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Never underestimate the ability of the lawyers representing Fairfax County to make a bad situation worse. That’s my assessment after reading Justin Jouvenal’s article in The Washington Post about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s finding that a now former firefighter was sexually harassed and retaliated against five years ago.
The incident happened during a very ugly time in the department. In 2016, the suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff brought to light harassment and discrimination complaints along with lawsuits from numerous women firefighters. Every move Fairfax County and Chief Richard Bowers made seemed to compound the problems. It all came crashing down in 2018 when the highest ranking female firefighter publicly resigned her post as women’s program officer. In her letter, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley blasted Bowers and the county saying the department, “often defends, sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment”. A little more than two weeks later Bowers announced his resignation.
So, this latest story of harassment and retaliation is really an old one. The best way for Fairfax County to get this behind them is to acknowledge the sins of the past and talk about efforts that have been made since this former firefighter was harassed and then targeted. For their part, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department Chief John Butler and director of public affairs Tony Castrilli have done just that. But there’s a problem. My guess is it’s the same problem that compounded the missteps of Chief Bowers and helped cause a public relations debacle after a police officer killed a man nine years ago — the Office of the County Attorney.
What people are going to take away from this story is that despite this harassment and retaliation case occurring five years ago, Fairfax County is still fighting against women who complain. According to reporter Jouvenal, “the Fairfax County department has refused the proposed remedy by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).” The remedy is a $150,000 monetary reward along with “improving efforts to target sexual harassment.” Here’s more on this issue from Jouvenal:
When the EEOC finds an employee has been discriminated against, it proposes a remedy, known as a “conciliation agreement,” that gives the employer a voluntary opportunity to address the issue. The employer has the right to accept the agreement, reject it or make a counter proposal.
Gillian L. Thomas, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU who is representing the firefighter, said in her experience it is unusual for an employer to reject a conciliation agreement outright. Thomas said they are usually a starting point in negotiations to reach an arrangement acceptable to both sides.
The department has long indicated it’s improving efforts on the sexual harassment front. So, is it really the $150,000 that has the Office of the County Attorney and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors failing to get this case behind them and move on?
Those in charge in Fairfax County have clear examples of the perils when they focus on the money and hiding liability. That was the plan after John Geer was shot and killed by a police officer in 2013. The Office of the County Attorney, with approval of the Board of Supervisors, tried to hide the truth and failed to admit what fellow officers said immediately — this was a bad shooting. It resulted in three years of very unflattering news coverage as the truth slowly leaked out. It also tarnished the image of the police department so badly a commission to look at police practices was formed (full disclosure: I was a member of that commission). And it still cost Fairfax County almost $3 million in its settlement with the Geer family. In addition, as I wrote a number of times during the two years following Nicole Mittendorff’s 2016 suicide, it was clear the lawyers were again steering the ship.
Somehow Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors never learns. The lawyers are important and you need their advice but you’ll continue to fail if you take what they say as gospel. Smart leaders balance it with common sense and a close eye on the organization’s image and reputation. The supervisors did none of that with this EEOC ruling. The message to women from their handling of the case risks sending the fire department back to the dark times of 2016 to 2018. That’s why Fairfax County should immediately agree to the terms outlined by EEOC and move on. When they look at what’s really on the line here, I hope Chairman Jeff McKay and his fellow supervisors will quickly wake up to the fact that $150,000 is a bargain.