County responds to discrimination allegations within PG Fire, EMS

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 6, 2020 | 12:14 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This is an ongoing story The Prince George Journal will continue to report. In next week’s paper, the investigation’s findings and recommendations following our FOIA request will be detailed in-depth.

PRINCE GEORGE – Following allegations of gender-based discrimination within the ranks of Prince George Fire and EMS and claims of mismanagement by the department’s leadership, county representatives said they are looking into the assertions that have been made public while remaining steadfast in not providing specifics as to how they will or have addressed them.

Last week, Prince George County Attorney Daniel Whitten said they look into all concerns and allegations brought forth against any department within the county but stopped short of saying if he or the county board of supervisors had received complaints about the county’s Fire and EMS department, citing matters involving personnel as being exempt from public disclosure thanks to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

His comments come after a letter shared with The Prince George Journal claimed Prince George Fire and EMS’ administration had “recently concluded an extensive investigation” that looked into claims of “sexual misconduct to forcing the people that volunteer their time to their home county onto the street in favor of using more money to pay for full-time employees, benefits, or retirements.”

That letter stated the group tasked with the investigation “was selected by the [Prince George] Board of Supervisors, at the request of the County Attorney and Director of Human Resources [Corrie Hunt], respectively.”

“After some lengthy interviews, the outcome was reported to the Board of Supervisors; no information has been shared among those involved, or those affected by the lack of changes from the actions that sparked the investigation,” the letter’s writer claimed.

Last month, The Prince George Journal requested an interview with Whitten, Prince George Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hunter, who is also an employee of the county within the Fire and EMS Department, County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, and Fire and EMS Director Brad Owens to bring these concerns to county officials and ask what is being done to address discrimination claims within the department. 

That meeting was granted with the four individuals, set for late last month. 

Two days before the meeting, The Prince George Journal was informed that both Ashcraft and Owens had been directed to not be part of last Friday’s meeting by the county board of supervisors, with the pair also having a meeting during the same time, and that County Attorney Whitten would be speaking on the department and county’s behalf on the matter.

“I know they had a direct conflict so that was one reason they couldn’t participate but also, the board has asked me to be the spokesperson on this matter, and once I told [the board of supervisors] that the media had questions, the board asked that I answer any questions,” Whitten detailed, noting that he serves in that spokesperson capacity at the direction of the board.

Given that both Ashcraft and Owens were not available for last week’s meetings, questions about a possible investigation into the county’s Fire and EMS administration were posed to Whitten, who declined to confirm or deny if such an investigation occurred when asked, pointing to the provisions of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

“Whenever the county receives concerns or allegations regarding any department, we do look into them further but, as far as whether we have heard of any of these concerns, I would have to say that is a personnel matter and that would be confidential,” the county attorney remarked. “We do address every concern that we hear and make sure we fully vet any issue that is brought forward to our attention.”

Specifically, Whitten cited Virginia Code 2.2-3705.1(3), which exempts, “Legal memoranda and other work product compiled specifically for use in litigation or for use in an active administrative investigation concerning a matter that is properly the subject of a closed meeting” under FOIA and Va. Code 2.2-3705.3(3), which excludes “Investigator notes, and other correspondence and information, furnished in confidence with respect to an active investigation of individual employment discrimination complaints made to the Department of Human Resource Management, to such personnel of any local public body, including local school boards, as are responsible for conducting such investigations in confidence, or to any public institution of higher education.”

On the subject of the alleged investigation, the letter claimed Fire and EMS employees were “discouraged by mid-level operational supervisors from seeking information” and those same individuals were “told they were forbidden from meeting or talking with any of the Board of Supervisors members, under penalty of insubordination,” which violates state law, specifically Va. Code 15.2-1512.4.

When asked, Whitten echoed that code section when presented with the allegations without confirming or denying the validity of those claim made toward the county’s Fire and EMS department

“Under Virginia Code, any employee is allowed to talk to their board member and talk about matters of public concern and the employee has that right so they couldn’t be told that they can’t go to board of supervisors members to discuss matters of public concern,” he said. “They can go directly, they can go to a board meeting and speak at the public comment period but, if it regards a matter of public concern, it kind of falls under the First Amendment and the right to talk to your elected official.”

Speaking generally, Whitten added, “I think for any department, you have to make it clear that an employee has a right to talk to their board member so, it’s just a clear message to all department heads to make sure their employees know they can talk to board members on matters of public concern.”

Hunter said he hasn’t seen any instance of the allegation of Fire and EMS employees being barred from talking to elected officials.

“People talk to other board members and talk to me anytime they want to, it’s an open door for any county employee,” Hunter remarked. “They can always talk to the board members and the board members encourage hearing from county employees.”

To that end, some believe there could be a conflict of interest involving Hunter when it comes to hearing concerns in the county’s Fire and EMS department given his role as chairman of the board of supervisors and an employee of the department. When asked, he detailed how he maintains his objectivity and his willingness to recuse himself on some matters relating to the department.

“I work in emergency management. I am not a firefighter or an EMT,” he said. “So people won’t come to me with an operational issue like that because I am not trained in that respect. If they come to me with any other concern, I made a statement when I first went on the board that was prepared by Mr. Micas that said I would recuse myself if anything that has to do with supervision within Fire and EMS because of my employment status.”

The minutes of the Jan. 12, 2016 meeting showed Hunter made a disclosure, given his employment as part-time deputy emergency management coordinator and that his salary exceeds $5,000 annually, of a “personal conflict,” pledging to “publicly disqualify” himself and “not participate as a board member in matters, such as evaluations of the Fire, EMS, and Emergency Management Director,” evaluations of his job performance, and compensation changes to his position.

The disclosure, drafted by then-County Attorney Steven Micas, adds, through the Conflict of Interest Act, Hunter is able to partake in “a broad range of other transactions by the board of supervisors that affect the department” in a wider sense, such as county transactions that could affect the department or public.

The communication received by The Prince George Journal also alleged “financial waste” within the department with claims of overtime padding “to show budgetary needs for more [full-time employee] staffing” and intentionally not scheduling part-time employees for that reason or “due to selective discrimination of gender, personal feelings, or lack of interest in advances from supervisors.”

When asked, Whitten said the county does look into claims of this nature, especially those that may involve sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. 

“Any department where that concern is brought, we look into it,” he said. “When you are hired, you have to do sexual harassment training and, two years ago, the county attorney’s office did sexual harassment training for all of the county employees so that is something, in today’s age, we make sure we do sexual harassment training on a regular basis.”

“If there is a concern brought by an employee or a group of employees, we do look into it and talk to all the necessary people to make sure that is not happening in the workplace,” Whitten continued, noting he couldn’t confirm or deny if the concern had been brought to the county or was part of a recent investigation into Prince George Fire and EMS.

Hunter added that the message is clear in his eyes, discrimination is “not accepted” in the workplace.

“Not only is it not allowed, it is not accepted in any manner,” he said. “Human resources does an excellent job of staying on top of this topic by continuously giving classes and updates. It is one of those things they are on top of.

The chairman continued, “Everyone is aware of the fact that, if you feel are being discriminated against based on gender, race, sex, or anything, you have a right to complain but, you also have the right to complain as a third party. Human resources makes that very clear and HR has records of everyone who is taking the classes.”

Regarding the claims of fiscal “waste” within the department, Whitten said the county’s finance department is always looking at the bottom line for all of the county’s operations and, if there were allegations of that nature in any department, “it would fall under a personnel-type matter and it would be confidential.”

“As part of the budget process, the county administrator and finance department looks at the Fire and EMS budget and they will look at the amount of overtime and how much was used in the past year,” the county attorney detailed. “So, as part of the budget process, they are always looking at that item. There are a lot of departments that are always looking at their overtime numbers.”

The letter closes by expressing concern about EMT training for the county’s first responders, suggesting that some “seem concerned about being firefighters instead of running emergency medical calls,” with over 85 percent of calls to 911 being medical-related.

According to Hunter and Whitten, included in County Administrator Ashcraft’s proposed budget for FY2021 is funding requested by Director Owens to help to pay for further cross-training of first responders in both fire services and emergency medical response, with Hunter adding there are a number of members in the department who are dual-trained.

According to Hunter, currently all first responders carry Basic Life Support, BLS, for short, certification, and some are Advanced Life Support, or ALS, or fully-certified paramedics.

When asked if the county is trying to shift to a paid staff model for its fire and EMS program, the two county officials said that isn’t the case.

“The county definitely values volunteers,” Whitten said. “You have stations that are volunteer-only, such as Company 1 and they are probably running as many as anyone else in the county.”

Hunter added, at the inception of Company 1 decades earlier, the availability of volunteers was different as many were self-employed and had more flexibility to be able to respond to the station for calls, along with training being less demanding.

“Now, it is a very involved and intense class that you have to take, which includes written and practical, so it is not so easy to be a volunteer firefighter now, and it’s not taken lightly,” Hunter said. “You go through a health check, we send you for a full physical, then you have to take these classes to qualify and, a lot of people can’t leave work to go over to the firehouse so, it came to a point where the county had to employ people to cover those times.”

The chairman continued, “It isn’t about wanting more paid [staff] than volunteers, it was a matter of what the county needs and we have to provide those services for the county. We are getting more calls and as we are getting more calls, we are improving our response times, as well.”

According to county records, Prince George has 28 full-time and 36 part-time cross-trained firefighter-medics. In addition, the county has 157 “active volunteers” and 106 “other volunteers,” along with five chaplains, for a total of 268 volunteer members.

While never outright confirming if the county is currently or has previously looked into the allegations detailed to The Prince George Journal, Whitten said the community should be assured they take any complaints or assertions made about the county’s operations seriously.

“The citizens should know we are fully looking into every concern that is brought to us, whether it be at a board meeting, by email, or phone, we make sure every concern is addressed and as soon as we hear about it, we start working on it, that is our job,” he said. “We want the employees to come to board members with matters of public concern and they should feel free to discuss those matters with the five board members.”

Dovetailing off Whitten, Hunter encouraged anyone with concerns to speak to the county.

“If you have a concern, let us know because we can’t address it if we are not aware of it.” Hunter closed.

Copyright 2020 by Womack Publishing
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