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Cal Fire director told his department needs change at the top

Video: State board member tells chief that 'change of tone at the top' needed at Cal Fire

State Personnel Board Vice President Lauri Shanahan tells Cal Fire's embattled chief that changing policy and adding paper to control hiring and promotions is not enough to correct department culture.
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State Personnel Board Vice President Lauri Shanahan tells Cal Fire's embattled chief that changing policy and adding paper to control hiring and promotions is not enough to correct department culture.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott came to Thursday’s State Personnel Board meeting to report reforms in his department’s slipshod hiring and promotion practices.

He left with a stern challenge to transform his leadership.

“There needs to be, in my opinion, a real tone at the top change,” board Vice President Lauri Shanahan said.

Her critical comments came at the end of Pimlott’s presentation on how the department is fixing dysfunction uncovered in a probe of two academy fire captains who were demoted last year – and then regained their lost rank and new jobs within a month.

After The Sacramento Bee broke the promotion story – one of a series of reports that revealed Cal Fire Academy employees drank on duty, misused state time, stored and shared inappropriate photos on state cellphones and, in one instance, used state property to hook up with prostitutes – the Personnel Board launched an investigation.

In December it released a report that found Cal Fire gave “inconsistent and contradictory information” how the promotions occurred and couldn’t explain why the two demoted firefighters were better suited for new jobs than anyone else.

Cal Fire’s personnel records were so shoddy, investigators said, that officials couldn’t even say how many applications it received for the two posts or how many people were interviewed.

Armed for Thursday’s hearing with a one-inch-thick personnel folder to illustrate Cal Fire’s renewed commitment to being thorough, Pimlott said the department has started fixing the problems.

Hiring decisions formerly left to managers in the field are now reviewed by a team in Sacramento. Since September the new unit has checked 3,000 applications and canceled 14 job offers because the selection process wasn’t followed, Pimlott said, tapping the folder.

The department also is retraining hiring managers, has issued a new hiring and retention guide and anticipates launching a new $4.4 million program to further train staff, investigate personnel violations and prevent abuses.

“We want to give managers the tools to ensure we’re preventing inappropriate hires,” Pimlott said.

Shanahan, however, was not impressed.

Reforming Cal Fire, she said, “is more than checking boxes. It is more than doing forms. Your house blew down because your foundation wasn’t strong.”

Firefighters are doing “great work,” she said, but “there are individuals in the organization who are embarrassed” by what happened.

She advised Pimlott to think about the tone he sets and to convey a personal commitment to changing the culture and not simply the process.

“I hope you agree with that,” Shanahan said, “and can just think through what that looks like in the department.”

Pimlott: “I agree wholeheartedly.”

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