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Charlotte Area

Carlee Says Fire Department Chief Must Fix 'Culture Of Fear'


Earlier this week the city of Charlotte released what’s known as the Van Laningham report. It takes its name from the outside lawyer who investigated the firing of Crystal Eschert, an arson investigator who was officially terminated for what the city saw as an insensitive Facebook post in the aftermath of the Fergusson, Missouri riots.

Eschert says the real reason she was fired was retaliation for alerting a member of the Charlotte City Council to what Eschert saw as shoddy renovations at a Charlotte Fire Department building.

It also raises questions about how the city handled the firing of Eschert. WFAE’s Tom Bullock sat down with Charlotte City Manager, Ron Carlee, to ask about the report and what comes next.  

The city says the report, compiled by an outside attorney proves Eschert’s termination was not retaliation. And Carlee does stand by that saying simply, "The investigator came back and said there is no direct evidence of retaliation." No direct evidence, yes, but the report states time and again that rank and file members of the Fire Department do believe retaliations happen. And the report points out a number of irregularities and flaws in the city’s handling of the case. One of the first deals with Carlee himself, who wrote to Charlotte Fire Department Chief Jon Hannan telling him to do nothing about Eschert’s case before consulting the city’s attorney adding, “It is already political, use great caution.”

It was political, Carlee says, because Eschert emailed her concerns about the safety of the renovated Fire Department building to Councilwoman Claire Fallon. "I knew it was going to be controversial," he says, "because a member of council had already spoken to me about it. And my guidance was the same guidance I would give any personnel that’s going to be very visible, controversial, think through what are the issues here and how do we proceed appropriately and fairly."

The investigator found the process was not entirely fair. There’s a section of the report titled “The Process As Applied Was Flawed.” It includes this passage:

There is no assurance that the employee grievance portion of the process provides Ms. Eschert with a meaningful review of the termination decision.

The investigator found that every city official who would hear Eschert’s appeal of her firing also took part in one of two meetings that decided her employment would end. "To the flaws in the process," says Carlee, "that has caused me to step back and to rethink and I do have underway a re-examination of our grievance process in light of (the investigators') observations." But that may be the easiest task to deal with in the aftermath of this report. The report found a much more important, and difficult issue to fix.

There is an environment of distrust in the Fire Department, or at least certain parts of it, that is so significant, that it causes many to believe that any infraction or departure from the desires of certain members of the command staff will result in unfair punishment targeting and retaliation.

Carlee does not dispute this. "It would appear what is there and what seems indisputably there is a culture that is problematic." And, the report shows, that culture is one of fear of a senior management team in the fire department that will retaliate, or unfairly treat anyone who speaks out against them. Carlee says he has ordered a review of these fears, which will be done by the same senior managers of the Fire Department.

Ron Carlee: "Yes the fire leadership, they’ve got to take ownership for it. And they’ve got to provide meaningful work that demonstrates to their rank and file that they are committed to a more open environment in the department." Tom Bullock:  "I wonder if the management, the senior management that the report actually names specifically as being at the heart of this distrust, at the heart of this fear of certain segments of the rank and file, if the rank and file can indeed trust that they will change that culture. At some point one wonders if a change in leadership is at least being considered." RC: "The fire chief has over 35 years of distinguished service with this city. By any objective standard, this is a fire department that works extraordinarily well operationally. I think we owe it to the department and to the city to give the team the opportunity to hear what has been said. To dig down further to understand how deep and how broad is it in the Fire Department and to develop their plan for organizational change. And it's my hope and expectation that he will be able to turn it around." TB: "I have to ask again though, if the senior management are the people that the rank and file have distrust with, fear retaliation from, see as inflicting unfair discipline, are they a fair arbiter to go through and actually suss this out?" RC: "I think we’ve made the right decision to give the chief the opportunity. I think it would be precipitous to do anything to the contrary at this point."

This, Carlee says, is not a free pass. He points out a second report also made public this week. It includes a survey of fire department employees, 61 percent of those who responded said morale in the department is bad. And Carlee says he’ll be watching to see if that needle moves.