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New NCCFD Board Chair Knox Sets District on Road to Recovery with Frank Apology and Plan of Action

Grueneberg votes against his own resignation, after submitting it last Friday

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By: YubaNet

NEVADA CITY, Calif. March 22, 2013 - Last night's board meeting brought changes to Nevada County Consolidated Fire District (NCCFD) with the resignation of Keith Grueneberg from the chair position and Warren Knox' election to be the new chair.

Prior to the vote on the resignation, Local 3800 representative Wyatt Howell stated he was delivering a vote of confidence from the labor union to Grueneberg and urged the board not to accept his resignation. Howell said the labor union's vote was a supermajority (not unanimous) in favor of the outgoing chair. Board members Carrington and Habblett also voiced their displeasure at the resignation.

Linda Chaplin, a district resident, supported the resignation and urged the board to accept it and move forward with hiring a new chief. "I want a new Chief, I want a new Chairman. There has been a bunch of intimidation, including for me. I don't want to come and be afraid to speak out...What has been going on this past year has been horrible."

The board voted to accept the resignation by a 4-3 vote with Knox, Hanson, Bass and Rhodes voting Yes. Grueneberg, Carrington and Habblett voted No.

Warren Knox was elected chair by a 5-member Yes vote, with Grueneberg and Carrington abstaining. Rhodes was elected unanimously as vice chair.

Knox Statement on "Ebonics" Email and Proposed Action

Chair Knox next turned to an agenda item titled "Discussion and possible action regarding sensitivity training for all employees." This stemmed from media reports about an email circulated by board members and the labor union representative with the subject line "Hooked on Ebonics?". The email, containing a link to a video with racial overtones, was sent by Grueneberg to Howell, in the midst of labor negotiations with a note reading "Hey Wyatt, you need to watch this, it is like talking with our administration!!!" When asked why he sent the email, Grueneberg told YubaNet that Howell needed cheering up and stated he didn't think the email was offensive. The email had been widely circulated throughout the district - a district that employs an African-American.

Knox read the statement below into the record:

I would first like to personally apologize to the employees, Board of Directors, and the constituents of NCCFD for not previously addressing the email incident that has recently filled the press. I believe that this incident has taken a significant toll on the employees of the District and resulted in a great deal of internal discussion, emotion and frustration for many people. I am personally very sorry that this happened and that, as should have been expected, it has had a very negative impact on the District and it reputation.

As a member of the Board, I would like to speak to two important issues arising from this incident, and make recommendations as to how we should address this issue.

What I would like to address is the sharing of this video and the attached negative statement within the District via the District's internal email system with other employees of the District. From my perspective this incident, this email is a problem for two reasons:

1) First, the Discrimination and Harassment Policies of the District specifically define harassment as (and I am quoting):

"including disparaging terms, derogatory letters, notes, recording and other written materials that are stereotyping, degrading or insulting based on race, color, religion, age, national origin, ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender, marital status or disability status.

"Visual examples include leering, gestures, or displays of objects or pictures, cartoons, or posters motivated by the race, color, religion, age, national origin, ethnic group, sexual orientation, gender, marital status or disability of the victim."

2) Second, the Electronic Communication Systems policy for the District clearly states:

" that all electronic communications systems and all information transmitted by, received from, or stored in these systems are the property of NCCFD. Further, these systems are to be used for District related purposes and only incidental personal use. No employee may expect the right to privacy in connection with the use of this equipment or with the transmission, receipt, or storage of information in this equipment."

The video in question, by itself has the potential for being perceived as derogatory due to its racial and disparaging slant, and the suggestion that the video is just satire is no excuse for ignoring its potential impact on others. In addition, the added comments targeting a specific group of individuals within our organization can, without question, be perceived as disparaging and offensive. Finally, the racial overtones to this video have specific potential to offend individuals throughout the District.

I believe that the distribution of this email inside of the District is a significant and unacceptable violation of both the Discrimination and Harassment Policy and the District's Electronic Communication Systems policy; and it needs to be addressed as such.

In addition, I think that this email has severely impacted how the District is viewed by our community. The cavalier way this incident has been addressed by District officials, indicating that it "was no big deal" is, to me, totally unacceptable. The residents of this District need to be assured that the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District will continue to provide each and every one of them with the very best emergency services, regardless of their physical, social, religious, or racial status. They may well have doubts about Consolidated if they perceive that we cannot even deliver a workplace free from discrimination or harassment. This Board must demonstrate to the community that we deserve their trust in this matter.

I would strongly request that this Board require all District personnel to attend a "sensitivity training" workshop provided by an external contractor to direct additional attention to this issue, and that this training also include a complete review of the District's Discrimination and Harassment Policy and its Electronic Communication Policy. I would also like senior management of the District to review the actions of individual employees to determine if disciplinary action is warranted.

After some discussion, the board agreed to look into purchasing a program for training all employees and board members.

Other Business

With the district's legal counsel Jim Curtis attending the meeting, several items were pulled from the agenda for not being properly agendized. This irked some members of the public and firefighters attending the meeting.

Howell, who expected to be heard about an incident that happened 5 years ago, pointed to the hardship his family had allegedly gone through. District Counsel Curtis advised the board to pull the item and avoid stepping on the toes of the workmen's comp insurance. Howell's wife was visibly irate, saying they needed to be heard. Curtis reiterated his advice and the board decided to have directors Bass and Grueneberg meet with Curtis for further consultation.

An agreement with the Fire Safe Council to have Americorps members stay at Station 87 in exchange for brush clearing work on district property needs more wordsmithing and will be reviewed by Curtis.

An agenda item billed as discussion and possible action regarding NCCFD Web site links, brought by Grueneberg, was also pulled at the advice of legal counsel. The supporting document (page 37 of the packet) only dealt with Grueneberg's wish to remove a link to YubaNet from the district's website. The board will reconsider all aspects of the website at a later date.

Also pulled was another Grueneberg item regarding a check to HSA Bank. No supporting documentation was provided and again legal counsel recommended adhering to the open meeting law. Grueneberg said placing the item on the agenda was his error.

Board members approved creating a joint testing process with Grass Valley Fire to create and maintain an eligibility list for firefighter positions. The joint venture will keep costs down for both districts and further streamline cooperation.

Battalion Chief Funk reported that NCCFD had responded to 406 calls for service in the past month. Of note were a structure fire, two vegetation fires, assistance with a breach delivery and a HazMat threat that turned out to be a "healing pyramid," complete with Tesla coil, humming away in a foreclosed home.

 

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