Suspicious firing raises questions

The city of Charlotte sent a clear message with the firing of Crystal Eschert: Don’t blow the whistle.

Eschert, an investigator with the Charlotte Fire Department since 2010, raised concerns in August about safety at a new CFD building on North Graham Street. That sparked embarrassing attention for the department from a prominent City Council member. Eschert was fired weeks later, a move sure to make other city employees think twice before going around their bosses with questions.

The Observer’s Steve Harrison reports that the city says Eschert was fired not in retaliation but for posting what the city considered to be offensive comments on Facebook. The timing and other facts of the case, though, are suspicious, and Eschert’s Facebook postings weren’t so offensive as to earn her firing in any case.

Eschert contacted City Council member Claire Fallon, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, on Aug. 14, Harrison reported. Fallon toured the fire-department building on Aug. 20 with top city officials. That very day, a Facebook account was created under the name Linda Havery, which is believed to be a fake name. A few days later, “Linda Havery” emailed Fire Chief Jon Hannan and Police Chief Rodney Monroe, complaining about Eschert’s Facebook postings. “They hunted her down,” Fallon says.

Last summer, Eschert wrote on Facebook that the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., shouldn’t be a racial issue. “So tired of hearing it’s a racial thing,” she wrote in part. “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!” She questioned whether the victim would have won so much attention had he been white.

Controversial comments on a sensitive topic, to be sure. But a firing offense? Eschert’s comments were typical of what’s in the public arena these days. And she didn’t violate the Charlotte Fire Department’s explicit social media policy, because she did not identify herself as a Fire Department employee. Rather, this appears to be overreach by an over-sensitive Fire Department leadership.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann does the city no favors by comparing Eschert’s case with one from New York. In that case, a court upheld the firing of a police officer and two firefighters who rode in a parade wearing Afro wigs and blackface with a bucket of fried chicken on the float’s hood – with one of the men re-enacting the killing of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to his death in Texas in 1998. It is undignified to compare controversial comments on Facebook with one of the most horrifying crimes of racial violence of the past 40 years.

Social media has changed our world, and employees need to be aware that what they post can go public and come back to haunt them. In this case, however, it appears Eschert’s thoughts never would have gone beyond her circle of friends had she not then upset the Charlotte Fire Department brass.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer