking you for anything privately about him. I just want to know is there any investigation being done? Is there any actions being taken to reconsider, even look at possibly, putting him back in his position as chief or anything whatsoever. Thank you.

 

Councilman Tyron Hampton:

I’d like to say to the last speaker, actually the last two speakers who spoke, that’s a good question. That’s a solid question. I mean is it just your City Manager decision just to remove a community member from a position that has had no complaints from the community? Is it just your decision to do that?

 

City Manager Steve Mermell:

Vice mayor, I made a public statement at the council meeting 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.

 

Hampton:

I don’t have to talk about the personnel matter. I understand it’s, it’s your decision ultimately. I get that, but I don’t feel like any of us had, or at least maybe somebody else here, maybe someone else did have that heads up, but I didn’t feel like I got a heads up. I meet with you twice a month. I talk to you regularly on the phone and him being terminated never came up in our conversation. So I think it is fair to give a council member and multiple council members and the public, an idea of why this man who lives in this community, who does so much for this community was treated this way. And maybe, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, maybe there’s something in the personnel file that I don’t know about, but I, I don’t know about it, you know, so I could say that I think that the community members who have come out today, bring up valid questions. And I think that this community has had a Fire Chief and actually multiple directors throughout the city who have been very engaged in the community and who live in this community. And it is extremely important for community members to understand what the process is, so that they can also understand. I’m just as taken back as everybody in the audience today. So I hope that, like I said two weeks ago, I hope that you guys continue to come back because this should no longer happen in Pasadena. No more community members in our city, especially minorities, people of color should be fired for, for whatever reason. Andy Green is a great example. Andy Green wasn’t the finance director when the embezzlement started was he? This man was fired. The public Works Director, she was an African American woman, fired.

She wasn’t African American? She was still a woman. We rolling them all up. Everybody’s black. I just got back from Africa. We all came from there. I mean this, it’s just not a, 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.

 

Councilman John Kennedy:

I previously had requested that there’d be a briefing to the full council on what took place related to the reassignment of Fire Chief Bertral Washington that has not occurred. Additionally, that briefing needs to take place either by the City Manager and or the City Attorney. There has been some expression that we cannot discuss personnel matters of this type. In open session, we do have the ability to agendize in closed session a discussion about this matter because it has, as the Vice Mayor alluded to, implications about how African Americans are treated disparately than other groups. And we must get at the heart of it. Additionally, in terms of the timing of the reassignment of Bertral Washington, and as I understand it from the call that I received from the City Manager, it was a reassignment, not a firing of the Fire Chief, Bertral Washington. So if there’s a reassignment, if he has overcome whatever the impediments for the reassignment, it seems to me that he could be reassigned back to being Fire Chief. It is somewhat quizzical, and disheartening that the City Manager chose to remove one of the highest ranking, if not, the second highest ranking African American employee 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’re not going be silenced by time. There are enough people at every level from grassroots all the way to former CEOs and CEOs of major companies who happen to be African American. But this is not an issue just about African Americans. I would invite my Brown brothers and sisters to pay attention to what has happened as well, because oftentimes they are treated with such disrespect as well. You may recall that this is an election season.

If there was nothing imminent related to the reassignment of Fire Chief Bertral Washington. The question, a natural question, given the stupidity of James Comey in a previous race, the former FBI director as it relates to Hillary Clinton and the current president running for the presidency, his action had an influence and why? You would just ask the question why, why could we not have waited till after the election, before an action of this type were to take place? Why then, then you still have not answered the question. This was directed to the City Manager, not necessarily be answered in open session. Who on the council did you contact before you made the decision? The community deserves to understand that. I happen to chair the Public Safety Committee and you certainly didn’t contact me prior to making the decision.

Again, again, the council has the authority to resend any action by the City Manager, City Clerk, City Prosecutor. So we do have authority over the CEO of the organization, the City Manager. So there are a whole host of questions that so far have been refused to be answered by our City Manager. I as an equal member of this body, even equal to the Mayor of this city — given the fact that when we had charter reform, the city of Pasadena only gave the Mayor the strong ability to set the agenda. But in terms of the equal powers, each member of this body, as far as I’m concerned and far as the voters are concerned, has one eighth interest in making these decisions. So there has to be a mechanism for appropriate review of City Manager action and someone needs to explain to one council member and then the council and then the community what that appropriate review is. So my words are not empty. I reiterate it was Black History Month. I reiterate that you had an opportunity to weigh in after the election. If your actions influenced this election, I for one will be thinking about maybe we need to change who heads the city in terms of the City Manager position. I want that to be very clear.

That was no less the case and importance of James Comey as a former FBI director who I worked with when I was Deputy Chief of police in Richmond, Virginia. These are my comments. I hope you take them seriously. I expect the answers as one council member, but I don’t think I’m alone and certainly I’m not alone if I include the community that I represent. Thank you

 

Tornek

So this is not an agendized item, but because some specific questions have been asked, I’m going to ask the city attorney to make a brief statement.

 

Michele Beal Bagneris:

Yes. Mayor, members of the city council, as the mayor mentioned, this matter is not on the agenda. Personnel matters are not appropriately discussed in public session with respect to public employees. That right of privacy is found in our United States Constitution, the California constitution. And that right could be violated if the city releases personnel records, personnel information in a public setting. So we have to be very careful as representatives of the city to protect the privacy rights of employees and otherwise the city could face potential liability for intentional and improper release of such information. So, 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.

The discussion and reference to what may or may not have happened to an employee in a personnel decision or matter is not really something that we can discuss publicly. And I think some members of the public understand that, but the fact of whether something is investigated or not is actually within the realm of what is happening with someone’s position in the personnel perspective. The city takes care to protect employees’ privacy and other rights, and works hard to abide by state and federal laws. And it is frustrating. I know for people to hear that, they can’t understand why a certain action was taken. But the rules that apply are, are such that those privacy interests are very important and not appropriate to disclose what a basis for any action or no action or whether there was an action is not something to be discussed.

 

Tornek:

This is not an agendized item. I will tell you that I have been hearing from a great many of you people in, in the room and not in the room. There’s been ongoing discussion about this issue. I’m very much aware of the concerns expressed in the community. I’m mindful of Chief Washington’s rights and his future. I will tell you there will be continuing discussions on the 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. But we cannot, tonight resolve this issue and unfortunately like, like some other issues that we confront in the city, we’re sort of hamstrung by a variety of conflicting rights here. There’s a firefighter’s 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. But in addition to the council members 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, and make it clear to the community in a way that will, and I’m, I’m sorry that this sort of engagement is not going to work, but I want you to understand that everyone around this day takes it very seriously.

 

Kennedy:

I want to just wrap my comments and saying I will narrow my requests even though the request has already been made. And that is that the full council have a briefing on what took place by the City Manager and the city attorney in closed session.

 

Tornek:

Fine

 

Hampton:

I just want to wrap up my comments as well because the City Attorney made some comments and I appreciate the comments that you made. I think that they give some clarity. But when you have a, and I’m going to say this again, when you have a fire department that doesn’t have issues. I mean we had a police department that had issues, right? You got a Police Chief that was buying guns from a Lieutenant who was indicted for selling illegal guns. You have a police department that shot an unarmed black teen. You have a police department that beat someone in Altadena by the name of Christopher Ballew that has not actually been closed. Something had to happen in the police department. Fires aren’t happening all across the city of Pasadena. There’s not houses on fire right now just burning and they’ve been burning for weeks. It’s not happening. I mean the police chief, because people understood. They got that. We don’t understand why you decided to make the decision to fire a fire chief that lives in this community. So community members keep on coming out.

 

Tornek:

Thank you very much.

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