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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

City Names Robert Aaronson Independent Investigator

Davis City Manager Bill Emlen told the Vanguard by phone yesterday afternoon, that the city had in fact asked Police Ombudsman Robert Aaronson to conduct the investigation that examined allegations laid forth by the Grand Jury now two weeks ago. These allegations included sleeping in the fire station while intoxicated, improper union influence, hostile work environment, among other things.

One of the chief concerns that Mr. Emlen has expressed has been the lack of sufficient detail to allow for a follow up investigation. The report heavily relies on confidential witnesses, many of whom went to great lengths to avoid discovery that they reported feared would bring retaliation. This included a number of witnesses who apparently parked several blocks away and then walked in the back door rather than parking in the grand jury parking lot.

As the City Manager told the California Aggie in an article that appeared in Monday's paper:
"I've seen these [reports] over the years and I think it is pretty broad in terms of scope and the things they looked at... There are issues in there we wish we had more information on, but we understand why it can't be there due to the need for confidentiality."
The Vanguard asked City Manager Emlen if the investigator would possess the ability to compel testimony, i.e. some sort of subpoena power, and he said they were looking into whether he did or did not have subpoena power. During the course of the debate on what type of police oversight system Davis would have, back in 2006, one of the key questions was whether a civilian review board could have subpoena power. Research indicated that generally such boards had special investigators like the Ombudsman position, that could in fact compel witnesses to come forward and testify. The city ultimately went with the straight Ombudsman in part because of concerns of confidentiality in such matters.

A similar problem exists in this case. In some ways, this report is a personnel complaint as much as anything else and those matters are protected by confidentiality. In fact, Mr. Emlen in the California Aggie article again asserted that some of the findings in the report there are legitimate explanations, but confidentiality prohibits the city from providing those explanations.

There is considerable question on the timing of this report. The law requires the city to respond within 90 days. Mr. Emlen believes that at least some kind of response could occur at that point in time, but there might be aspects that go beyond the 90 period.

City Councilmember Lamar Heystek was the first to call for an independent investigator:
"I think we need to bring in outside help to look into the Grand Jury allegations."
A few days later, Mayor Ruth Asmundson expressed her concern for the situation:
"I was really surprised and concerned that there's something amiss in our fire department."
The California Aggie finds both Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor and Councilmember Stephen Souza responding for the first time.

Mr. Saylor:
"The grand jury report contains several very serious allegations about practices within the Davis Fire Department. I support the city manager's independent review of these allegations to determine the accuracy of the charges and guide any necessary corrections or other actions."
Mr. Souza:
"The allegations about activities by some in the Davis Fire Department need to be investigated by an independent source like the ombudsman to substantiate or exonerate those individuals... I am very pleased that the city manager has initiated the hiring of an independent investigator and a report to the council will follow."
In a release last Monday, City Manager Bill Emlen stated his goals for the investigation:
  • 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.
While this is a difficult process, Mr. Emlen said that he looks forward to a speedy conclusion to this process and will be curious to see what the outcome is.

Robert Aaronson as we mentioned last week now undertakes his first major assignment since being named Ombudsman just under two years ago.

For more information on Mr. Aaronson, please see an early Vanguard story from September of 2006: Aaronson handed down major finding in a police spying investigation.

Also see the Vanguard's August 2007 interview with him.

For the full story on the Grand Jury Report, please click here.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting