The hiring of Mayor Bruce Broadwater’s son was “the final straw” for Garden Grove firefighters, who have long been fed up with a lack of leadership and discipline under former Fire Chief Dave Barlag, according to an independent investigation released by the city late Wednesday.
The nine-page report said Barlag was viewed by personnel as overly passive and too concerned with personal gain, failed to discipline employees, and reportedly intervened to hire the mayor’s son Jeremy, leading to mistrust and low morale.
However, the report also said that some inside the fire department suggested that Jeremy Broadwater had been “subject to hazing and more detailed performance reviews than other probationary firefighters,” allegations that the report concluded merited their separate investigation.
(Click here to read the report.)
City Manager Matthew Fertal commissioned the firm Management Partners, Inc. - which also produced a critical look at the Orange County Fire Authority earlier this year - to investigate the department after a unanimous union vote of no confidence for the chief.
Although the probe did not specifically examine Broadwater’s hiring process, Wednesday's summary report describes a total breakdown in morale and trust following Broadwater's hiring.
The report concluded that it set "into motion a host of actions by line personnel that range from claims of safety concerns about Firefighter Broadwater to accusing management staff of employing complex staffing schemes aimed at protecting him from non-compatible coworkers and ensuring that he passes probation,” the report reads.
Voice of OC first reported last September that the 37-year-old Jeremy Broadwater was slated for hiring despite failing his interview, prompting the union to send a letter to Barlag detailing their grievances.
Since his hiring last October, the rookie firefighter has made a number of “potentially life-threatening mistakes on medical calls,” drawing concern from his superiors and prompting one captain to call for his termination, according to a September article in The Orange County Register.
Although Barlag has since resigned from the troubled department, the controversy is ongoing for both father and son. Members of the public have called for Jeremy's termination while murmurs of nepotism have fueled the popularity of the six-term mayor's opponent, local school board member Bao Nguyen, this November.
“The Final Straw”
The report notes that after Barlag was appointed to the position in November 2012, he failed to create an effective management team and his relationship with employees quickly crumbled.
Fire department personnel who were interviewed said the chief lacked a strong command presence and the ability to improve the department's performance and accountability.
Interviewees also said disciplinary procedures are rarely used on firefighters, with management instead opting to transfer firefighters from one station to another.
Moreover, Barlag’s decision to change pre-hiring protocol, such as scoring for a skills assessment and overturning battalion chiefs’ decision to not recommend Broadwater for hiring, gave the appearance of favoritism and unethical behavior, according to the report.
Union members, according to the report, said that when they asked the Chief why he hired Broadwater, he replied, "Everyone has a boss."
In one instance, fire captains refused to teach at the fire academy that Broadwater attended to protest his hiring, the report said.
Interviewees with Management Partners told them they viewed the "lengths to which Barlag went to make sure Broadwater passed probation" as special treatment.
The chief moved and demoted employees supervising Broadwater, including demoting a division chief to battalion chief, delaying a captain's date of promotion, and moving a captain in Fire Prevention to a fire station, according to the report.
The report suggests the fire department has a longstanding history of "weak fire chiefs and strong union leadership," likely the result of management approaches by past chiefs and city councils.
The report also notes mistrust amongst command staff and that "some chief officers continue to undermine the Chief's efforts to be successful in his position."
Councilman Kris Beard said the report points to longstanding issues in the department and said the reports findings are “a good starting point for selecting a new chief.
“I think [Barlag’s resignation] has helped alleviate immediate, short-term issues. This didn’t happen overnight,” Beard said. “We will be looking for a chief with a different management style -- a leader with a vision and a strong command presence,” Beard said.
But with Barlag now gone, the department's top officers will now report to the city manager until an interim chief or permanent replacement is found, a process which could take six months.
Jeremy Broadwater remains an employee of the fire department but was recently transferred to a desk position.
Both Beard and Councilman Chris Phan said that, absent extenuating circumstances, there's no reason that Broadwater shouldn't be allowed to work for the Fire Department.
“It doesn't look good. It appears there may have been some action that was taken for him…that should have not been taken for other candidates," Phan said. "I think it may not be good for him to be on the front line. But there’s other things he can do — if he passed all the other steps."
Broadwater has maintained that he did not have any role in his son's hiring and continues to point to his role in passing a citywide anti-nepotism policy in 2000.
That city policy, which banned the hiring of relatives, was repealed by another city council in 2005. The council recently reinstated the policy with an amendment that allows current relatives to keep their jobs.
"When everybody is getting a job, what am I supposed to say to my own son? He worked as a park ranger for 7 years. And then he went and applied to the fire department," Broadwater said when reached at his home Wednesday night.
Broadwater says his son has been caught between fire union members bent on removing the chief.
Broadwater said the firm left out two key perspectives in their investigation - his and Jeremy's - but said the report pointed to key management issues that indicate the city manager and council should exercise greater oversight over the department.
"Up to this point, we haven't managed that fire department well. There have been no rules, and the question is how can you break the rules if you don't have them?" Broadwater said.