Timing is Everything
In an act of exquisite timing last week, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, the Women’s Program Officer there, tendered her resignation, replete with a scathing letter sent to Fire Chief Richard Bowers.
By Friday afternoon Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors, and Chief Bowers must have been shaking their heads at the very good fortune of Chief Stanley’s timing.
WUSA reports, “Bulova said she has not talked to Stanley about her allegations but believes they are “not a correct representation of the work that is going on.”
That’s Sharon Bulova’s idea of leadership; more on that shortly.
Fairfax County sprawls west of Washington, D.C., covering nearly 500 square miles with a population of over one million.
The county department provides fire and ems service and was propelled into the news about a year ago when a woman member, Nicole Mittendorff, committed suicide under ambiguous circumstances after being subjected to cyber-bullying by other department members.
The Bulova/Bowers stroke of luck was heightened further when Mittendorff’s husband, Steve, took Stanley’s resignation as the opportunity to call for Bowers’, as well.
Like a sleight-of-hand magic trick, the attention of the public and department members was fortuitously diverted by these events.
Who is Really in Charge?
Those familiar with Fairfax County will know that despite the presence of an elected council, the real authority is the County Attorney, a civil servant who advises the County’s executive and elected officials on matters legal.
Like lawyers everywhere his metier is risk avoidance at all costs, even when that avoidance causes substantial, pervasive and lasting damage.
It was the County Attorney’s Office who grossly mishandled the investigation of the killing of John Geer after his 2013 police shooting death, impeding all attempts at justice.
Ms. Bulova and the other supervisors meekly followed the lead of the County’s lawyers like a herd of whipped puppies, hiding behind various weak explanations for their egregious inaction and abdication of leadership.
Had it not been for the Washington Post and reporter Tom Jackman’s relentless coverage thus holding their feet to the fire, it is doubtful that justice would have prevailed.
It’s All Good?
In the wake of the Mittendorff suicide and claims of widespread sexual harassment in the department, Bulova and Bowers decided to study the matter.
Stanley’s resignation letter essentially states that any changes and reforms made by them are both ineffective and mere window dressing.
Bowers says that, “As far as any violations of sexual harassment, discrimination, whatever, zero tolerance means action is taken. And action has been taken with any of the referenced items in that email.”
We’ll talk about that action in a minute but here is what Chief Stanley wrote:
“Fairfax County Fire and Rescue tolerates, and often defends, sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment: ‘zero tolerance’ is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.”
Women in the department who are saying that life is good are making the same error as Chief Stanley when they focus on Bowers, or for that matter, Bulova.
It is the County Attorney, under the guise of so-called risk mitigation, who is actually prescribing the values and policy of the department where human relations are concerned.
Bulova and Bowers are slaves to the lawyers and are unable (or unwilling) to lead with courage.
The Geer Case
Before we go any further we need to spend one more minute on the John Geer case, the man killed by Fairfax Police.
The case was referred to Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh who prosecutes crimes in the County.
Morrogh could not get the County’s own police department to cooperate with his investigation because the County Attorney was acting as a block.
According to the Washington Post, “A frustrated Morrogh has said he passed the investigation to the Justice Department because he was unable to get anywhere with the Fairfax police department.”
To be sure, it was County Attorney David Bobzien and Board Chairman Sharon Bulova denying the Geer family and the citizens of Fairfax County a measure of justice because that is how they chose to operate.
Bobzien and Bulova at the very least allowed police brass to stiff arm and freeze out Ray Morrogh.
Morrogh turned to the Federal Court system for action and redress.
Hernandez v. Fairfax County
The Bulova/Bowers good fortune regarding the Stanley and Mittendorff letters is that they provided the perfect distraction away from the January 30, 2018, decision by the United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in a hostile work environment and retaliation case brought by Magaly Hernandez, a county firefighter.
Bulova and Bowers must have been dancing a jig because the Hernandez case illustrates what the County does versus what they say, an employee/human relations version of the sordid Geer fiasco.
Forget the Bowers/Bulova smooth talk and listen instead to how a three-judge panel describes the facts and the County’s position as argued by their lawyers.
“Within the first few months of Hernandez’s work at Fire Station 42, Bruley [her supervisor] engaged in inappropriate conduct toward her, including blocking her path in the hallway, placing his chin on her shoulder, and positioning his body “right up against” her. Bruley engaged in this conduct despite Hernandez’s repeated requests that she did not “like people that close to [her.]” Bruley also made several statements to Hernandez indicating his desire to see her in a bathing suit, and once asked Hernandez whether she would “be able to handle that big hose,” a comment that Hernandez construed as being sexual in nature.”
“…Bruley began monitoring and tracking Hernandez’s activities and movements at work, and this behavior continued for many months. Hernandez later filed a formal complaint with the County’s equal rights office.”
“…the County contends that Bruley’s conduct, while offensive, was too insignificant to support Hernandez’s claim when viewed objectively. Further, the County submits that Hernandez’s “near total lack of awareness” regarding Bruley’s monitoring of Hernandez’s activities further supported the district court’s conclusion that Bruley’s conduct was legally insufficient to support the claim of a hostile work environment. We disagree with the County’s position.”
“…Bruley’s conduct could support a jury determination that, viewed objectively, Hernandez was subjected to a hostile work environment based on her sex. In less than one year, Bruley physically invaded Hernandez’s personal space on numerous occasions and made sexually suggestive comments to her. Bruley also informed various colleagues that he suspected that Hernandez and Zosh were engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship. Bruley repeated his offensive actions despite the fact that Hernandez repeatedly asked him to stop this conduct.”
“…The County, however, contends that the record conclusively shows that the County took prompt and appropriate disciplinary action against Bruley upon learning of Hernandez’s allegations. We again disagree with the County’s position.”
“During the County’s investigation into Hernandez’s equal rights complaint against Bruley, the County became aware that Bruley had been monitoring Hernandez’s activities. Nevertheless, the County did not review Bruley’s binders of notes regarding Hernandez’s activities.”
“Finally, we consider Hernandez’s claim of retaliation. Hernandez contends that a jury could determine that the County issued her a written reprimand after the basketball incident because of her complaints about Bruley. The County argues in response that Hernandez’s inappropriate conduct during the basketball incident was the basis for the written reprimand, negating any basis for a finding of retaliation. We disagree with the County’s arguments.”
After this record of abuse, Fairfax County went into U.S. District Court and filed a motion to dismiss her claims.
That’s right, Sharon Bulova is saying we care, Bowers is talking zero tolerance but the lawyers say no problem here.
The brothers and sisters in the fire and rescue department can be forgiven for their naivete in looking to Bowers or Bulova for either solace or salvation where workplace equity is concerned.
But, in fact, they are nothing more than con artists.
That duo, regardless of the press conferences or public posturing takes their cues from the County Attorney who “contends that Bruley’s conduct, while offensive, was too insignificant to support Hernandez’s claim when viewed objectively.”
So much for zero tolerance.
It’s all a big charade and they know it — they think you are fooled, too.
Sharon Bulova failed the test of leadership and courage in the Geer case and this is just a repeat.
And, it also appears that IAFF Local 2068, the union representing the County’s firefighters and paramedics, dropped the ball, as well.
It’s the Local’s job to vigorously and relentlessly advocate for workplace justice.
Now is the Time to Act
With the Fourth District Court of Appeals decision now published, it’s time for Sharon Bulova, Richard Bowers, and yes — IAFF Local 2068 to step up and lead.
* Bulova must tell the County Attorney to settle the Hernandez case because it is the moral, just and right thing to do. It also sends the critical message that zero tolerance actually means what it says.
* Bowers and the Local need to be publicly on record urging her to do so.
If Bulova, Bowers and the Local fail to act it’s damning proof that hypocrisy reins and that moral leadership is nowhere to be found.
Who now defends equity and justice in the workplace?
It’s down to Kathleen Stanley, Magaly Hernandez and other folks with guts who have the courage to do the right thing even when the winds blow bitter, fierce and chill.
God speed to them.
[Lamar served as a County firefighter for 22 years and was also president of the local union.]