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Sunday, January 11, 2009

City Manager’s Handling of Fire Report Undermines Investigatory Process

Davis City Council Never Sees Unredacted Report from City Ombudsman Bob Aaronson

The City of Davis spent $35,000 on an independent investigation of the fire department, conducted by Bob Aaronson, who mostly serves the city as a part-time police ombudsman. However, given the decisions made by City Manager Bill Emlen and City Attorney Harriet Steiner, who may be the only people aside from Mr. Aaronson to see the full unredacted report, one might question what the purpose of this was.

The logic behind the independent investigation was to have a neutral third party investigate the allegation that arose from the Yolo County Grand Jury Report. Bill Emlen, as city manager, is the individual responsible for the conduct of those who serve under him, such as Fire Chief Rose Conroy and those under her supervision.

The Vanguard spoke with Mr. Emlen on Friday. He indicated that the City Council was only allowed to see a redacted version of the report. However, the Council was not allowed to take the report home with them and only allowed to read it in his presence.

The public has not even been allowed to view the redacted report. All the public has at its deposal is a Staff Report written by the City Manager himself that supposedly cites Mr. Aaronson’s conclusions and excerpts from the Ombudsman’s report itself. However it is framed and written by the City Manager.

The important question is why the elected representatives of Davis voters have been denied by two appointed city officials the ability to read the full report. Not one person with any direct accountability to the voters has been allowed to review the report.

Bill Emlen told the Vanguard that allowing the City Council to see the report would involve them in personnel matters and would expose the city to potential lawsuits by employees. However, several people with city attorney experience that the Vanguard has spoken with have questioned whether this is a realistic fear. For one thing, elected school board members are allowed to view personnel files without such risk. Moreover, it is unclear whether or not the city has ever been sued for this kind of matter.

Furthermore this brings up the question as to whether the City Councilmembers should be treated in the same manner as members of the public in terms of their ability to review personnel files. That is the position that the City Attorney takes in this regard.

It seems somewhat obvious that a City Councilmember is not simply another member of the public. And moreover, that if the only true power that they possess in matters such as these is the power to hire and fire the City Manager, then how can they properly evaluate the City Manager unless they have some mechanism of oversight? Specifically whether the City Council can judge if the City Manager can properly evaluate and manage employees under his direct and indirect supervision.

This might all be a moot point if the City Manager’s report faithfully communicated the findings, tone, and spirit of the independent investigation conducted by the Ombudsman and only removed from it references to personnel matters. However, there appears to be only three people capable of making such an assessment and only one of them does not have a vested interest in non-disclosure and that would be the independent investigator himself.

Bill Emlen told the Vanguard on Friday that while he had sent Mr. Aaronson a copy of the redacted report, he had not spoken to the Ombudsman in at least two weeks. Mr. Emlen did not seek Mr. Aaronson’s approval or input on this Staff Report written solely by Mr. Emlen and reviewed by Ms. Steiner nor did he seek the approval or input on the redacted copy of Mr. Aaronson’s original report and findings which were shown to the Councilmembers. Mr. Aaronson has not been asked to sign off on either document.

In other words, we have no idea at this time if this Staff Report is consistent with the findings and report that Mr. Aaronson submitted to the City Manager, Bill Emlen.

The good news for Davis residents is that Mr. Aaronson will attend Tuesday night’s meeting where the findings of this report are presented to the Davis City Council and the public. The City Councilmembers will have a chance to ask Mr. Aaronson directly to describe whether or not this Staff Report is an accurate depiction of the one he submitted nearly two months ago to the city manager.

Unfortunately, the Vanguard has no confidence that this has occurred. There is absolutely no transparency, no accountability, and no oversight of this process by anyone without a direct stake in the outcome of the findings. The elected City Councilmembers and the public are forced to take the City Manager and City Attorney at their word that this is an adequate representation of Mr. Aaronson’s report.

To be sure, there may be valuable insight gained from an internal review of the Fire Department, however, from the standpoint of the City Council and the public, the $35,000 could have been better spent elsewhere if all Mr. Emlen was intending to do was act as the “gatekeeper of information.” From that perspective, he may as well have conducted the investigation himself and saved the city the added costs.

However, that perspective may change on Tuesday night depending on what Mr. Aaronson says at a public meeting and what questions are asked by the Council and the public regarding this matter.

Mr. Emlen expressed the hope that the public would have confidence in how this matter has been handled and satisfied that the City conducted a thorough and rigorous review, that they have found a number of problems, and that the City has moved quickly and swiftly toward resolving these problems.

I say to my readers today that I share no such thought and I give Mr. Emlen and his handling of the process no vote of confidence.

The issues that the Grand Jury report was able to bring forward appear to have been known for some time by those in the fire department and perhaps the city manager’s office itself. Many of these things either occurred on Mr. Emlen's watch or continued on his watch. The pattern of the City not having proper oversight and accountability procedures has been continuous through the Vanguard’s various investigations. The fact that the City does not properly oversee the fire department probably means that the fire department is not alone in the type of problems that the Grand Jury uncovered.

Nothing short of full disclosure of this report to the City Council is an acceptable outcome at this point.Regarding oversight and accountability concerning this investigation, there is no longer any trust extended to this City Manager in his handling of his oversight duties and accountability directly to the City Council and by extension the people of Davis. The people of Davis deserve oversight and accountability. They have been provided with neither in this case. All we have are a couple of unelected officials who have constructed flimsy excuses in order to deny the Council the ability to fully read and evaluate what the Ombudsman uncovered during his lengthy and costly $35,000 investigation and whether City management has taken these allegations seriously and made effective corrections..

---David M. Greenwald reporting