Fire Truculence

Is it a case of rogue firefighters or meddling city managers? Whatever it is, the Phoenix Fire Department isn't used to the scrutiny it's getting from City Hall.

Johnson has worked for the city since 1982, moving to the fire department in the mid-1980s. She began working for Gibson in 1989 in the Resource Management Division and received generally good job reviews.

In June 1995, not long after she was passed over for promotion to a supervisor position in Gibson's division, Johnson took extended leave, returning to work in March 1996. City and fire officials won't say why Johnson was on leave, but the slew of e-mails and grievances suggests Johnson suffers from stress-related problems. She sometimes left work in the middle of the day, saying she just needed to get away from the office.

Johnson first complained about Gibson's behavior and questionable management practices to fire officials, who started an internal investigation in February 1996. But the process wasn't moving quickly enough, in Johnson's opinion, so, two months later, she called Marsha Wallace at the City Manager's Office.

"I got an upset phone call--in tears--wanting to talk about the fire department," Wallace recalls. She took the call because of her role overseeing the personnel department; it wasn't until much later in the year--and the investigation--that Fairbanks assigned Wallace to oversee the fire department. Wallace says the assignment was a routine rotation and not because anyone in the City Manager's Office thought the department needed more scrutiny.

Wallace met with Johnson. "We listened to her for a long, long, long time," Wallace says. "She did have a number of issues, and we determined to check into them."

The City Manager's Office decided to take the investigation away from the fire department's internal affairs staff and turn it over to an outside private investigator. The city paid about $16,000 to Investigative Research Incorporated of Phoenix and, after four months of inquiry, got back an eight-volume, 320-page report that failed to substantiate most of the complaints raised primarily by Johnson but also by a couple other employees.

It was the first time the city had turned to an outside private investigative firm for help on an internal problem, according to assistant city attorney Michael Hamblin.

Fire officials say the unprecedented nature of the inquiry bolsters their claims of hyperscrutiny. But Hamblin says there are other outside investigations of other city departments currently in the works that are of a similar scale. He won't say which agencies until the investigations are finished.

And while fire officials were smarting from an outside investigator poking around their department, Johnson continued to assail them.

From about June 1996 on, most of Johnson's e-mails to fire officials are pointedly copied to key City Hall executives, including Marsha Wallace, city attorney Roderick McDougall and personnel director Don Walsh. Later, as her electronic peppering of the fire department continued, she sometimes added Fairbanks, Sculley and Mayor Skip Rimsza to the CCs at the bottom.

While Johnson irritated fire officials by making a point of her access to City Hall, she also wasn't shy about letting her superiors know she was filing formal complaints.

"I'll be going to the doctor at 3:15," she wrote in a February 14 e-mail. "But before I go, I'll be going over to EOD to file a discrimination complaint . . . leaving at 1:30 for that."

A month later, Johnson wrote a fire department personnel officer asking him for the appropriate grievance forms. "Ten or 15 of the initial forms will be sufficient," she wrote, "and 20 to 30 of the appeal forms will do."

Johnson filed a grievance over not getting the Resource Management promotion in October 1996, about a month after Gibson was forced out. That grievance was ultimately dismissed.

She's also filed several new grievances this year, all of which have been rejected. One sought more than $100,000 in back "stand-by" pay because she carried a department pager for six years.

Wallace contends that, far from letting Johnson and her complaints get out of control, the City Manager's Office is working hard to keep the simmering situation under control. Johnson has threatened to sue the city; she had a lawyer representing her during some of the Hoot Gibson investigation.

In May, Johnson was assigned to work as a data-entry operator under the supervision of Chris Covey, a computer specialist who had been with the department 10 years and was key in setting up its records-management system.

Covey resigned last month, telling friends at the fire department he just couldn't take the stress of dealing with Johnson anymore.

"I've decided not to make any public statements about me leaving," Covey said in a voice mail to New Times on October 1. "The reasons are upsetting to me, and I've done a lot of thought and prayer over leaving a job I've had for over 10 years."

E-mails between Johnson, Covey, other supervisors and city administrators show increasing frustration on Covey's part, not only with Johnson's work--which he considered inadequate--but also with what he saw as personal attacks against him, including a threat to sue him and the city.

"The data entry work that Barbara Johnson has been doing appears to be inaccurate to the point of making the data unusable," Covey wrote to his bosses on July 18. He asked for direction, adding, "I do not want to be required to provide additional time and resources to an individual that is insubordinate to me, as her supervisor, and disruptive at the workplace."

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