Another Point of View: Conflicts abound within Idyllwild Fire Department

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Three people came forward to speak at the Idyllwild Fire Protection District meeting on Aug. 12.  All three had testified before the recent grand jury about problems within the Idyllwild Fire Department. With the end of the grand jury’s term, they were free to discuss their issues.

Frank Altamirano, a former reserve with the department, Kyle O’Dell, a paramedic intern, and Thomas Gibby all stood before the commission and described the problems they have encountered with district management.

They basically accused the agency of “a pattern of lying, abuse of power and the unfair treatment of fire personnel …,” in Gibby’s words.

Surprisingly, none of the commissioners asked one question of the three. In July, Commission President Jerry Buchanan created a committee composed of Vice President Larry Donahoo, Fire Chief Patrick Reitz and himself to prepare a response to the June grand jury report.

At the time, Buchanan said the commission had not interviewed anyone but staff about the allegations in the report.

A discussion of the statements presented at the Aug. 12 meeting is in the accompanying story. Several current members of staff were interviewed, too, but they wished to remain anonymous because of the conditions within the department.

“The environment at the station is not healthy enough to take any disagreement,” said a staff member. In other words, you’re either with us or you’re against us. “I think every employee is good at their job.” But they added, “When something happens, we think we’re above answering to the people or to the board and then just push off to the next day.” In other words, it never gets addressed.

Below is a description of IFPD’s inconsistent management practices.

 

Commission knowledge

At the special commission meeting on June 24, Buchanan refused to answer when asked if any commissioners were aware of the incidents prior to the issuance of the grand jury report.

He replied that the commission had to officially accept the report before responding. After the act of accepting it, neither he nor any other commissioner admitted they were aware of the events reported.

However, Gibby sent the commission letters on three separate occasions from January into February. Gibby was concerned that Capt. Mark LaMont was continually misrepresenting his son’s status. Eric, the oldest, was a reserve limited-term firefighter with IFPD and since has been hired full-time with another fire agency in Riverside County. His brother, Vincent, still is an IFPD reserve, although he will be beginning a paramedic program this month.

There is no evidence that the commission took any independent action to pursue these allegations other than handing them to Reitz. Reitz did request to hire an investigator, which the department’s insurer recommended. These results have never been more public.

Buchanan did not respond to Gibby because he believed that Reitz contacted him and settled the issue. “It’s board policy that the chief deals with public complaints,” Buchanan explained. So the commission was aware of Gibby’s issues before the grand jury report was released and apparently felt it had no reason to take any public action. Gibby said one commissioner even called him to plead the chief’s case.

Regardless of how much information the commissioners had before the report was issued, it is clear since then that the only information they are seeking and want to hear is from certain departmental sources. As Buchanan said in June, the commission has heard no witnesses and plans to call none.

The testimony to the grand jury was under oath, therefore, it was sworn testimony, yet commissioners have characterized it as “hearsay” as if it were a rumor heard during breakfast at the Red Kettle.

 

Confront accusers

In his letters to the commission, Gibby was upset that LaMont misrepresented Eric’s status and condition several times. Buchanan received the complaint, which was addressed only to the commissioners. Buchanan said he gave it to Reitz, and Reitz gave it to LaMont.

Reitz defended his action by stating that LaMont had a right to face his accusers. Essentially, Reitz was asking LaMont to investigate himself.

“I’m amazed that the individual that is the subject of a complaint of abuse of power and misconduct is the same person conducting the investigation,” Gibby wrote Buchanan in a second letter.

In contrast, shortly after Reitz arrived at IFPD in August 2012, he presented former Capt. Mike Mulhall with an alleged petition claiming that some members of the department felt unsafe going to incidents with Mulhall.

The names of the signers were redacted (blacked out) on the version shown to Mulhall. When he asked to know his accusers, Reitz refused.

At one point, Mulhall said Reitz claimed to have not seen a version that was not redacted. If so, he was confronting Mulhall without knowing that the signers were even legitimate or official IFPD staff.

One current member of the fire department staff described the culture within the department as partisan as Democrats versus Republicans. Others have confirmed that none of Mulhall’s crew signed or agreed with the petition. A reserve claims he felt coerced to sign it. “All the others are doing it,” he was told.

Mulhall said he was forced to take early retirement in 2013.

 

Conflict avoidance involving the chief

During the Aug. 12 meeting, the commission discussed its policy for contacting its legal counsel and requesting opinions. The policy is for commissioners to use the fire chief for these requests.

But after some objections from Commissioner Rhonda Andrewson, Buchanan agreed that if the legal question involved action regarding the chief, the commission should act independently of the chief to avoid a conflict.

Also, the recent grand jury report made several serious recommendations, including asking the commission to review the chief’s conduct and consider his termination. Yet, in this situation, rather than conducting an investigation independent of the chief, Buchanan appointed the chief to the committee to draft a response to the grand jury.

 

Response to allegations

Another inconsistency is the disparate treatment of Captains James Reyes and LaMont. The former has been on administrative leave since January, when Gibby’s first letter went to the commission. Reyes has since been dismissed, although neither the commission nor the chief will confirm this action. “Capt. Reyes is no longer with IFPD,” is the chief’s response. Reitz also will not disclose the reason Reyes was on administrative leave.

While he won’t admit whether Reyes resigned, retired or was fired, Reyes confirms he was dismissed and will appeal the action.

But despite Gibby’s letters and the grand jury findings, neither the commission nor the chief has placed LaMont on administrative leave while the allegations against him are investigated.

“You would think Reitz and LaMont would demand outside investigation,” said one current staff member.

Neither the commission nor the chief will explain the reasons for these disparate actions.

 

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