The city last month finally handed over a completely uncensored version of a 2008 report that detailed an assortment of problems within the Davis Fire Department at the time, pulling the curtain back entirely on what Bob Aaronson, the city’s ombudsman, learned over the course of his investigation.
The full report was released after Yolo Superior Court Judge Dan Maguire denied a preliminary injunction on the release of the document, which was filed by former Davis Fire Chief Rose Conroy.
More than anything else, the new sections deal with Conroy and the conversations she had with Aaronson during the investigation.
Conroy, who ran the department for 16 years, was in command when allegations by a Grand Jury surfaced of a hostile work environment, favoritism and unfair promotional practices within the department.
In the interviews that are transcribed in the newly released sections, Conroy describes some of her employees as “narcissistic” or people who had personality disorders, largely attributing those reasons to the cause of their discontent with her or with the fire department.
One of the more serious claims Aaronson tackled in his investigation was that employees were subject to retaliation or treated with hostility if they disagreed with the chief or the fire union.
“The people that … have gripes and things like that are the people that are narcissistic,” Conroy was quoted as saying. “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 (those) who don’t get their way.’”
Responding to a question by Aaronson about employees’ fears of retaliation, Conroy said: “It may be something that they got at birth, it may not be something that’s inflicted here. 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.
“I am absolutely not one of those (people who would retaliate against an employee),” she was later quoted as saying. “You are talking about people that have significant personality disorders.”
Aaronson concludes, however, that whether retaliation ever took place or not, he believed many employees feared retaliation from the former chief, citing, among other reasons, that many worried about the recordings that were being compiled for the investigation.
The ombudsman, who recorded six hours of conversations with the chief, also offers his own observations about the way Conroy responded to the concerns held by the employees.
“Chief Conroy recognizes how troubling it is that some of her long-term employees, many of whom she promoted, fear retaliation from her,” Aaronson wrote. “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.”
When contacted about the report and the new findings, Conroy didn’t deny that there were some employees who weren’t happy under her command.
“I can tell you generally, that the vast majority of the employees at the time were very hard-working really good people, I felt very proud of their performance. I felt like they were giving the city of Davis the best we possibly could …,” Conroy said. “(Did employees) not like me? Yes. (Were) there some of them that (were) disgruntled? Yes. And that’s understandable for a variety of reasons. They (didn’t) like me, they (didn’t) like decisions that I made sometimes.”
The former chief also explained her motivations for keeping the report sealed.
“When this started I encouraged anybody who wanted to participate to go ahead, it was all confidential,” Conroy said. “I felt an obligation (to stop the report from being released) because I said that to them. Because that’s what I was told.”
The audit was commissioned by the city initially because of a Grand Jury investigation that resulted in allegations of several malfeasances within the department centered around unfair practices and treatment of employees.
Overall, the Grand Jury found the promotion process within the department was unfair, that certain employees were subject to retaliation or hostility from Conroy and the union, that the union had undue political influence within the department and several other smaller problems, some of which were later trivialized by Aaronson in his report.
But once the city’s ombudsman finished his investigation of those claims, the City Council at the time — then made up of Mayor Ruth Asmundson, Mayor Pro Tem and now Supervisor Don Saylor and Councilmembers Stephen Souza, Lamar Heystek and Sue Greenwald — voted to withhold a large chunk of the findings.
At a meeting in Dec. 2008, Saylor, Souza and Asmundson voted to release only selected sections of the report, while Heystek and Greenwald dissented.
Several years later, the city was sued successfully by the Davis Vanguard and an agreement was made to release a bit more of the report.
That new, less-redacted version shed light on several of the concerns the Grand Jury raised about the department’s promotional process, as Aaronson wrote that Conroy promoted Bobby Weist, the fire union president, over “demonstrably” and “substantially” superior candidates when two captain positions in the department opened up in 2007.
“The only reason Chief Conroy could articulate for passing over (the more qualified candidate) was … ‘naivete,’ ” Aaronson wrote. “When asked to explain what this meant, she pointed to his friendships with employees she disparaged.”
Conroy maintains that the promotional process set by the city was followed properly, a fact with which the City Manager Bill Emlen concurred as he wrote in a staff report to the council in Jan. 2009.
While the report is now available to the public, and many of the key players involved have left their service with the city, questions still remain about why it was censored in the first place.
Souza, who admittedly received contributions from members of the fire union during his campaign for a seat on the council, says that it was not the council’s place to overstep the city manager. He also told The Enterprise recently that he and his colleagues believed that the conversations Aaronson held with the various employees, as Conroy has said, were supposed to be confidential and that he didn’t want to break that agreement.
On whether the contributions he’d received from the fire union influenced his decision, Souza said that “I was proud to get contributions and I’ve always been proud to get them, from wherever they came from: firefighters, downtown business owners, doctors, across the board. I’m proud to get them, but not once was I ever approached on this matter by any member of the fire department or the union. Not once.
“No $100 bill can get me to do anything for you,” Souza added. “I act not on an individual’s behalf, I act on behalf of all the public in our community.”
Saylor, like Souza, recalls relying on the advice of Emlen and City Attorney Harriet Steiner when voting to withhold sections of the report.
“It is my recollection that (Steiner) and (Emlen) recommended that the written report of the consultant be redacted to exclude personnel information such as the names of individuals,” Saylor said in an email. “This is not an unusual practice in personnel matters and is often followed in order to protect the public agency from litigation and to ensure that the employment rights of individuals are not violated. I voted to support the city attorney’s advice.”
— Reach Tom Sakash at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash