Charlotte fire chief got more mercy than his underlings did

Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan received a reprimand and a 3-month probationary status for leaking a private employee memo.
Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan received a reprimand and a 3-month probationary status for leaking a private employee memo. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

We Americans like the idea of second chances. We love the underdog story, the guy who tries, fails, tries again ‑ and succeeds.

We don’t like it, however, when some folks get more bites at the second-chance apple than the rest of us.

Charlotte Fire Department employees are surely thinking about that in the wake of Fire Chief Jon Hannan’s admission Tuesday that he leaked a memo from an employee’s personnel file to a reporter. Such documents are not public information, and publicly disclosing the information “knowingly, willfully, and with malice” would be a misdemeanor under N.C. law.

Hannan, in a statement Tuesday, said that when he gave the memo to the reporter he “mistakenly understood” the document to be in the public realm already – “through the actions of others.”

Leaks from within government agencies can help whistleblowers expose serious problems the public needs to know about. They can also be used for narrower, less lofty purposes – say, to damage an adversary.

We won’t pretend to know what was really going through the chief’s mind when he handed over the memo. But the fact that it involved a reprimand for Marty Puckett, one of Hannan’s critics in the fire department, certainly leaves one wondering.

Hannan’s “it was a mistake” explanation would seem to steer him clear of misdemeanor territory. He’ll get a reprimand in his personnel file and three months of probationary status, and the city gets to say it has disciplined him for his acknowledged offense.

But this does little, if anything, for employee morale in a department one outside legal consultant described as having “significant issues of distrust … and an atmosphere that is widely believed to include targeting and unfair discipline.”

Other employees have received first-offense firings for violating the city’s social media policy. Fire investigator Crystal Eschert was sacked for a questionable post about rioting in Ferguson, Mo.; deputy chief Jeff Dulin resigned following an impolitic post about Bruce Jenner’s transgender journey to become Caitlyn Jenner.

The city acted too aggressively in those cases. Now, it seems to be applying a less rigorous standard to Hannan. Fire department employees have every right to wonder why.

In his statement, the chief acknowledged his mistake and said he has apologized to Puckett. Hannan thanked City Manager Ron Carlee for “his ongoing support and understanding that people can learn and recover from their mistakes.”

Surely, other fire department workers hope they’ll receive that same brand of empathy going forward.--Eric Frazier