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What should a jurisdiction, a fire department and a union do when the American Civil Liberties Union drops a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit on all three of them on the eve of the I-Women Conference they’re hosting? To me, that answer is easy: Finally show the leadership on this issue you failed to show for the last two years.
As I pointed out last (Wednesday) night, Fairfax County earned this lawsuit starting (at least) with its reaction to the April, 2016 suicide death of Firefighter Nicole Mittendorff and almost every move since then. The blind support Fairfax County leadership and even the union gave to a fire chief and an administration accused of not reacting properly to sexual harassment and discrimination claims was stunning. At each key moment, Chairman Sharon Bulova and the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chose the route that allowed them to avoid transparency. They owed it to the accusers and the accused to make it clear what did occur and what didn’t occur. The only way to do that was ordering an outside, independent investigation, something I’ve been urging since Mittendorff’s death. It’s also the only way out of this mess now.
Fairfax County, like many jurisdictions, has a habit of relying almost solely on the advice of its lawyers when facing things like sexual discrimination claims. They forget they may be losing a lot more than money by focusing solely on the legal exposure and the dollars they may be shelling out. In this case, the leadership has greatly harmed the reputation of Fairfax County and a world-renowned fire and rescue department.
Fairfax County has a habit of being this short-sighted. All you have to is look at the debacle Bulova and the BOS created after the police involved shooting death of John Geer. The attempted cover-up to keep details from the public, the family and even local and federal prosecutors all came about by trusting in the Office of the County Attorney. You would hope they would learn from such a mess. Unfortunately, they haven’t.
With the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services meeting over the next few days in Fairfax County, I tweeted to Sharon Bulova a plan of action that should begin today with a speech to those attending the conference. They’ve ignored me on this topic for more than two-years so I don’t expect them to start listening now. But as a long-time Fairfax County resident I thought I would try this one more time. Here’s what I tweeted:
Hello @SharonBulova and the @fairfaxcounty Board of Supervisors. You earned this lawsuit. You earned it with your hard work, doing everything you could to avoid doing the right thing. The right thing, of course, was an outside, independent investigation.
You may recall, I sent you that idea in 2016 and again each time a new news story tarnished Fairfax County. When you continually fail to do the right thing, little problems become big ones. Your leadership since Nicole Mittendorff’s death has been an embarrassment. You still operate under the J. Hamilton Lambert model of “What you don’t know won’t hurt me.”
It’s 2018. Wake up. Finally do what is right and order a top to bottom, independent investigation. @SharonBulova, finally show some leadership by marching into that conference tomorrow and telling all gathered, “We were wrong. We were wrong in not providing transparency and openness. We were wrong in letting a fire chief investigate himself for two years. We were wrong in letting a deputy county executive investigate a direct report who was being accused. We are going to do the right thing now and put this out in the open as clearly and plainly as possible. We owe that to our firefighters, paramedics, civilian staff and the public we serve. We owe that to the fire service. We owe that to all of you who have gathered in our county who have faced these issues in your own departments. We were wrong and now we need to set the example of how to do this the right way.”
Okay @SharonBulova, I wrote your speech. Now go deliver it and follow it with the actions you should have taken two years ago.
As I have said from the first day of this sad saga, I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong in any of the many claims that have been made. The only thing I’m certain about is those in charge are clearly wrong for they way they’ve handled this mess. It’s well past time for Sharon Bulova and the Board of Supervisors to realize that in addition to being good steward’s of the public’s money they are responsible for the image and reputation of the place some of us call home.