11/09/08 — Audit slams ex-Goldsboro fire chief

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Audit slams ex-Goldsboro fire chief

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 9, 2008 9:27 AM

Alvin Ward, former Goldsboro fire chief

Goldsboro city officials still refuse to say whether former city fire chief Alvin Ward resigned or was fired on Oct. 29. But on Friday, the City Council released the results of a recent functionality audit of the Goldsboro Fire Department.

In its conclusions, Wilder Consulting found, "substantial problems with how employees are managed ... a significant lack of openness and trust ... (general confusion by employees) about many decisions and practices of the department ... (concerns by employees) about what they believe to be disparate treatment ... (and concerns by employees) about safety issues associated with having to use equipment that needs repairs or replacing, and the absence of sufficient numbers of radios at fire scenes."

The report further concluded that the department's whole operation is at risk, saying: "By any objective measures, there are major employee morale problems. ... Based on numerous comments from employees, these morale problems have resulted in loss of productivity, employee ill-will with each other, and employee turnover.

"In the opinion of the Audit Team, the overall situation in the Fire Department is at a critical stage, and it is imperative steps be taken immediately to improve matters before they get worse."

Citing personnel issues and the need for permission from the City Council, City Manager Joe Huffman, however, would not say if the results of the audit, which were given to the City Council on Oct. 15, were directly related to Ward's departure.

"I had some concerns about the fire department -- and I think that's evident when you look at the audit -- and I decided I needed an objective, third party to come in," Huffman said. "And when I saw the report, I started initiating several different steps. I couldn't ignore this."

The city has also begun addressing other concerns, such as equipment, radios, staffing and morale, he said.

"We've already done a lot. There is not a safety issue. We are answering calls," he said. "The current fire department leadership is addressing these issues. We're going through this with a fine-toothed comb, and we're going to make it right. And I think morale appears to have improved 100 percent in the last week or two."

And, council members added, making the audit public is just one part of that, saying in their motion that they felt the release of the report -- which cost more than $31,000 -- was "essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services and to demonstrate the city's commitment to maintaining the level and quality of city services."

"This board is committed to being as open and transparent as we can be," Mayor Al King said. "The public sector is the public sector, and I've always believed the public has a right to know ... and we have an obligation to let them know.

The report explained the audit was prompted by complaints from fire department personnel -- including the recent controversy over the assistant chief promotion process.

And, while the original scope of the audit was focused on the department's promotional, hiring, station and shift assignments, training and disciplinary procedures, it was later expanded to include the fire chief's management style, racism and favoritism, employee morale, status of fire department general orders, adherence to city policies and fire department procedures, employee communications in the department, access by employees to their promotional test results, working relationship and communications with the city manager's office, managing performance, accountability, insufficient staffing, dissolution of special teams, vehicular equipment, other equipment, insufficient numbers of radios, condition of fire stations, furniture in fire stations, uniforms, supplies, departmental training and training facilities, departmental budget and other issues.

In terms of the assistant fire chief promotions, the audit team found that Ward (referred to only as "Chief" with the name redacted in the report) did have the authority to waive specific sections of the promotional process "due to unusual and special circumstances," but that he never explained what those were.

The report also noted that Ward took the lead in the evaluation process, rather than utilize the assistance of the city's human resource department and that he waived "a number of requirements that were stated in the job description," as well as other "discrepancies" in the evaluation process that resulted in higher-scoring candidates being overlooked.

Because of those, the recommendation of the consulting group was that the promotional process for the assistant chief position be nullified and the procedures redone to avoid any appearance of unfairness.

The review of the fire captain and fire engineer promotional processes, however, found that while many of the same concerns existed, the actions were not determined to have been unfair.

Other conclusions and recommendations included the need:

* For a four-person minimum on all three companies at all times, with no less than three -- a problem currently affecting primarily the C-Shift

* To allow employees access to their personnel files

* To discontinue the practice of reducing employee salaries while requiring them to work as a disciplinary measure

* To re-organize shift and station assignments through a more open process

* To re-establish the specialty team concept

* To purchase more radios

* To better maintain the department's apparatus, which have fallen into disrepair, due largely to a lack of communication and a lack of funding

* To replace the 1990 and 1991 Pierce engines and ensuring all other apparatus meet national standards

* To properly maintain fire stations

* To assure all firefighters are trained at the Firefighter Level I and II levels

* To build a training center within the city

Other findings, however, concentrated on Ward's management style.

According to the report, among the "numerous complaints" the audit teams received, were ones about his "authoritarian" and "top-down" attitude, and him showing "racism and/or favoritism by visiting one fire station more than others and spending more time with a small number of fire personnel, rather than a larger number of personnel."

"It also was alleged that (Ward), when visiting fire stations, would often not recognize white personnel, but would acknowledge and gravitate to African American employees," the report read. "It was also alleged (Ward) demonstrated this preferential behavior at fire scenes."

Ward, however, while acknowledging he had offered his officers the opportunity to verbally resign during an August 2007 meeting -- his first since being hired in early 2007 -- denied showing racial preferences or favoritism.

And while the report did not hold the assistant fire chiefs blameless, it also included other complaints about his use of the chain of command and disciplinary actions also were noted.

As a result of such behaviors, the report said that Ward's comments and actions did "not increase the spirit of teamwork, or provide the incentive for employees to work harder in the delivery of services. To the contrary, these types of comments are disincentives and result in significant morale problems."

And that led to the report's other finding -- that "morale appears dangerously low in the fire department and there are serious trust issues."

"If these matters are not abated, they will become worse and the total operation will be at even greater risk," the report read. "The Goldsboro Fire Department work environment is being inundated with fear, intimidation and division. Some of this division is based on what is perceived by some as racism, while others see it as favoritism.

"It is also evident that insubordination exists at the top of the Fire Department rank structure. It appears no clear directives are given and if they are given they are ignored for the most part.

"This is a crucial period for the Goldsboro Fire Department. In order to turn things around, strong leadership needs to be demonstrated by the Fire Chief, including a commitment for more openness and inclusion, greater sensitivity towards employee issues and a willingness to build trust."