A high-ranking Cal Fire chief whose subordinates called him “psychotic” and “tyrannical” in an investigation last year retained his position despite recommendations from firefighters that he be removed and the report’s conclusion that he was an “unprofessional” leader.
Division Chief John Paul Melendrez is still supervising firefighters at the Owens Valley Conservation Camp, a remote site in Inyo County that trains state prison inmates to fight wildfires. The investigative report commissioned by Cal Fire said it was unclear how often he went to work, and that he created a profanity-filled, “disruptive” environment for his employees.
“The environment is so bad at Owens Valley camp it is beginning to affect people physically,” wrote investigator Michael Davidson, a retired Cal Fire battalion chief.
Davidson in a report obtained by The Sacramento Bee then ticked off the names of three Owens Valley firefighters who told investigators they felt nauseous because of Melendrez’s outbursts.
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Cal Fire ordered the investigation as the department lobbied Gov. Jerry Brown for funding to create a new professional standards office. It was under scrutiny for overlooking warning signs that preceded a battalion chief’s 2014 murder of his prostitute girlfriend and subsequent scandals that revealed misconduct at its academy in Ione.
Today that new standards office is open and developing programs to update personnel policies and train employees on appropriate conduct.
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said “appropriate action was taken 10 months ago,” after the department reviewed its report on Melendrez. She did not specify what actions the department took to address the report, but she said employees at the camp have not reported similar issues since then.
Melendrez did not return calls for comment and, through an assistant, referred questions to the department public information office.
His leadership at the camp he has managed since 2012 could lead to legal action against the department.
Dru Snider, a former captain at the camp who left his assignment because of the harassment he felt and lost his position when he did not return to work, is preparing to sue the department. His lawyer, Bryon Josselyn, filed a claim with the state Department Fair Employment and Housing last month declaring Snider’s intent to sue.
“I want these managers to be held accountable for what they do to their employees,” Snider said.
‘Like a grenade was thrown in the room’
Melendrez, who moved up the ranks at Cal Fire’s Owens Valley Conservation Camp before his promotion to division chief, was the subject of an investigation in early 2016 that looked into complaints that he “verbally attacked” employees and created “an unprofessional work environment.”
Supervisors of his rank are expected to handle a wide range of responsibilities, from emergency management to hiring, budgeting and discipline. They’re also required to ensure that their employees are not subjected to demeaning or discriminatory behavior, according to the Cal Fire investigation.
Firefighters told the investigator that Melendrez:
▪ Greeted new fire captains assigned to his camp by asking them why they were rejected by other units. They interpreted the questioning as Melendrez venting that he received “the bottom of the barrel” among new captains.
▪ Made abrupt changes to vacation policies that confused his employees. The changes were rolled back after union intervention. He also reportedly issued sudden directives that seemed to micromanage employees, such as barring an office worker from sitting in recliners on breaks.
▪ Used profanity when talking with subordinates in a manner that they viewed as hostile. “(Expletive) behavior! (Expletive) unacceptable!” he yelled at one captain. “The profanity could be heard throughout the entire building,” the report says.
▪ Mocked Snider by calling his injured arm a “chicken wing.”
▪ Intimidated his employees to such an extent that they told the investigator they feared retaliation from him.
▪ Made a female captain feel “uncomfortable” when asking her about her relationship. The female captain later reported that she “feared for her job.”
Two Cal Fire captains told the investigator they rarely saw Melendrez at work. When he was in the office, one said, “It’s like a grenade was thrown in the room.”
Three of Melendrez’s employees reported that he made them feel “physically ill.” One said she “is in counseling, takes medication and vomits before coming to work.”
Four said the atmosphere at the camp would not improve without Cal Fire appointing a new chief to lead it.
Melendrez, in an interview with the investigator, acknowledged that he needed to foster better relationships and improve his leadership. He said he sometimes yelled or used profanity “for effect,” considering that language to be a management tool.
He asked for another chance.
“He recognizes that he is failing in areas of management,” the report says. “He wants those areas improved and he wants his employees to be safe and happy when they come to work.”
The investigator reported that Melendrez “had a difficult time” explaining how often he went to work. “When he is not at camp, he is available by phone,” the investigator wrote.
Davidson concluded that Melendrez could be disciplined for unprofessional conduct, citing what Davidson considered to be intemperance and discourteous treatment of employees.
Two discrimination complaints
By the time Cal Fire launched the investigation, two Owens Valley employees – Snider and Capt. Ue Moua – had filed discrimination complaints against Melendrez.
Their complaints were mentioned in the investigation, but they did not directly cause it. Both firefighters told The Sacramento Bee they were frustrated because they believed Cal Fire did not take them seriously. Rather, Melendrez drew scrutiny from his command when he wrote a blunt text message to a subordinate that a higher-ranking fire chief read.
“What are you trying to undermine my division for?” Melendrez wrote to his subordinate, Battalion Chief Justin Fuller.
When Fuller expressed concern about the tone of the text message, Melendrez replied: “Wow, you’re really wound up tight, I guess I can’t joke with you.”
Shane Littlefield, the Cal Fire administrative chief of San Bernardino County, ordered the administrative review of Melendrez’s leadership after seeing those texts, according to the report.
Ten of the 12 firefighters who spoke with Davidson had support in their meetings from their union, Cal Fire Local 2881. Melendrez also had union representation.
The complaints did not reach union President Mike Lopez. He learned about them this week.
“If this person was disciplined, and the behavior has stopped, then I would say the discipline was successful,” Lopez said.
The camp in Bishop is known as a challenging place to work because of its remoteness. Some of its firefighters move there. Others commute for four-day shifts, driving to the camp from their homes in Riverside or San Bernardino counties.
A fresh start
Snider, 37, was looking for a fresh start when he began his assignment at the camp in early 2015. At the time, he was recovering from a shoulder injury that required surgery.
He said he also had struggled with nightmares since he witnessed another firefighter commit suicide in 2011. Snider liked the prospect of working at one of the inmate camps because it meant he probably would not have to work out of a fire station responding to emergencies that might trigger memories of his colleague’s suicide.
His assignment working for Melendrez did not turn out the way he hoped.
According to Davidson’s investigation, Snider felt “belittled” by Melendrez. Snider felt mocked both because of his shoulder injury and because he is gay. He heard rumors that his colleagues imitated him in a feminine manner, according to his discrimination claim.
Snider told the investigator that Melendrez teased him in front of a battalion chief, recalling a day a decade earlier when Melendrez saw Snider cry on the job. Melendrez told Davidson he did not remember making those comments to Snider.
By the end of the year, Snider “experienced a dramatic worsening in his condition due to months of harassment by Melendrez,” Snider’s discrimination claim reads.
He filed an initial complaint against Melendrez on Dec, 29, 2015. Cal Fire closed it on Jan. 8, 2016, writing a letter to Snider to say the department would take corrective measures.
That was the last he heard of his complaint until he was called to be interviewed for Davidson’s investigation in March 2016. In the months since then, Snider did not return to work. He has sought counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and pursued worker’s compensation claims.
“The way I was being treated was unacceptable,” Snider said. Melendrez “is still working up there at camp and I’m not; that’s the thing.”