Politics & Government

Charlotte fire chief was slated to lose his job last year, but City Council saved it

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said in a deposition that he recommended that Fire Chief Jon Hannan (left) be fired because he lied to him. Carlee said the City Council stopped the firing.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said in a deposition that he recommended that Fire Chief Jon Hannan (left) be fired because he lied to him. Carlee said the City Council stopped the firing. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The former city manager wanted to fire Charlotte Fire Department Chief Jon Hannan last year, but the City Council blocked the move, according to a deposition from this week’s whistleblower trial that ended with a $1.5 million verdict against the city.

Ron Carlee wanted to fire Hannan because of the chief’s “lying” to him over leaking part of a personnel file to retaliate against a firefighter union leader, according to his deposition.

The case had similarities to Thursday’s $1.5 million jury verdict against the city and the Fire Department, which was found to have retaliated against a former fire investigator. The jury found the Fire Department retaliated against Crystal Eschert because she went outside the chain of command when she complained about the safety of a new fire department building.

The city is declining to comment on the Eschert verdict. City Attorney Bob Hagemann said “a judgment has not been entered as there are a number of legal rulings that still must be made.”

The city hopes U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney will nullify the verdict or reduce the amount of money awarded.

But the March 2016 episode – in which City Council intervened in Carlee’s recommendation to fire the chief – raises questions about whether the city will undertake any future reforms of the Fire Department.

Last year, Marty Puckett, a leader with the Charlotte Firefighters Association, was livid that part of his personnel file had been leaked to a TV station. Puckett has been a critic of Hannan, the fire chief.

Carlee was also upset.

In his deposition, Carlee said he asked Hannan if he had leaked a memo from his personnel file. Hannan told him no. Carlee then told the chief he was going to ask for a list of people who could possibly have released the memo. Hannan later admitted he released the memo, a violation of state law, according to the deposition.

In his deposition, Carlee said it was a “logical conclusion” that the chief released the memo to retaliate against Puckett. He also said he was upset at Hannan’s “lying” to him and that the episode gave him a “fundamental concern about (his) ability to trust him as chief of the department.”

Carlee said he discussed Hannan’s future with City Council. He said he recommended that Hannan be fired.

He said council opposed the move.

Under Charlotte’s form of government, the city manager can hire and fire officials like the fire chief. But City Council hires the manager, and elected officials can have tremendous influence over personnel decisions.

“There was not a consensus of support among executives in the city, nor the city council, and in the end I think taking that action would have been extraordinarily divisive, would have had adverse consequences on the operations of the fire department and would have been very divisive with the functioning of city council,” Carlee said in his deposition.

Carlee did not testify at the trial. But his testimony about wanting to remove the chief was read to jurors.

Hannan, who was placed on three-month probation for the leak, said in an interview Friday he would wait until after the Eschert case is finally closed before talking.

“I'm not ready to comment until (the case) is final,” Hannan said Friday. “I don't know where it will go. We have been through this before with other things, you have to wait on the final part of it.”

In his deposition, Carlee said Hannan’s two main allies on City Council were Patsy Kinsey and Michael Barnes. Barnes is no longer a council member.

He said Claire Fallon and John Autry were the chief’s biggest opponents. Autry is now a member of the N.C. House.

After the verdict, Fallon criticized the city on her Facebook page for how it handled the Eschert case.

“She was fired, because she wasn’t part of the corruption that she uncovered,” Fallon wrote. “I warned the council and former City Manager about this.”

Council member Julie Eiselt, who chairs the public safety committee, said Friday she doesn’t want to comment on the case, in part because it pre-dates her election to council in 2015. Eschert was fired in 2014.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts recently met with City Manager Marcus Jones about another Fire Department-related matter – an anonymous complaint that the department hinders the advancement and promotion of women and minorities.

Roberts called the allegations “deeply troubling.” She told the Observer that Jones has said he will investigate the claims.

In the Eschert case, the city argued that Eschert wasn’t fired for complaining about the safety of the Fire Department office building on North Graham Street. The city said it was because she made what it described as an offensive Facebook post.

On Aug. 20, 2014, about 10 days after the shooting of Michael Brown set off riots in Ferguson, Mo., Eschert wrote this post on her Facebook page, which was restricted to her Facebook friends:

“White guy shot by police yesterday near Ferguson … Where is Obama? Where is Holder? Where is Al Sharpton? Where are Trayvon Martin’s parents? Where are all the white guys supporters? So is everyone MAKING it a racial issue? So tired 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.”

Much of the trial focused on free speech and political correctness. One juror, who asked not to be identified for privacy reasons, said Eschert had a right to speak her mind.

“After reading the post in its entirety, she was expressing the frustrations people had with what was going on in the country. She has a right to do so. I don’t agree with it, but she has a right to do so,” the juror said.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs