Too many questions at the fire department

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan is facing questions about his leadership of the department.
Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan is facing questions about his leadership of the department. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

What is going on at the Charlotte Fire Department? Is Chief Jon Hannan an asset at the helm, or a liability?

The fact that Charlotte taxpayers don’t know the answers to those questions says a lot about the uncertainty shrouding one of Charlotte’s most essential public agencies.

For at least a year, questions have swirled about the management of the department. They arose perhaps most prominently around the case of Crystal Eschert, a fire investigator fired in 2014. City Manager Ron Carlee said she made an improper Facebook post. Eschert said she’d been fired in retaliation for complaining about the safety of a fire department building.

News of her firing surfaced shortly after another employee, Tom Brewer, head of Charlotte Firefighters Association Local 660, had accused Hannan of spreading rumors against him and his family. Brewer said the association had disagreed with the department’s position on physical exams for firefighters.

And now the latest reality-TV-style twist: Marty Puckett, the vice president of Local 660, says someone leaked to the media a memo reprimanding him for doing unpaid intern work for City Council member Claire Fallon, an outspoken Hannan critic.

Some believe Hannan leaked it. Hannan, in an interview with a TV station Monday, denied doing so. City Council discussed his future in a heated closed session Monday, and Hannan remains chief.

The council was well within its legal rights to debate the issue behind closed doors. Even so, that leaves our two big questions unanswered. What is going on over at the fire department? Is Hannan an asset or not?

One management report concluded in the wake of the Eschert firing that the department was a “well-run, progressive” organization with “first-rate” firefighting and rescue operations.

However, the report also said the agency’s management systems could stand improvement. Among other things, the report called for better employee evaluation and performance improvement systems, as well as a professional standards unit to investigate complaints.

Another report by an outside lawyer noted that, while there was no direct evidence that Eschert had been fired in retaliation for complaining about building safety, there were nevertheless “significant issues of distrust within the Fire Department and an atmosphere that is widely believed to include targeting and unfair discipline.”

If true, that’s hardly a healthy atmosphere for the department’s 1,100-plus full-time employees. Assistant City Manager Ron Kimble told the editorial board this week that city staffers are following up on the management report’s recommendations, and expect to finish that work in the next 30 to 45 days.

With Carlee on his way out, the council needs to take a stand. Either back Hannan strongly and publicly, or have Carlee – or his successor – bring in a chief who merits it.