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Cal Fire chief ousted in academy scandal could go back to work + CHP raises

Watch the Cal Fire Unit Chief describe the dangerous recovery of Mariposa firefighter at his service

A celebration of life was held for the Cal Fire bulldozer operator Braden Varney after he died fighting the Ferguson Fire earlier this month.
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A celebration of life was held for the Cal Fire bulldozer operator Braden Varney after he died fighting the Ferguson Fire earlier this month.

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The highest-ranking fire chief punished in the aftermath of a drinking and test-cheating scandal at Cal Fire’s academy in 2014 could get his job back.

A San Francisco Superior Court judge this month ruled that former Cal Fire Assistant Chief Michael Ramirez should get another chance to return to work three years after the department dismissed him.

Judge Harold Kahn wrote that he initially wanted to go further and order Cal Fire to bring Ramirez back on duty, but Cal Fire attorneys persuaded Kahn that he did not have that authority.

Still, Kahn wrote a strongly worded ruling contending that Cal Fire overreached in dismissing Ramirez.

“I remain extremely troubled by what appears to me to be serious disproportionality in dismissing a longtime employee who had not been previously disciplined based on what appears to me an unconnected series of relatively minor infractions,” Kahn wrote on July 12.

Ramirez was the highest-ranking of 15 people disciplined for a range of misconduct that included alcohol abuse and cheating at the Cal Fire Academy in Ione after one of its former instructors, Orville “Moe” Fleming, killed his mistress. Fleming was convicted of second-degree murder in 2015.

Ramirez was Fleming’s supervisor, and Cal Fire focused part of its investigation on him. In dismissing him, the department accused Ramirez of looking the other way when Fleming spanked a female firefighter, ignoring a conversation between Fleming and a female firefighter about genital piercings, viewing inappropriate photos on Fleming’s phone, wasting state resources by making a 400-mile round trip from a fire to visit his wife, leaving a state car at an airport when he traveled to Ethiopia to train firefighters there, being insubordinate and lying to investigators when he was asked about certain conversations with Fleming.

Ramirez countered that the allegations were based on misunderstandings and an academy culture that the department’s top leaders had long tolerated.

Kahn held that the State Personnel Board did not give Ramirez a sufficient opportunity to cross-examine witnesses to the alleged spanking and that Cal Fire was unreasonable in characterizing Ramirez as dishonest when he recalled conversations that happened years before he was interviewed by California Highway Patrol investigators.

Kahn ordered the State Personnel Board to reconsider its decision allowing Cal Fire to dismiss Ramirez. That sets up a new hearing for Ramirez, probably in the next year, his attorneys said.

“It’s a huge win,” said Ramirez’s attorney, Lina Cockrell. “It’s the first time we felt we had a fair chance for the truth to get out there, but this is just the first step in righting a wrong.”

Gary Messing, a senior partner in their firm, added, “It’s very, very infrequent that you see a judge come out and say that punishment is clearly excessive, and he didn’t back off of that.”

Cal Fire declined to comment on the ruling in Ramirez’s case.

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Kahn’s decision came down just as Cal Fire is preparing to defend its decision to punish 43 firefighters who either drank alcohol in their downtime during a seven-week academy last fall or did not report on peers who consumed alcohol.

A group of them is expected to appear before an administrative judges next month to argue that they should be reinstated to their jobs, Cal Fire union officials say.

CHP raises

California Highway Patrol officers have a clause in their contract that many other state workers envy. It requires the state to give them raises to keep their wages on par with four other large police departments in the state.

Their union, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, is in talks with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for its first new contract since 2010.

Here’s a look at the wage increases CHP officers received over the past decade, according to the state Human Resources Department. Aside from a couple of years when officers gained a 6 percent bump, the wage increases were not far off from what other state employees received.

2008-09 — 6 percent

‘09-10 — 2 percent

‘10-11 — 2 percent

‘11-12 — 0 percent

‘12-13 — 0 percent, with furloughs that equated to a 4.62 percent pay cut

‘13-14 — 4 percent

‘14-15 — 6 percent

‘15-16 — 0.4 percent

‘16-17 — 4.9 percent

‘17-18 — 2.9 percent

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