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Washington Announces ‘Retirement’ As Fire Chief; Hampton Calls It ‘A Push-Out’

Exit goes into effect on April 10

Published on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 | 7:35 pm

Bertral Washington has announced his retirement as Pasadena fire chief, according to an internal email sent to department members last week and obtained by Pasadena Now – but Vice Mayor Tyron Hampton, in an interview on Tuesday, said Washington’s exit is, in reality, “a push-out.”

Hampton told Pasadena Now that he believes Washington – one of the highest-ranking African-American officials in the city – was in fact forced out after five-plus years, following complaints from a small cadre of the firefighters’ bargaining unit, who were rebelling against the stricter accountability that Washington was enforcing in the ranks.

What’s more, Hampton said, race was at least “partially” a factor in the complaints from what Hampton stressed was a small portion of the bargaining unit. But he said of City Manager Steve Mermell, “I don’t think that the city manager, that Steve, treated (Washington) differently because of race.’’

City spokesperson Lisa Derderian, in an email to Pasadena Now, wrote, “We will not respond to the Vice-Mayor’s comments.”

But Derderian did release the contents of Washington’s email to PFD members that confirmed the retirement. It will take effect April 10.

Washington’s letter offers no specifics as to the reasons behind his exit, but does hint at the reasons Hampton spoke about – with Washington advising his former colleagues, “In order to deliver the best service possible, you must support one another, encourage each other to be their best and hold one another accountable when anything less materializes.’’

“After 25 years in the fire service and over five at PFD, I want you to know I will be retiring from the City next month,’’ Washington wrote in the email, which began, “Good Morning PFD.”

“I am very grateful to have served as your fire chief, on the shoulders of many great men and women ahead of us,’’ he added. “PFD is one of the best fire departments in the world and this will continue as you remain focused on continuous improvement and holding true to your core values.’’

The full text of Washington’s email can be found here.

Washington had been relieved of his command on Feb. 10 and “reassigned” by Mermell to the city manager’s office – officially, to work on the city’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program.

At the time, Allen Edson, president of the NAACP, issued a statement saying he viewed the move “suspiciously.”

“It has also been reported to the NAACP by local sources of workplace harassment of Chief Washington by the Pasadena Firefighters Association,” Edson said.

Washington’s ouster also brought out dozens of supporters to three straight City Council meetings, where they called the move unjust and pushed for his reinstatement.

Hampton, along with Council Member John J. Kennedy, have also been critical of Washington’s reassignment. Both have lauded Washington’s leadership and accomplishments, and have said that no council members were consulted before Mermell made the move last month.

Among Washington’s accomplishments that Hampton pointed to were the PFD receiving a “Class 1” ranking from the Insurance Service Office (ISO), a ranking that enables homeowners to pay lower premiums.

Hampton said more of the same on Tuesday in an interview with Pasadena Now.

“That is exactly what I’ve been saying was going to happen, it was a force-out,’’ Hampton said. “It’s exactly what I’ve been saying in the City Council meetings. He was on his way out. I mean, once you get moved to the city manager’s office, it wasn’t a reassignment … his position was being terminated.’’

Asked who was behind the “force-out,” Hampton said, “Like I said, the city manager. I’ve said it multiple times, the city manager has told him … his time was up, I guess, from the city manager’s perspective.’’

As for possible reasons, Hampton said, “I haven’t heard of any … besides the reasons that one small group of people were complaining about, that (they were) being held accountable, which was actually from the firefighters’ union.’’

“When the new fire chief came in, he had to hold people accountable, and that was the start of the relationship with him and the firefighters’ association,’’ Hampton said.

The vice mayor declined to give out any particular names within the association, “because I don’t want to single anybody out. But I would think leadership of the bargaining group.”

“Anyhow, he (Washington) held people accountable,’’ Hampton said. “People don’t like to be held accountable. He worked on making sure that everybody had a fair opportunity for hiring.

“As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel is the one that gets oiled. And I think there were a lot of complaints about, just from a small group of people, about his service to the department – but that’s not complaints from residents of the City of Pasadena. … As far as residents go, there were zero complaints.’’

As for a possible race element in Washington’s exit, Hampton – one of two African-American council members, along with Kennedy – said: “I don’t think that the city manager, that Steve, treated him differently because of race.’’

“But I do believe that partially … someone African-American holding people accountable that have never been held accountable before is … definitely a contributing factor to the treatment he received from the firefighters, the handful of firefighters, during his time,’’ Hampton added.

Kennedy did not return several phone calls seeking comment.

Hampton described the department that Washington inherited as “a culture of, things just go, things just happen, no one really complains about anything … it’s more of a band of brothers, fraternity type style.’’

“When you hold people accountable that have never been held accountable before, it’s like you’re disciplining your child who you’ve never disciplined before,’’ Hampton said. “What do they do? They act out, temper tantrums.’’

Pasadena Now attempted to reach out to the Pasadena Firefighters Association, but an email to the address listed on the organization’s website was returned with an automatic reply that said, “address couldn’t be found, or is unable to receive mail.”

Hampton also said that, before Washington’s “reassignment,” he heard no negative reviews of how Washington was running the department.

“I meet with Steve (Mermell) regularly, and not one time did he tell me (that he thought) it was time for a new direction for our fire department,’’ Hampton said.

“Normally, I get some sort of idea of what departments are doing well, what departments are doing bad, where we need to be more hands-on – and not one time did he say, the fire department, Bertral is not doing the job he was expecting him to do.’’

Meanwhile, Washington himself has been publicly silent during the recent tumult – and Hampton said he expects that silence to continue, speculating that Washington’s retirement deal is tied to a non-disclosure agreement.

“I’m sure he has (such an agreement),’’ Hampton said. “I haven’t been in (recent) contact with him, but I am sure he has a deal that basically says he can’t talk about this. ‘’

Derderian, the city spokeswoman, issued a statement late Tuesday that said, in part, “Chief Washington and his family plan to remain in the City and are excited about future opportunities to continue their service in the community. Chief Washington says he is very grateful to have served as the Pasadena Fire Chief and he appreciates all the support he received from the community.’’

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