In an interview aired Tuesday on NewsRadio 1620, Pensacola city administrator Eric Olson confirmed that the recent decision to suspend two top fire officials was made in response to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaints which the men had filed.
Olson said the decision to place fire chief Matt Schmitt and deputy chief Joseph Glover had been recommended by the city’s employment attorney, Robert Larkin of Tallahassee-based Allen Norton Blue. “When [Larkin] was notified, he then advised me that we should put the two individuals on administrative leave and that we should retain an outside counsel to conduct an investigation,” Olson said.
Olson said the move wasn’t disciplinary or punitive, comparing the situation to how police officers are placed on administrative leave after an officer-involved shooting. “We have, in a way, a similar situation here, where on the advice of counsel, just to preserve the integrity of the investigation, they were placed on administrative leave,” said Olson.
Asked whether it was standard practice to suspend employees who filed EEOC complaints, Olson said he didn’t know what had been done in the past. “I know that, broadly, this is an option that is presented to the city, but I can’t cite a specific instance of when we last used it,” he said.
Elsewhere in the interview, Olson also flatly denied that recent changes to the city’s human resources appeals process are related to the suspension of Schmitt and Glover. The changes, published in the city’s human resources manual, were made last Tuesday, the same day that the two men were placed on administrative leave.
Prior to the change, employee appeals of disciplinary actions were supposed to proceed to a “personnel board,” though such a board had never been established. An election for the board was scheduled to take place in December, but was abruptly canceled the day before it was scheduled to take place after former city councilwoman and blogger Maren DeWeese was nominated as a candidate.
Under the changes made last week, the personnel board was eliminated and Olson was established as the final authority on appeals. Olson called the board a legacy of the city’s disestablished civil service system. “Under the new form of government, the mayor is given ultimate authority, and that’s delegated to the city administrator,” Olson said.
Contrary to Olson’s comments, however, the personnel board was specifically established after — and as a direct result of — the 2013 repeal of the city’s civil service act. “Upon repeal of the Civil Service Act, the City of Pensacola’s human resources office intends to create an Independent Personnel Board,” the bill’s staff analysis read. “Like the current Civil Service Board, this board would handle minimum qualification changes, hear disciplinary appeals from city employees not otherwise protected by collective bargaining contracts, and be provided an attorney.”
Olson also categorically denied that the suspension of Glover — the fire department’s highest-ranking African-American — had anything to do with race. Glover, along with three other African-American firefighters, sued the city in 2005 alleging a hostile work environment in which coworkers “regularly used racial slurs.” A federal judge ruled in favor of the city, a decision which was affirmed on appeal.
Local civil rights activist Ellison Bennett has called for citizens to attend the meeting of Pensacola’s city council on Thursday to speak out against Glover’s suspension.