What the Eschert report tells us

The Observer editorial board

City Manager Ron Carlee and Fire Chief Jon Hannan speak at a press conference Tuesday.
City Manager Ron Carlee and Fire Chief Jon Hannan speak at a press conference Tuesday. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

An independent investigation into the firing of Charlotte Fire Department investigator Crystal Eschert left a lot of room for told-you-so’s this week.

On one side, Fire Chief Jon Hannan and City Manager Ron Carlee can say that Greensboro attorney Allison Van Laningham found “no direct evidence” Eschert was fired last year for any reason other than inflammatory Facebook posts in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting.

Eschert, however, can point to Van Laningham noting more than once that there’s enough smoke surrounding the firing to suspect that it’s related to Eschert’s complaints about the safety of a Fire Department building on Graham Street.

All of which is true, and all of which means that if you hoped Van Laningham would provide the final word on Eschert’s firing, you probably were disappointed.

But what can the report tell Charlotte about its city officials and fire department?

First, Van Laningham indicates that Carlee and city officials seemed to genuinely believe Eschert deserved significant punishment over the Facebook posts, something Carlee reiterated to the editorial board Wednesday.

Although Carlee initially put a halt to Hannan’s investigation, the city and fire department held several meetings internally and with concerned community members about the issue, Van Laningham found. In fact, the city’s thoroughness might have worked against Eschert. By having so many city officials in on the discussions about her case, there was apparently no one left who could review the final decision with an untainted perspective, Van Laningham says.

Carlee said Wednesday that he plans to review the grievance process in light of that observation.

It’s important to note that Carlee has not acted like an administrator who wants to hide from a decision. He made the call to hire Van Laningham, and he and city attorney Bob Hagemann made no efforts to influence her investigation, she says.

Van Laningham was troubled, however, by what she learned about the fire department.

Her interviews revealed an alarming culture of mistrust in which the rank-and-file believed that their bosses would retaliate against anyone who wronged them. Van Laningham also thought the timing of Eschert’s firing and her complaints about the fire department building to be “very odd.” She seemed to catch Hannan in a bit of a fib about whether he even knew who Eschert was. Finally, she noted that other iffy social media posts by fire department personnel had resulted in “much less discipline.”

The result, after many hours of investigation, is a convoluted conclusion. People could “reasonably believe” that Eschert was fired as retaliation for raising safety concerns, Van Laningham says. But: Better evidence leads “to the opposite conclusion.” But: That’s only the evidence “available to us,” she says.

There’s at least one question Van Laningham decided not to pursue: Was Eschert’s firing justified?

We’ve said in this space that while Eschert’s posts were offensive, they merited a suspension, along with sensitivity training and a public apology. Firing Eschert set a disturbingly low bar for future social media mistakes, something the city and fire department learned this year when 25-year-veteran Jeff Dulin resigned after sharing a Facebook post on Bruce Jenner.

Equally as troubling are Van Laningham’s revelations about the fire department’s atmosphere of distrust. Carlee expressed confidence Wednesday in Hannan’s promise to develop a plan to improve the department, despite the problems that simmered under Hannan’s watch.

Carlee, who has assigned assistant city manager Ron Kimble to help, says he expects “a very specific plan, with very specific objectives.” That’s good. The public has reason to wonder if fire department personnel are afraid of pointing out potential safety issues. The city needs to be just as thorough in protecting all of its employees as it was in firing one of them.