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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

City Manager Calls for the Hire of Independent Investigator To Review Grand Jury Report on Davis Fire Department

Mayor Asmundson Expresses Concern That Something is "Amiss" In the Fire Department

In a release late yesterday afternoon, Davis City Manager Bill Emlen announced that the city was looking to hire an independent investigator to perform a detailed review of the findings and recommendations of the recently released Grand Jury report.
"The nature and scope of issues raised in this report are significant, and warrant a comprehensive review and response from the City."
City Manager Bill Emlen told the Vanguard that he hopes to make an announcement on the selection of an independent investigator by the end of this week. His first choice seemed to be Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson but if it is not Bob Aaronson himself, it will be someone like Bob Aaronson. Mr. Aaronson has the advantage of already being on staff and already having familiarity with the city of Davis.

The move follows increasing pressure on the city to thoroughly examine the Grand Jury report released late Monday of last week. Mr. Emlen called the report a "black cloud" hanging over the city. He recognized the need for an independent review that would give the public confidence in whatever finding.

Last week, City Councilmember Lamar Heystek was interviewed on CBS News Channel 13 in Sacramento.
"I think we need to bring in outside help to look into the Grand Jury allegations."
Over the weekend, Mayor Ruth Asmundson expressed her dismay at the turn of events. The Mayor told KCRA TV in Sacramento:
"I was really surprised and concerned that there's something amiss in our fire department."
In the release, Bill Emlen's stated goals for the investigation include:
  • Be clear to the public that we are committed to a thorough, objective evaluation of the Grand Jury’s report.

  • Be clear to all sources that we will retain their confidentiality in bringing information forward.

  • Ensure that those affected in the report are treated fairly and in an impartial manner.
In his conversation with the Vanguard, City Manager Bill Emlen was concerned that it would be difficult to retrace some of the steps that the Grand Jury took. In particular, many of the employees who were fearful of retribution had to have extraordinary steps taken in order for them to feel comfortable testifying. I asked him if the city could also make such assurances to protect their identity, and he said that the city could do that and could guarantee protection. However, he was not sure that would be enough to get them to come forward.

As important is the pledge of transparency. The report is not going to be something done in closed session, submitted in private.
"We are committed to a transparent process with the independent investigator’s report ultimately presented to the City Council in open session."
The law requires the city to submit a response within 90 days of the Grand Jury's report. That means by the end of September. However, Mr. Emlen would like that to be done much sooner.
"Our goal is to respond to the Grand Jury’s report much earlier than is required by law."
One way or another, he believes that this is a cloud hanging over the city. He either wants to exonerate the fire department or take appropriate action as soon as possible.


An independent investigation is exactly what the Vanguard has wanted to see happen from the start.

Bill Emlen's initial statement and reaction was alarming last Tuesday:
"We believe the Grand Jury Report includes several statements that are factually incorrect. Taken together, they contribute to a less-than-accurate picture of the Davis Fire Department."
However, he has now stepped up to the plate and done what needed to be done. This was an excellent statement by the City Manager. He has done everything here that needs to be done. Mayor Ruth Asmundson is to be commended as well for her forceful advocacy to look into this report and not attempt to sweep the problem under the rug.

The Vanguard is hopeful that Bob Aaronson will be the one who conducts this investigation. In 2006, he had to perform a tough investigation in the city of Santa Cruz, investigating allegations that the city police were spying on anti-war protesters. The initial report by the police was conducted by the very person who ordered such surveillance. Mr. Aaronson called the police on an unprofessional report and then castigated them for their unlawful surveillance against the anti-war protestors.

It is ironic that the man brought in to investigate complaints against the police department would have his first major investigation be to look into the fire department.

Councilmember Stephen Souza has been quiet on this issue. It is somewhat ironic however that both at the time of creating the position of ombudsman and in March of 2007 when Aaronson gave his six month report, Mr. Souza called for the ombudsman to investigate more than just police complaints. While it seems impractical for the ombudsman to handle day to day complaints about things like public works, it is more fitting that this type of investigation fall into the hands of person hired to be an independent eye for the city.

The City Manager acknowledges the severity of these charges and recognizes that neither he nor his employees are the ones that should be investigating this report.

Whoever ends up with the investigation has a difficult and unenviable task. As the City Manager acknowledges, the road map laid out by the Grand Jury is a difficult one to replicate. It took the Grand Jury over a year to conduct this investigation. The issues of retribution and confidentiality are difficult ones to grapple with both on the side of individual accused employees as well as whistle blowers.

However, the city has now recognized that they cannot unring this bell. They must press forward and find out if these accusation have merit.

Frankly this is all we ever wanted from the start--a process by which we can determine if the Grand Jury's report has merit and a process by which the city can deal appropriately with individuals if needed.

Hiring an independent investigator helps the city both meet the needs of the public and protects the rights of the employees.

Once again Mayor Ruth Asmundson and City Manager Bill Emlen deserve tremendous credit for doing the right thing in this situation. They have the full confidence of the Vanguard as they move forward.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting