Sunday Commentary: A Dereliction of Duty by the Council to the Public and City Employees

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Conversations are always better when they are two-way conversations rather than one-way, and so I urged former City Councilmember Stephen Souza to follow through with his promised follow-up post from Friday or, even better yet, to submit to going on the record and face what will admittedly be tough and at times unpleasant questions about his role in the cover up of the fire report.

Stephen Souza, to whom I give credit for coming on the Vanguard at all, said, “I will in a short while speak to this scurrilous attack upon my integrity in carrying out the over site of city personnel through our only 2 directly hired personnel, the City Attorney and the City Manager.”

I presume the “scurrilous” attacks are comments by Rich Rifkin in his column in the Davis Enterprise.

Rich Rifkin wrote, “Not only did those three (Don Saylor, Ruth Asmundson and Stephen Souza) – who together had received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions plus other support from members of the Davis firefighters’ union – not want to let the taxpayers and residents of Davis see what Mr. Aaronson had found. They decided no one on the Council should be permitted to learn its contents.”

He went on to argue, “Theirs was never a vote of conscience. It was not a vote of practical or legal merit. It was not due to precedent. The vote was cast because those members of the Davis City Council had been influenced by all the money and favors Local 3494 had given them to win office.”

I agree it is a harsh assessment.  We define scurrilous most pointedly as, “Making or spreading scandalous claims about someone with the intention of damaging their reputation.”

But the implication there is that it is not a scandalous claim, but a false claim, and that is where I think the point of disagreement is.

As a reader points out, “It’s a leap from a professed lack of desire to read the report to assuming it was in order to avoid offending the firefighter union and Weist. That might be logical in the absence any justifications from the three council members, but I think we should hear from those three before accepting Rich’s conclusions.”

The problem that we have here is one of perception.  There is a context to this fight and this decision made in December 2008.  This meeting occurred just six months after Councilmember Saylor and Councilmember Souza won reelection, finishing first and second respectively in the race.

In total, the two of them had just received about $20,000 in direct and indirect contributions from the firefighters.

So, the two councilmembers receive a large amount from the firefighters and then vote basically to bury a report that is critical of the very union leadership that got them reelected.

Mr. Souza wants to suggest to us that it is scurrilous to suspect there might be a connection between the vote and the outcome.  The three people who opposed a full reading of the report were the three people who received money from the firefighters in the last election, and the two people wanting to read the full report did not.

According to Jim Frame, “Stephen gave as his reason for voting not to formally receive the report a desire to protect the confidentiality of the employees; that because employees were told their remarks would be confidential, making them public would deter employees from cooperating in future investigations of this nature.”

The problem is that, with the exception of upper management – Chief Rose Conroy and Captain Bobby Weist, only two other people are named in the entire report.

As a reader noted, “The claim that reading the report would violate the confidentiality ‘of the employees’ isn’t supported.”

By failing to read the full report, the council had no idea that the fire chief was attacking the integrity of those firefighters who spoke out or complained against management, calling them narcissists.  The council had no idea that the fire chief promoted a significantly less qualified individual to captain, over several more qualified individuals, because that individual was the president of the union.

Despite the brazen, cold and disdainful comments of the fire chief, she kept her job.  Had the council known about these comments, would she have kept her job?  Had the public known about these comments at the time, would she have?

As it was, it took another year and an act of insubordination by the fire chief before then-City Manager Bill Emlen finally told her to have her resignation letter on his desk in the morning.

One of the questions this brings up is the extent to which the Davis City Council has an obligation to ensure that its citizens have a safe work environment.  So, if I were to sit down with Mr. Souza in an interview, one of the key questions I would ask him would be: To what extent did you ensure that the instances of retaliation and hostile work environment by the employees were satisfactorily handled?

By punting, the city council was not in the position to ensure the protection of these employees.

In May 2012, the public could read for the first time that Mr. Aaronson wrote, “There may or may not be provable instances of retaliation by Chief Conroy. I was told many stories, primarily related to promotions, assignment of projects and general treatment.”

He added, “As I stated to Chief Conroy, an investigation of a single event, to determine whether or not retaliation played a role, would typically require at least half a dozen interviews, not including subsequent follow up re-interviews and the review of other materials.”

Then, in a portion that was just released, “I did not keep strict count, but I would estimate that I heard at least a couple of dozen distinct allegations of retaliation and/or harassment. Based on my experience, I would estimate that investigating even just five of them might consume as much as 100 or more investigative hours (emphasis added).”

I highlight this portion to make several key points.

First, Mr. Aaronson was only given about $30,000 to perform his investigation.  What he told the city manager was that there were at least 24 instances of DISTINCT allegations and that he was lacking the funds to fully investigate those allegations.

The city manager appears to have had no interest in following up on those complaints or allowing the investigator the budget to determine their truth.

Second, I have every reason to believe that, not only did the public not see those two paragraphs until earlier this month, but the council never saw them.

So yes, by allowing Mr. Emlen to be gatekeeper to the information, along with Harriet Steiner, the council allowed city employees to continue to face retaliation and harassment in their employment.

You can argue that the council properly delegated the authority to the city manager and that it was the city manager who broke the trust.  But the council has some responsibility.

Mr. Souza wants to claim he was protecting the employees by not reading the report, but by failing to read the report he was not protecting anyone other than the wrongdoers.

This is the whole problem we have with former Chief Rose Conroy fighting to protect her reputation.  The city is not obligated to protect the wrongdoers, they are obligated to protect the vulnerable employees and, on this front, three members of the city council, a city manager and a city attorney failed to do so.

Interestingly enough, only one of those individuals is left in city hall.

Mr. Souza succeeded only in protecting the chief and the union president, who helped Mr. Souza get reelected and benefited in the “single instance of claimed favoritism about which I have gathered some telling information, the last promotional process wherein the Union President and Vice President were chosen to fill the two available captains’ vacancies.”

At the end of the day, that did not serve the public interest and it certainly did not serve the interest of the employees for whom he had the responsibility to ensure that they enjoyed a safe working environment.

There was a clear abdication of responsibility and a dereliction of duty.  And that responsibility begins with the three members of the city council who could have read that report and protected those employees, but instead chose not to.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: A Dereliction of Duty by the Council to the Public and City Employees”

  1. Jim Frame

    There’s some confusion, at least in my mind, regarding who read which version of the report and when. I do remember Stephen saying that Emlen made the report (redacted 1? redacted 2? unredacted? all of them?) available to the CC members to read in his office, and I *think* he said that they all read at least one version of it. However, some clarity in the matter would be helpful.

  2. David M. Greenwald

    There was a redacted version of the report that the council read in the CM’s office. I think I have that redacted version of the report, but asked for a copy so I can be sure.

  3. Anonymous Pundit

    Who hired Conroy? What was the thinking in making the hire?
    Usually, management hires like minded department heads. To what extent was Conroy acting on her own versus carrying out her directives?

  4. Michael Harrington

    David, I have followed this debacle via your and Rich’s articles, but until this one, I always considered this basically just another screw up by the former CC majority, and a union just trying to protect its pay and benefits (which they are allowed to do, in my book).

    However, your article does an amazing job of pointing out that the real failure here, and the one that most matters, is the prior City Manager, Fire Chief, City Attorney, and City Manager, allowed the Fire Dept to actively punish those employees whom were not part of the Bobby Weist/Rose Conroy team.

    The City Attorney completed breached her duty to publically warn the CC and management that failure to fully publish and act on the ombudsman report, and pay to finish his good start, would have set up the City for huge employee litigation losses if one of those victimized FF’s had brought a case. Maybe she did make those warnings, but I have not seen nor hear that they were made.

    David, thank for the new angle on the analysis, and bringing this horrible process full circle.

    And Souza wants to run again for CC in 2014? Oh, really?

  5. JustSaying

    [quote]“…that the DFD promotional practices were unfair; that certain employees were subject to retaliation or hostility for disagreeing with the chief or the union; that off-duty firefighters were misusing DFD facilities; that there was a poor relationship between DFD and the Davis Police Department; and that the Davis firefighters’ union has undue political influence in town.”[/quote]This reminder of the grand jury investigation puts Stephen Souza’s rationale for not needing to read Aaronson’s report into question. The purpose of the ombudsman’s report was to take a further look at these charges.

    It’s difficult to imagine a city council that would accept these serious problems as your typical issues that should be ignored and passed off to the supervisor. Especially when the ombudsman informed the council that the supervisor’s summary did not accurately reflect his investigative report.

    Rich’s zeroing in on political influence reasons doesn’t sound so outrageous if we remember that the grand jury report includes specific allegations that the “firefighters’ union has undue political influence in town.” Why would city councilors think that such an issue is simply an employee supervision matter? It strains credibility.

    One of Aaronson’s findings that wasn’t noted in this grand jury listing is the lack of a workable grievance process for firefighters. This, combined with the documented promotion favoritism and retaliation, should have resulted in council action against the two employees they did supervise.

    The resulting hostile work environment overseen by the city manager and the city attorney very well could have cost the city in the event of a lawsuit. (It did cost the $30,000 for the Aaronson investigation–which should have cost even more if Bill Emlen or the council had okayed the funds to allow the ombudsman to follow the leads you noted earlier.)

    The criticisms that you and Rich have leveled at the 2-3 decision not to read the report are valid, particularly now that we know what was in it. I wasn’t here for Mayor Calvin Covell shameful action, but it’s what these three did not do that ranks as the worst city council action since I got to Davis.

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