There’s a strange story smoldering at Pensacola City Hall after the abrupt — and quite frankly, appalling — way in which two career firefighters were seemingly shown the door last week.
On Tuesday, Pensacola fire chief Matt Schmitt and deputy fire chief Joseph Glover were unceremoniously and mysteriously placed on administrative leave. They were told that an investigation was underway, but not who was conducting it or what was being investigated. Their city phone lines were disconnected and they were scrubbed from the website. They were asked to hand over the keys to the city-owned vehicles in which they arrived, and told to find their own way home.
That’s a completely unacceptable way to treat men with decades-long, distinguished careers in the fire service.
But what’s even worse are city hall’s efforts over the past week to erect a wall of silence about the incident. It’s as if those responsible for the decision — and we still don’t know exactly who that is — sat around a table and agreed to stick to the same few talking points. City officials have repeatedly refused to answer even the most basic questions about what happened. What prompted this investigation? Did Mayor Ashton Hayward make the decision to suspend the fire officials, or was it city administrator Eric Olson? When — if at all — might we expect to see the career firefighters back on the job?
City officials have also worked to stall and delay public record requests related to the incident. On Wednesday, The Pulse requested the letter city officials gave Schmitt and Glover, which laid out the terms of their administrative leave. No one had to search the archives for this letter. It was readily available. Nonetheless, city officials chose to withhold the letter from release for a full day, citing potential (and non-existent) “legal issues.” Now, in response to a request for emails exchanged by city officials in the days leading up to the decision, the city is asking for nearly $400 in fees.
You can’t just suspend the top two officials in the fire department — including the department’s highest-ranking African-American — and not offer anything resembling an explanation. It’s just not done. Without the context that could be provided with some answers from city hall, citizens are left to draw their own conclusions — and what this looks like, on its face, is a smear job. It looks like Schmitt and Glover pissed someone off, and a decision was made to publicly humiliate the men with the specter of an “investigation.” It’s no secret that Glover is disliked by some within the city hall power structure after his unsuccessful workplace discrimination lawsuit several years ago. Now, with the revelation that both Schmitt and Glover recently filed equal employment complaints, it’s easy to see city hall’s actions as retaliatory.
If that’s true, that’s not only unacceptable — it’s reprehensible. Of course, it’s entirely possible that Schmitt and Glover have done something so heinous that they deserve how they’ve been treated. Maybe those facts will come out. But it’s hard to imagine circumstances that would preclude city officials from answering even the most basic questions about the situation. The truth is, something has smelled funny about this story since the day that it broke, and the inexplicable silence and public records pushback coming from city hall serves only to fuel that suspicion.
Perhaps most striking about the entire situation is the absence of leadership from mayor Ashton Hayward. He wasn’t in the room when his top two fire officials were suspended. He has repeatedly refused to answer questions from the press about what happened. Hell, city hall won’t even say if the decision was Hayward’s or Olson’s. As mayor — as a leader — Hayward has a duty to stand up, take responsibility for what’s happened, and answer some questions. And so far, he’s failed.