The State Worker

Budget deal earmarks $4.4 million for Cal Fire investigations unit

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott poses in Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento.
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott poses in Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento. AP

Next year’s state budget will include $4.4 million to set up a new personnel unit inside Cal Fire that will oversee internal investigations and employee discipline, according to details, as well as train managers and personnel staff to avoid future problems.

Scandals that have buffeted Cal Fire for two years prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to propose the Professional Standards Program over objections from the state fire fighters’ union, Cal Fire Local 2881. Union leaders worried it would create an incentive to drum up charges or exaggerate minor infractions to justify the 14 positions attached to the program. They also told lawmakers that it was an overreaction to several high-profile misdeeds at the department’s Ione Academy.

The budget represents a compromise. Late Thursday, the Legislature’s budget-writing panel approved the program for three years and requires annual reporting to lawmakers on its effectiveness. It also allocates no more than three of the positions to sworn peace officers. The rest would be civilian human resources staff and attorneys.

“There were in fact some disagreements among the stakeholders on this item,” Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, told colleagues Thursday, linking the deal to “frank conversations.”

Local 2881 spokesman Terry McHale said in an emailed statement that the terms reflect “the common goals of the Union and the Department to emphasize education and training, and have a viable and recognizable infrastructure in place for responsibly handling discipline.”

Brown proposed the new program in January after a series of Sacramento Bee reports unearthed misdeeds in the department following the 2014 murder of 26-year-old Sarah June Douglas by her boyfriend, Orville “Moe” Fleming, a Cal Fire Academy instructor twice her age.

Related events led to a sweeping $1.74 million investigation that found, among other things, that Cal Fire employees drank on state time, abused state property, consorted with prostitutes, cheated on promotional examinations and sexually harassed women at the academy and at bars. The revelations prompted Cal Fire to fire one academy manager and a former cadet. Two managers resigned and a dozen others were punished. The department has refused to release the investigation records.

Meanwhile, auditors found that the department kept slipshod personnel records and couldn’t explain some hiring and promotion decisions. In Feburary, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott was publicly chastised by the State Personnel Board for failing to show personal commitment to changing the department’s culture and not simply the process.