A controversy surrounding a potentially offensive video that was circulated last fall among members of the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board, and district employees, was brought to light this week by a former human resources director.
Lisa LaBarbera, who has stepped down as the district’s HR director, said officials at Nevada County Consolidated Fire District circulated a video via email that had racial overtones, which may have offended some people associated with the district.
LaBarbera said she received a mail package from an anonymous source that contained an email chain involving the district’s board of directors members Keith Grueneberg and Tom Carrington and Local 3800 Union President Wyatt Howell.
As first reported by YubaNet.com this week, documents show an email entitled “Hooked on Ebonics?” was sent from Carrington to Grueneberg on Nov. 5, 2012 and was then forwarded to Howell and other members of the department.
The body of the email reads: “Hey Wyatt, you need to watch this, it is like talking with our administration!!!”
The video contains a comedy bit performed by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who perform on a sketch comedy show called “Key & Peele” that airs on Comedy Central.
The video depicts an African-American substitute teacher filling in at a predominately white school and repeatedly mispronouncing the students’ common names. LaBarbera said the video is potentially offensive, particularly to a black employee who works at Consolidated and preferred to remain anonymous.
Grueneberg said the central premise of the sketch is about miscommunication and he thought the video was funny and relevant to a situation Howell was experiencing with district administration.
“Wyatt Howell was having a bad day because he was getting the run around from our administration,” Grueneberg said. “I just wanted to make him laugh, it’s about miscommunication.”
Grueneberg said he is married to a woman who is a minority and takes offense at being labeled racially insensitive.
“I don’t know how it can be turned into something racist,” he said. “It’s about poor communication and it’s pretty funny.”
LaBarbera still maintains the video was inappropriate for the workplace and should have been reported by senior officials within the department who viewed it.
Board member David Hanson agreed that the email should have not been circulated through the department.
“It is very inappropriate,” Hanson said. “It should not have gone beyond (Carrington and Grueneberg). It was a mistake, but this district is very sensitive to racial issues.”
LaBarbera, who was the HR director for about a decade at Consolidated Fire, resigned in January after experiencing what she characterized as repeated bullying and workplace mobbing, where groups of individuals made her feel as though she was performing inadequately.
Friction was created, LaBarbera said, because as available overtime and other benefits became less available with a more constrained budget, she had to be the messenger of the bad news to individual firefighters, who began to push back.
“They just tried to make me feel as though I was not doing my job,” LaBarbera said. “It becomes intolerable.”
She said she brought her concerns to the board and was repeatedly rebuffed and dismissed.
LaBarbera said she suffered a serious anxiety attack in July last year and began planning her exit strategy immediately after. During her exit interview, conducted in January, LaBarbera was asked if she witness any illegal actions at the NCCFD or by its employees.
She answered “YES” in all caps, according to documents provided to The Union.
“The board of directors has allowed as well as participated with employee labor groups to undermine my ability to perform my job duties … and has yet to stop and continues to participate with NCCFD Local 3800 firefighters in the defamation of my character.”
LaBarbera said the board has repeatedly violated the Brown Act, which provides guidance on meeting protocol such as closed sessions and other matters, refuses to have Jim Curtis, the district’s lawyer, present for meetings and continually operates under a veil of secrecy.
“They violated the trust of the employees and worked behind the scenes,” she said. “They continue to violate the trust of the public.”
Grueneberg, speaking generally, said when he assumed his seat on Consolidated Fire’s board of directors in 2010, he was “depressed” by the state of the district.
“The administrative staff down there needed to wake up to the rules and regulations of running a fire department,” he said. “There was mistreatment of firefighters, errors in the CalPERS, (problems) with the minutes. There was just a lot of incompetence. As a district, we can’t afford that type of behavior.”
Grueneberg said he is aware the board of directors is the target of derision by some, but said he came in with the attitude of cleaning up the district and knew he would not become popular in doing so.
“Whenever a guy comes in that wants to clean house, that is going to create controversy,” Grueneberg said. “I just want to improve the situation.”
Grueneberg said the fire district has been without a fire chief for a year. While former Fire Chief Tim Fike and the fire district parted ways officially last July, he was placed on administrative leave in March.
Hanson said Division Chief David Ray has filled in for Fike, but Ray has said multiple times that he does not want the administrative duties of running a fire department, preferring instead to concentrate on tactical firefighting.
Furthermore, Ray has announced he will retire at the end of April, making the need for locating a permanent replacement urgent, Grueneberg said.
A nationwide search for a permanent replacement is underway, Hanson said.
Auditor letter indicates investigation
On Jan. 8, Consolidated Fire’s auditor McSweeney & Associates, based in Grass Valley, sent a letter to the district providing rationale for an additional charge to their annual expenses, wherein they revealed that district was under investigation by the Nevada County Grand Jury.
Other issues set forth in the letter included problems locating financial documents, assertions made by employees regarding improper use of gas cards, problems with calculations regarding the severance packages with Fike, Battalion Chief Spike Newby and others and the need to make several requests to obtain certain documents.
LaBarbera said the calculations regarding Fike and Newby were not only accurate but any requests made by the auditor were responded to “in a timely and efficient manner.”
“Every request was fulfilled the same day or one day thereafter,” LaBarbera said.
Hanson said characterizations of financial mismanagement on behalf of the district were inaccurate, saying the district has been given verbal confirmation that they have a clean audit for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Hanson said that much of the substance of the letter was a typical back and forth between any entity and its auditor.
A copy of the 2011-12 audit has not been made public yet.
A representative at McSweeney & Associates declined comment when reached by telephone, saying company protocol dictated the company would not discuss client information with the media.
LaBarbera said Consolidated Fire’s decision to restore salary step increases and other benefits to its firefighters, retroactive to July of last year, was not budgeted for and cost the district about $20,000.
The decision came only eight months after the fire district asked the public to approve a tax measure that added a $52 annual fee to district residents’ tax bill, which district offiicials and board members said at the time would salvage the district from potential layoffs and station closures.
John Leonard, a former director who was voted out of office in November, was the lone dissenting voice during the vote.
“There is not one single extra penny,” he said in November. “There is barely any money for gasoline and no money for new equipment, and if we keep awarding salary increases, this district is going to go broke.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.