Politics & Government

Carlee finds fire official’s Facebook post ‘offensive’

Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin, Charlotte Fire Department
Deputy Chief Jeff Dulin, Charlotte Fire Department

Three months after the city of Charlotte said it fired a Fire Department investigator for two “discriminatory” and “inflammatory” Facebook posts, one of the department’s most senior officials posted an image that City Manager Ron Carlee said Friday he found “highly offensive and inappropriate.”

Jeff Dulin, one of four deputy fire chiefs and a 32-year department veteran, shared an image of former Olympian Bruce Jenner that is making the rounds on Facebook and other social media.

The image shows a young Jenner on the cover of a Wheaties cereal box in 1976, the year he won the gold medal in the Summer Olympics decathlon. Next to it is a Photoshopped image of Jenner – believed to be in the midst of transitioning to a woman – as he looks today on a box of Froot Loops cereal.

The word “fruit” has been been used as a derogatory term toward a gay man or someone who is transgender.

The incident follows another Facebook post that officials say led to the high-profile firing of former Fire Department investigator Crystal Eschert. That one came in the wake of a Ferguson, Mo., police shooting, with Eschert questioning whether civil rights leaders and the White House would be as focused on the shooting if the teenaged victim had been white.

Eschert said her firing was retaliation over her complaints about the quality of renovations at a Fire Department building on North Graham Street.

Her’s was the city’s first termination for violating a policy on how social media can be used.

Carlee initially issued a statement Friday about the Dulin post, but later told the Observer that he found the photo offensive. Yet he said the postings by Dulin and Eschert shouldn’t reflect badly on the operation of the Fire Department.

“I know people will immediately draw a parallel to the (Eschert) case that’s been in the media a lot,” he said. “We took several weeks in assessing the context and content of that case before we actually took any action.”

In his statement, Carlee said he is evaluating the content of Dulin’s posting, and “once it is determined if this is a policy violation or not, appropriate action will be taken.”

In a statement, Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney of Charlotte, questioned why a deputy fire chief can publish a post on Facebook “making fun of the transgender community, which is inherently discriminatory,” but her client was fired for a private Facebook post that “asks why people are making an issue about race.”

“Is the difference that Crystal is a female whistleblower on issues of health, safety, fiscal responsibility and legal compliance?” she said.

‘Showed poor judgment’

Dulin didn’t respond to a call or email from the Observer.

He joined the Fire Department in 1983 and was elevated to deputy chief in 2002, according to a biography. In the early 1990s, Dulin helped develop the department’s Swift Water Rescue training program, one of the first in the country. He worked to extend the training throughout the state and became a member of the state’s Emergency Response Team.

Dulin currently oversees training, the communications center, special operations and he presides over the Emergency Management/Homeland Security Division for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. His yearly salary is $126,770.

Paige Dula, a Charlotte resident who transitioned to a woman in 2008, said she’s offended by Dulin’s post, saying that aligning Jenner with Froot Loops is “silly and unfortunate.”

“It’s derogatory to anyone in the LGBT community,” said Dula, founder of Genderlines, a transgender support group. “But to use it to discuss Bruce Jenner’s transition is really unfortunate. He hasn’t come out on record that he’s transitioning. It’s really just salacious conversation.”

She said Dulin showed “poor judgment” sharing the photo on Facebook – but finds it “less egregious” that he was sharing and didn’t create the image.

“Someone who is a public servant should know his actions would be scrutinized by the public,” Dula said.

Claims of retaliation

City Council is currently debating whether to expand its non-discrimination policy to cover gay, lesbian and transgender residents. The issue has become one of the most controversial in years, with some council members receiving hundreds of emails on the issue in one day.

Eschert’s firing came after she complained to city council member Claire Fallon about what she believed were unsafe conditions inside the building on North Graham. Days later, someone emailed Fire Chief Jon Hannan about a Facebook post Eschert made as a response to protests in Ferguson, Mo.

In the post, she wrote: “So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing. If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”

Eschert said she didn’t think that her post was offensive. She said that a “thug” to her is someone who breaks the law and could be a person of any race or ethnicity.

She alleged that Fire Department officials retaliated against her for being a whistleblower.

Carlee defended Eschert’s firing, but hired an investigator to look into her claims of retaliation. He said Eschert’s Facebook post “is in conflict with our responsibility to serve all members of the community.”

Eschert’s post was made on a private Facebook page, visible to only her friends. The Fire Department’s policy is that an employee can’t “simultaneously” identify themselves as a Fire Department employee while making comments that could be seen as offensive.

Eschert did not identify herself as a fire official.

The Dulin post was also only visible to his Facebook friends. It was still posted Thursday morning. On his page, he does identify himself as a Charlotte Fire Department employee.

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