On Wednesday morning Judge Dan Maguire issued a tentative ruling, ruling that former Davis Fire Chief Rose Conroy’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied on the grounds that she has not been able “to demonstrate that she is likely to prevail on the merits of her claims at trial.”
By itself that would have been enough to lift the temporary restraining order (TRO) and allow the city to finally, after four and a half years, release the full and unredacted fire report. But for good measure, at the same time as the judge was issuing that ruling, Ms. Conroy and her attorney moved for dismissal.
Attorney Steven Kaiser from Kaiser and Chew Law Firm in Sacramento told Judge Maguire in a hearing Thursday morning that his client was dropping the challenge because she could not afford the legal fees for a prolonged battle.
It is now believed that the former chief will sue the city for a breach of privacy.
And so Judge Maguire ordered the lifting of the TRO, which freed up the city to release the report, which they did to the Vanguard – not a party to this particular action – at 4:56 pm on Thursday afternoon
Council Votes 3-2 on December 9, 2008 Not To Read the Aaronson Report
Whatever the public comes to learn from the release of this document is in my view secondary to the principle of open government and accountability that was blatantly defiled by the actions of the Davis City Council when Don Saylor, Stephen Souza and Ruth Asmundson voted in the 3-2 vote to abdicate their duties to the citizens of Davis. It would have been one thing to simply not release the document to the public; it was another to vote not to read the report in its entirety themselves.
On the night of December 9, 2008, both councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek were adamant about seeing the full version.
“I’d like to get a council consensus that we have access to all the information. The way our form of government works is that we’re responsible when we’re elected,” Councilmember Greenwald said. “Ultimately, the buck stops with us. We’re responsible through you, but we can’t evaluate how well you’re doing your job with personnel if we don’t have access to all the information.”
She added, “I just think we should as a matter of principle, as a matter of procedure. It’s a matter of accountability in government.”
Councilmember Heystek requested of City Attorney Harriet Steiner that she explain any legal grounds for withholding of information from the council in writing.
“I do agree with Councilmember Greenwald, it is important for us to see the work product of the Ombudsman, this is the first major test of our Ombudsman and we’ve paid over $35,000 I believe for this work product, and I believe I deserve to see, as a councilmember, the contents,” he said.
He added, “But if there is some legal grounds by which we cannot view this information or not be privy to the report that was prepared at our behest, I would like to see a justification of that in writing. I really believe that as a councilmember I need to know why it is that information is being withheld from me and in writing.”
However, both Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza disagreed.
Mayor Pro Tem Saylor said, “We actually employ those two [pointing at Harriet Steiner and Bill Emlen]. Those are the two we employ.”
“In terms of policy issues, in terms of behavioral issues that are addressed in a grand jury report, we should hear from the city manager and hear his report. How he has gathered information to arrive at the conclusions and findings that he is going to be presenting to us is his responsibility,” he continued.
He added, “Just so that’s clear, I’m interested in hearing from the city manager what his conclusions are based on whatever he has done to arrive at them. I don’t need to know what exactly was stated by any person, at every point in time.”
The words spoken by Councilmember Stephen Souza stick with me today, for some reason, however.
He said, “I don’t need all fifty pages, I just don’t.”
“I don’t need to have the ‘he said, she said’ full story. I don’t. I am not in charge of personnel, except for as Councilman Saylor said, we are in charge of two personnel, that’s who we’re in charge of, we hire and fire them,” he added. “That is our main task from a personnel standpoint. When it comes to this matter, I want to know from our ombudsman, through our city manager, how he arrived at his conclusions, and give me the pertinent information so I can come to my conclusions about it.”
The Unredacted Report: Former Chief Rants About Narcissistic Employees
Rather than recap what we have already written, last May, the Vanguard obtained “Critical New Portions of Davis Fire Department Investigation in Settlement with City” and at that time compared the new information to what former City Manager Bill Emlen originally released.
Some of the new redactions lead one to question whether there was ever a true legal basis for some of the omissions. For example, on page nine there is a line, “While not universally true, the dissatisfied employees tended to be older, longer tenured firefighters than the departmental average. Many of them have been promoted.”
While I’m not an attorney, I fail to see how one could justify that redaction under the California Public Records Act.
Others are more critical. Such as an entire page on page 10 that was blacked our where Mr. Aaronson writes, “A vocal critic denied that he ‘feared’ retaliation for speaking out because he was ‘pretty sure it would happen.’ “
Mr. Aaronson writes, “For him, the retaliation has mostly been in the form of ostracism. Another corrected me that he ‘expects’ retaliation and has witnessed other employees being the victim of it. He observed that ‘it’s not okay to disagree’ with the powers that be and that ‘people are afraid to say what they think.’ “
The account continues, “One employee suspected he was on a ‘blacklist’ but, in denying he’d ever spoken out, didn’t know why or how that had happened. A number of other employees stated that they believed Chief Conroy didn’t like them but didn’t know why.”
“Even some of the self-identifying dissatisfied employees hesitated to label their experience as a hostile work environment. ‘I don’t know that I’d call it retaliation,’ said a senior employee; however he immediately agreed when I suggested the substituted word of ‘repercussions.’ An employee who stated, ‘I could have wrote that [Grand Jury] report,’ explained that he felt shunned and not trusted by certain administrators and union people; he perceived certain people as being ‘targeted’ for speaking out. Another, who believed that the GJR contained ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ assertions, said, ‘I get the sense that it would be better for me just to come in and say everything’s wonderful and great’ although he clearly did not feel that way.”
The centerpiece of the unreleased material is the interview with Former Chief Rose Conroy, which undoubtedly prompted her to file the action to attempt to block the release of the full report.
It is her own words, quoted, and backed by what Mr. Aaronson claims as six hours of recorded conversations, that would seem to do her in.
She said, “You have to manage those personalities because they infect the organization …. That’s the hardest part of this job, managing the personalities.”
She continues, arguing that these people undermine the department’s service to the public, “When you have a negative personality and someone’s unhappy, they’re gonna do something that’s probably gonna be wrong [on a call]. So, you have to get them to the point where they’re doing the right thing, meaning what’s best for the public.”
She adds: “From my perspective, the people that are – that have gripes and things like, that are the people that are narcissistic. That it’s about them and they don’t like it if it’s not about them and they don’t look good in front of other people …. The problem employees are the employees who don’t get their way …. These others are people that don’t fit well in a team game.”
She added, “There’s a difference between a legitimate complaint and being narcissistic and because I didn’t get my way there is a problem, which is a characteristic of a few of our people.”
People’s fear of retaliation she said, “may be something that they get at birth.” She denied that it was something inflicted by her. Instead, she argued, “It’s something about their personality. Not necessarily that it’s generated here …. That might be a personality issue, not having anything to do with the workplace.”
Mr. Aaronson then writes, “She denied that the department had any real conflicts or that she’d ever retaliate against anyone.”
She said, “I am absolutely not one of those that would do that.”
He writes that she then reminded him, “You are talking about people that have significant personality disorders.”
Mr. Aaronson said that he asked her for her take on the unhappy people, and she said that she did not know how many were unhappy but would take a guess at it.
Mr. Aaronson writes, “Rose then began running through the names of the people she assumed were discontented, many of whom she guessed correctly. In almost every instance, she dismissed them as ‘narcissistic’ or fearing to be held accountable by her. One person she disparaged was actually a supporter of hers who she suspected had spoken out against her.”
Mr. Aaronson writes:
As we approached the end of our time together, Chief Conroy drew a legitimate distinction between people fearing retaliation and people actually being victims of retaliation. In her view, without proven, specific instances of retaliation, my report should not make reference to the fact that a portion of her employees feared retaliation from her. I explained that investigating all the instances where employees alleged she retaliated against them would be an enormous, labor intensive project, far exceeding the scope of the work I was trying to complete. I stated that the fact that a sizeable minority of her employees perceived her that way was significant all by itself and merited a place in my report; to suppress that information would be less than honest or fair.
Ms. Conroy would state:
“I truly believe that you reporting out that there is a fear of retaliation when there has been never one accusation of such – there’s nothing in the Grand Jury Report as such – there’s never been received in this department or the City Manager’s office this accusation. And that is truly unfair. And I understand what you’re saying about people saying they have fears. But again, my – there are people who have many fears that are not a product of the work environment. They have fears about many things. And I find that that is so unfair. That this department accused – and me personally of such when that is not an accusation. It’s not a – anything that has substance. I find that truly unfair.”
Question: “Does it concern you that there are, I don’t know – half a dozen people, I don’t know what the exact number is, who work for you who are afraid that you would retaliate against them? Does that concern you?”
Chief Conroy: “Oh, yeah. But I do truly wonder what they thought that meant.”
Question: “You assume it’s about them and not about you.”
Chief Conroy: “No, I think with some of them, it is definitely about me …. “
Question: “What I mean is – that it is about the manner of your leadership, as opposed to it being about issues that they bring to the table. Yesterday, you talked about personality disorders.”
Chief Conroy: “There was one individual that definitely has a personality disorder. I believe there are others who are afraid of getting dirty. They’re afraid of lots of things. And I can tell you who they are. I believe that there are probably three or four who have had job actions against them, that they’re fearful that something might happen to their job status, based on history. And I can tell you who those people are. And I understand why they would feel that way, not because I engage in that behavior, or have ever. But I understand their feeling insecure. So I understand that. The others, who I did not promote and haven’t put on a pedestal because I don’t want anybody on a pedestal – we’re all equal. That’s one of the things I always say to the new people. We are all equal here … [with] equal rights and equal opportunity, it’s just the job description is different. And so I understand why some of those people would do that. There’s not a fear because it’s done here or it’s acted upon …. And I don’t blame anybody, I just wonder about why they would say that. There’s only one person that would try to sway something to a negative way here. Only one person. And everybody else has a reason to be afraid because of something they’ve done, not because of something I’ve done …. I think there’s a great probability your – they’re not – there’s only two that would really think that this is a possibility that would happen. I think there’s a difference, there’s a subtle difference there – what I hear you saying and what I believe to be true in what I see of people.”
Union President Bobby Weist would tell Mr. Aaronson, when asked “if he was aware that some union members fear retaliation from the Chief, he responded that he hadn’t ever seen such retaliation. ‘They’ve never come to me and said [that].’ “
Later he would elaborate: ” ‘The whole retaliation thing – People can make accusations or what have you, on anything. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard of it happening. I haven’t heard it for a while …. Accusations are a dime a dozen. And if nothing ever comes from it, then that’s all they are is accusations, and somebody upset over something that they felt they deserved. If it’s never happened, then why would you think that?’ “
Mr. Aaronson, in a portion that was finally unredacted last year, noted that while there may or may not be provable instances of retaliation, “primarily related to promotions, assignment of projects and general treatment,” the amount of time that it would take to investigate quickly would prove infeasible given the scope of his work.
In a newly-unredacted portion of the report, he goes on to note, “It was also clear that despite her distinctions between fears and sustained proof, Chief Conroy recognizes how troubling it is that some of her long term employees, many of whom she promoted, fear retaliation from her.”
He adds, “Unfortunately, instead of any recognition of her role in this widely held perception, or any soul searching analysis, Chief Conroy, by turns, blamed her employees, characterizing them as beset by personality disorders, or hyper-fearful, or misbehaving or misunderstanding direct questions asked of them.”
He writes, “I do not believe her accusations against the disgruntled employees adequately explain their reported fears.”
Mr. Aaronson adds, “I was also disappointed that the Union president, who is and has been the employees’ representative for 20 years, would so casually dismiss these concerns shared by a sizable percentage of his membership. When an employee is unable to obtain a fair hearing from his employer’s department head, he should be able to pursue recourse through his union representatives, who would refrain from dismissing such claims out of hand.”
The newly-released material also delves more deeply into the issues that were revealed in the last round of redactions, where it become clear that Bobby Weist, as union president, was given a promotion over several demonstrably more qualified employees.
Mr. Aaronson writes, “The discontented employees’ comments varied to the extent that they were prepared to accuse Chief Conroy of favoritism.”
He continues, “At one extreme, these firefighters confined their observations to statements about how ‘the process didn’t make any sense’ or ‘I don’t understand it.’ At the other end, the most recent process was just another example of blatant favoritism. Some them reported that ‘everyone knew who was going to be promoted before the process started’ and one claimed that Bobby had been bragging/joking that maybe he’d better study a little bit to ‘make it look good.’ “
Later in the report, Mr. Aaronson writes: “‘She has some sharp edges,’ a strong supporter observed. When angered, she can scare people not usually prone to fright. Based on the interviews, Rose appears to use indirect accusations of malfeasance against perceived opponents in order to cow them. Disputes with her can be difficult to mediate because of her unwillingness to be reasoned with or compromise. Taking her on can be an intimidating task that many do with only the greatest reluctance.”
He continues, “This is not just true of her subordinates. Based on my discussions with them, other department heads, City staff and the City Manager himself, have sat through unnecessarily ugly conferences with her, where she has escalated legitimate disagreements into nasty confrontations. She has controlled her domain by making people so reluctant to take her on that they’d rather not bother unless they have no choice.”
What is interesting is that this paragraph was nearly a premonition of her ultimate departure. It has been told to the Vanguard she had had a disagreement with the City Manager Bill Emlen regarding the fire merger and threatened to retire if she did not get her way.
In a rare showing of fortitude, Mr. Emlen would not let her rescind that threat and ordered her to produce resignation papers within a certain time frame. It is interesting to note that that was more than a year after the city manager received this report.
Mr. Aaronson then writes, “I don’t think Chief Conroy consciously engages in favoritism. Yet, as a loyalist said, ‘Chief Conroy’s comfortable around certain people and they advance.’ An adversary stated that there was ‘a punitive environment’ in the department, ‘depending on whether you’re in or out.’ “
“While some of the fire department’s dissenters’ insights are worrying, how Rose Conroy perceives the dissenters, and discounts them, is of far greater concern,” Mr. Aaronson writes. “As detailed in the prior section, she categorically ascribes personality disorders to her perceived detractors and thereby dismisses their issues, whether there is any objective merit or not. This is a serious shortcoming and works an injustice against some City employees.”
The basic problem became evident. Earlier in the report Mr. Aaronson noted that Bobby Weist was the sole access point an aggrieved worker had. With Mr. Weist and Chief Conroy working in concert and an unsympathetic city hall, the aggrieved worker had no reliable outlet to air grievances.
Mr. Aaronson, in a previously-released section, notes, “I also disagree with the philosophy that many employees, loyalists and detractors, in the Davis Fire Department shared: that it’s the Chief’s department and she gets to do what she wants. The Fire Department is not supposed to be a fiefdom ruled by an autocratic master. Leadership is not a synonym for dictatorship.”
He adds, “I am not suggesting that Chief Conroy has intentionally become a dictator, or even that she is one. But, in essence, her employees, supporters and critics both, view her in this light. Regardless of her efforts to run an inclusive organization, most department members don’t perceive their workplace that way.”
Mr. Aaronson would conclude, in a section released in the previous iteration, “Based upon the testimonies adduced, I have an abiding concern that some members of the Davis Fire Department may become subjected to workplace harassment/retaliation for their candid cooperation with this investigation, whether at the hands of department managers, union members or their peers.”
One thing we may never know is to what extent the council became aware of some of this information at the time and why so little was done until the new regime to rectify the situation – which was quite obviously not only toxic and dysfunctional, but provided no way out for those employees who found themselves on the outs with the department.
—David M. Greenwald reporting