The State Worker

Cal Fire’s oaths not always followed

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott Sacramento Bee file

There are 115 words in the oath taken by California’s state firefighters, including these:

“It is my duty ... to be honest in thought and deed in both my personal and professional life. I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department.”

Now an unusual provision in discipline settlements reached between the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and two firefighters suggests a degree of mistrust between Cal Fire leaders and hiring managers, oath aside.

One of the men, Bryant Camarena, allegedly shared sexually explicit photos on his state cellphone, drank on state time, allowed subordinates to do the same and failed to report the misuse of a state van to take drunken cadets from a bar back to the academy, according to public disciplinary records obtained by The Sacramento Bee.

Investigators also alleged Daniel Valenzuela drank on duty, failed to enforce the department’s on-the-job drinking ban with cadets, and used his state cellphone for pornography and to share a sex-club link, according to the documents.

Camarena lost two ranks, going from battalion chief to fire apparatus engineer. Valenzuela was demoted from fire captain to apparatus engineer. Neither demotion had a minimum time attached to it. Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott’s former deputy signed off on both actions that involved two of 15 employees fired, suspended or demoted for misbehavior that included one academy manager who used a state phone and vehicle to meet prostitutes.

Then The Bee reported that two other demoted firefighters snared in the Ione scandal, Justin Chaplin and Frank Schonig, had been promoted back up to their former ranks within weeks of being demoted. In fact, the terms of their demotions specifically allowed what happened.

Embarrassed, Pimlott has made moves to revoke those promotions. The firefighters’ union is fighting the new demotions as double jeopardy, and union president Mike Lopez publicly questioned Pimlott’s leadership.

Meanwhile, Camarena and Valenzuela both appealed their punishments. Cal Fire settled with them last month. The terms: The demotions hold for two years, after which both can promote to fire captain and neither man may even look for a promotion during that time.

Another embarrassing boomerang averted, right?

But here’s the odd line both settlements share: “If the Appellant accepts a promotion with (Cal Fire) during this two-year period, the department shall have the right to void the promotion and the Appellant hereby waives his right to appeal.”

Isn’t that stating the obvious? Would punished employees or hiring managers really ignore the discipline terms?

Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said the line was added “to ensure our intent is abundantly clear and to protect from any potential circumvention of the process.”

It’s Pimlott’s way of asserting control, a push back against the union – and an admission that an oath, it seems, is not enough.

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