Pasadena Fire Chief Announces Retirement After Controversial Reassignment

As the world watched a pandemic unfold last week, Pasadena Fire Chief Bertral Washington announced his retirement in an email to colleagues, quietly making an exit after a controversial reassignment to the City Manager’s Office led to weeks of City Hall protests.

His last day will be April 10.

Although Washington has avoided addressing the matter publicly, members of Pasadena’s black community — including two city councilmen — said the chief’s new position was simply a holdover before his ultimate removal. They argued he was being pushed out after a contentious relationship with some members of the local firefighters union.

Pasadena Firefighters Association President Sean Timoney had not responded to questions sent by this newsgroup ahead of publication.

Washington didn’t address the allegations in the email sent to the entire Fire Department last week, nor did he respond to a request for comment on this story. Instead, in the email, he expressed gratitude for having served as chief while looking ahead to those who would succeed him.

He reflected on Measure I sales tax measure, passed in 2018, which he said gave Pasadena the funding to renovate and rebuild multiple fire stations, calling it an admirable achievement. He also celebrated the creation and growth of the Pasadena Outreach Response Team, which assists homeless individuals with housing, medical care and other services. He was integral for both projects, city officials later said.

“I wish each and every one of you well in your career and at home,” Washington wrote. “The people of Pasadena support you tremendously, and they deserve only the best that any fire department can deliver. In order to deliver the best service possible, you must support one another, encourage each other to be their best and hold one another accountable when anything less materializes.”

Still, the departing chief’s cordial tone didn’t quell critics’ concerns.

“Please understand, this is far from over,” NAACP Pasadena President Allen Edson wrote in a statement to the media, explaining the community would continue to confront city leaders over “unethical decisions being made in our community.”

For three straight City Council meetings, Edson and dozens of other members of Pasadena’s African American community spoke out against Washington’s reassignment. They only stopped showing up when the coronavirus outbreak forced the City Council to stop meeting regularly or in front of large crowds.

“The lack of representation of people of color, specifically African Americans, in leadership positions in the city of Pasadena continues to be an ongoing issue,” Edson wrote.

It was the same point leveled by councilmen Tyron Hampton and John Kennedy, who criticized City Manager Steve Mermell weeks ago for removing the chief. Although the city manager is responsible for hiring and firing decisions, the councilmen threatened the city’s top executive, suggesting he could be replaced for this decision.

A Pasadena spokeswoman said the city wouldn’t respond to Hampton or Kennedy’s allegations, although Mermell has defended his hiring practices, saying the city has more proportional minority representation than the city as a whole.

In interviews on Wednesday, both councilmen were skeptical of the procedures Mermell used to reassign Washington and questioned if the fire chief had been given the due process rights afforded to every city employee facing a potential reassignment or firing.

Both councilmen said Mermell didn’t consult the council or the city’s Public Safety Committee before reassigning Washington to work on the city’s Wireless Emergency Alert program, and both questioned whether the position was legitimate in earlier interviews, despite the city’s repeated insistence to the contrary.

Although Hampton declined to comment on the record about Mermell’s future job prospects, Kennedy said he wanted to see more accountability from Mermell, but not just about this decision. He pledged to hold the city’s top executive responsible for placing more African American men in leadership positions across city government.

“I don’t want to see African American males served up on a platter as scapegoats for other issues,” Kennedy said. If there are ongoing performance issues, Kennedy would support removing that employee. But in Washington’s case, there weren’t any indications and no known record of incompetence or malfeasance, he said.

Neither councilman could say why the chief was removed, but wondered if it was related to an ongoing feud with the firefighter’s union. The conflict came to a head last year when a state judge determined two of Washington’s battalion chiefs illegally interfered with union activities and admonished the chief for not reigning in his direct reports.

Still, Hampton doesn’t blame the union as a whole. He points to the group’s bargaining unit — a select group of union leaders who negotiate with the city about contracts and other departmental issues.

“If they really didn’t care for the chief’s leadership, (union officials) would’ve held a vote of no confidence,” Hampton said in an interview on Wednesday. “They didn’t have the votes for that.”

He continued: “We should not let the tail wag the dog.” 

Under Washington’s five-year tenure in the city, he led the department through a successful accreditation process — a difficult and rare achievement among fire departments nationwide — and oversaw numerous other improvements, according to a statement released by the city on Wednesday.

“Chief Washington has been working with the City Manager’s office for the past month and will continue his work to help ensure a smooth transition,” the statement reads.

It adds Washington and his family plan to stay in Pasadena, where they became full-time residents after Washington took the department’s top post five years ago.


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