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Why the city should release the whistleblower report

Former fire investigator Crystal Eschert speaks with thee children after their apartment caught fire in April 2014. Eschert was fired from the city in September 2014.
Former fire investigator Crystal Eschert speaks with thee children after their apartment caught fire in April 2014. Eschert was fired from the city in September 2014. aoleary@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann is right: A report on the firing of former fire investigator Crystal Eschert is not a public document, because it is part of Eschert’s personnel file. That policy is in place not only to protect Eschert, but all employees from having information inappropriately released to the public.

Hagemann tells the Observer’s Steve Harrison, however, that the City Council can vote to release the report, which is the product of an investigation into whether the Fire Department retaliated against Eschert last year for raising safety issues about a building the city was renovating on North Graham Street.

Eschert was fired in September. Fire Chief Jon Hannan says the dismissal was for an inappropriate Facebook post in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting. Eschert says she was fired for blowing the whistle on the building renovation, not for violating the city’s social media policy. Ron Carlee, who made the final call on the firing, hired Greensboro attorney Allison Van Laningham in December to examine it all.

Council members could get that report – or at least a summary of the investigation – when they meet tonight. They should vote to make as much of the findings public as possible.

Hagemann says that’s OK, so long as the information is “essential to maintaining public confidence.” It is.

We wrote in a February editorial that Eschert’s firing was the wrong move if it came strictly in response to the Facebook post. That post was inappropriate but not close to abhorrent, and by firing Eschert instead of suspending her, the city set the bar too low for future social media firings.

The result: When deputy chief Jeff Dulin shared an offensive post in February about former Olympian Bruce Jenner transitioning into a woman, suspension wasn’t an option for the city. Dulin, a 32-year department veteran, resigned.

Neither Eschert’s nor Dulin’s posts should have risen to the level of job loss. That’s led people to wonder if something else was in play with the city’s initial call on Eschert. The Van Laningham report could answer some of those suspicions.

“It should be public,” council member Claire Fallon told the Observer last week. Fallon, who received Eschert’s initial complaint about the building renovation, added: “The city is hiding behind the process.”

One caveat: Council members should be careful about what details the report might contain about Eschert’s personnel file. If there are previous issues with Eschert – and we’re not saying there are – the details shouldn’t necessarily become public.

But the council should be transparent about the circumstances surrounding the Facebook post and the whistleblower complaint. The city made an apparent mistake in firing Eschert. The public should know if it was more than an error.

Peter St. Onge

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