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Yesterday, I asked if — in the middle of the #MeToo and #TimesUp era — a fire chief can survive a laundry list of complaints about his leadership from the woman he picked to deal with the department’s sexual harassment/discrimination issues. Before the day was out, we learned the answer to that question is “Yes.”
How Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department Chief Richard Bowers deals with sexual harassment and discrimination allegations has been a somewhat regular topic in the news ever since the April, 2016 suicide of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. Chief Bowers has long provided assurance that everything is under control with a regular reminder of the department’s “zero tolerance” policy. This week, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley, wrote in her letter of resignation as the department’s Women’s Program Officer, “… ‘zero tolerance’ is a hollow term thrown about with false commitment.”
Stanley went on to list a batch of new complaints from women in the department that had not previously been public knowledge. That list ended with this claim:
… the current fire department environment is such that a male Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Employee felt comfortable enough to purchase a penis shape water bottle and use it in the station.
Based on all of the complaints from female firefighters in recent years and the many unanswered questions since Mittendorff’s death you’d think Fairfax County’s goal now is to finally get this problem under control. The suggestion I had in 2016 and again yesterday is to deal with this fairly and openly by ordering an outside, independent investigation that looks at the serious charges from Chief Stanley and others.
Fairfax County leaders have always shied away from outside scrutiny and accountability making such an investigation unlikely. At the same time, the one thing I figured those in charge absolutely wouldn’t want to do in today’s environment is be automatically dismissive of the female battalion chief’s complaints in favor of the male fire chief. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Here’s what Sharon Bulova, the Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors told WUSA9.com’s Peggy Fox yesterday:
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova said she believes allegations in the letter are not a correct representation of all the work that is going on. She says, “we have a fantastic fire department and members have been working very hard to bring changes.” Bulova said she had not spoken with Kathleen Stanley about the allegations, but did speak with Chief Bowers, going over every one of Stanley’s allegations.
And here is what Bulova said to WTOP Radio’s Neal Augenstein:
“Chief Bowers is taking this very, very seriously, as is our Deputy County Executive for Public Safety Dave Rohrer,” said Bulova. “They are committed, as is the Board of Supervisors, that recommendations from the assessments we commissioned will be followed.”
There’s not even an attempt to say something like, “We take Chief Stanley’s comments seriously and will investigate them fully.” Chairman Bulova makes it quite clear what she thinks of the allegations from the woman whose job it was to help change the culture in the Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department.
Blanket statements of “zero tolerance” and claims “Chief Bowers is taking this very, very seriously” mean little without transparency and accountability. Nothing Sharon Bulova or anyone else has said gives this Fairfax County resident confidence the word of Chief Bowers is any better than the word of the woman he picked to address these important issues.
If you want to convince us you are doing a good job and are making improvements start by telling us how each of the lawsuits that made news in 2016 were handled. Tell us how many complaints were confirmed by investigators and what actions were taken. Tell us which ones you believe weren’t valid and why. Then move on to Chief Stanley’s list and explain in detail what is and isn’t accurate.
Without those details, you are telling us to just believe the man in charge because you say so and we should ignore that pesky woman making a nuisance of herself. That’s a pretty brave move in 2018. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.
Nicole Mittendorff’s husband wants Bowers to go
Reporters Peggy Fox and Neal Augenstein both focused their reporting on Nicole Mittendorff’s husband Steve who posted on the STATter911.com Facebook page yesterday that it was time for a change at the top of the Fairfax County Fire Rescue Department. Below are excerpts from their stories.
He sent WUSA9 this letter with more details:
I am deeply saddened to learn of the most recent allegations that have been detailed in Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley’s resignation letter from her position as the Women’s Program Officer.
Shortly after the suicide of my wife Nicole, a promise was made to me by the Department that every effort to educate and re-shape the culture of this male dominated profession would be met; ultimately, to provide every female or male a safe place to work free of harassment by others and one that is open to progressive change.
Not having personal knowledge of BC Stanley and her circumstances, nor access to the report that was most recently shared with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, I cannot comment on those items specifically; however, it is apparent that the Department has a lot more work to accomplish on this topic and it will be done under the microscope of public opinion.
I firmly believe the time has come for Deputy County Executive David M. Roher and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to re-evaluate the executive leadership of the Department and to ask for the immediate resignation of Chief Richard Bowers and his Assistant Chiefs by seeking new leadership for this plagued Department.
The Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department has so much to offer and I hope that one day the media headlines will again praise the Department for the wonderful things it does and not its internal disparities we have all come to know.
I continue to have faith, high praise, and support for the women and men of this agency but I do believe it is time for a significant leadership change.
– Steven R. Mittendorff
WTOP contacted Bowers, who declined to comment on Mittendorff’s call for his resignation.
“I don’t have to, or don’t want to respond to anything he’s said,” Bowers said, by phone. “He doesn’t work for me, and he doesn’t work for the county.”
“I’m working to continue to make the department even better,” Bowers said. “We have people who follow the rules, and anybody who does not do the right thing will have to answer.”