The State Worker

A tale of two California state leaders

Cal Fire’s academy has been hit with scandals involving drinking, cheating and other workplace problems.
Cal Fire’s academy has been hit with scandals involving drinking, cheating and other workplace problems. The Associated Press

It’s been a tough year for Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott and CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow.

Pimlott’s headache started with the May 1 murder of Sarah June Douglas in a south Sacramento house and the arrest of former Cal Fire Academy instructor Orville Fleming in her slaying. He has pleaded not guilty.

On top of that, Fleming’s estranged wife alleged her husband was in a sex tape shot at Cal Fire’s Ione academy. The department asked the CHP to investigate. No video turned up, but the probe unearthed evidence of drinking on the job, porn in the workplace, cheating for promotions and more.

Cal Fire didn’t mess around. It fired two employees and disciplined 13 others in January. Seven of the Cal Fire 15 are appealing the actions taken against them.

Farrow’s migraine started July 1 when a white CHP officer beat a mentally confused African American woman beside a Southern California freeway. Video of the incident went viral. The woman sued.

The commissioner went on a media and ethnic-leadership PR offensive. He met for over an hour with The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board. He answered questions, called for more training and promised a speedy resolution to the case.

The CHP didn’t mess around. It quickly settled a $1.5 million lawsuit. Officer Daniel Andrew quit.

Farrow earned kudos from the press and ethnic community leaders just as the deaths of black males in Missouri, New York and Ohio sparked nationwide protests. In November, photos of a CHP undercover officer pulling his gun on protesters went viral and fueled the debate about police power and its abuse. The CHP determined the show of deadly force was justified. The matter ended with little objection.

Pimlott has said comparatively little about Ione aside from news releases and a prepared statement to the Legislature last month. His media people have said they want to arrange an interview, but Pimlott has been too busy. So far, they have been unwilling to allow a tour of the academy, which is paid for with tax dollars.

Jacqueline Irwin, assistant professor of communication studies at Sacramento State, said the two crises aren’t exactly the same. The public’s expectation of government accountability, however, is universal.

Farrow, she said, “did a really nice job” of conveying transparency and recognizing the “larger issues” of race, mental illness and police authority.

And Pimlott? “That may not be the best example” of accountability, Irwin said, noting that the courts, the press and the public routinely challenge police. But Cal Fire, she said, doesn’t get that level of skeptical review.

“Nobody stands in front of their burning house and tells a firefighter, ‘You’re not coming in without a warrant,’” Irwin said. “They’re the good guys.”

So it may be that Pimlott is hobbled by inexperience. Irwin’s advice: “Take a lesson from CHP.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. Sign up for State Worker email alerts at www.sacbee.com/site-services/newsletters.

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