San Jose Fire Chief Leaves for Las Vegas Amid Unanswered Questions

A funny thing happened after Willie McDonald announced in a June 10 email to San Jose Fire Department staff that he was staying on as fire chief. He decided to send another email, only in this message, dated June 13, McDonald thanked everyone for their hard work and abruptly informed them he was leaving for Las Vegas, where he would oversee Clark County’s fire and ambulance services.

So, why would a fire chief leave for a job expected to pay him less and demand more? And what would make him change his mind?

“I was thinking about this,” McDonald says last week from a boardroom table in his office on Senter Road. “I could give you a flippant answer or …” The chief stops and laughs when a reporter grimaces in preference of whatever the latter will be.

“There was a number of conversations that were held from the time that I sent out the first [email] to the [second one],” he continues. “Most of those conversations took place with the city of Las Vegas, really making me feel that the opportunity was perfect for me, that I could lead the department and have a great deal of autonomy.”

Less money, more responsibility and 40 degrees more heat in the summers—although McDonald isn’t exactly forced to hump hundred-pound gear around these days—and the above answer only begs more questions. It’s the second time this year San Jose has lost the leader of a sworn officer branch, following Chris Moore’s January departure from the San Jose Police Department, and the reaction has generally been one of disappointment.

“I think everyone has tremendous respect for Willie,” says David Vossbrink, the City’s communications director. “He’s done a lot for San Jose. I think there’s some sadness on seeing Willie decide to leave.”

The change of heart fits a pattern, as McDonald, leaving a job he started almost exactly three years ago, has rarely stayed put for long. He’s now left fire chief posts in Fremont, Foster City, San Mateo and Scottsdale, Ariz., an unusual number of top-level leaps for someone just 55 years old. But the circumstances of McDonald’s departure from San Jose appear to be more complex.

His public persona—quick to laugh with a mustachioed smile; think Danny Glover if Roger Murtaugh had picked up a hose instead of a lethal weapon—has not always synced with accusations leveled his way.

As one of several firefighters, with a combined record of more than 60 years of experience within SJFD, told Metro on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution: “What he portrays of himself is absolutely the opposite of who he is behind closed doors and how he manages people. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Another high-ranking firefighter said McDonald picked favorites based on personality rather than performance: “If you’re with the team, you’ll be rewarded, and if you’re not you’ll be shunned.”

Staffing levels have increased since the beginning of McDonald’s tenure starting in August 2010. Budget cuts, labor negotiation impasses that resulted in layoffs and early retirements contributed to a drop in firefighter staffing to its lowest levels in years: 601 firefighters as of February 2012. Through the use of a FEMA-sponsored grant, however, the department was able to increase its ranks back to 679 as of the end of last month.

“We’re in a better condition to provide services,” McDonald says, being careful to avoid saying the department is better off in general. “I’d say [morale] is very low. … The morale is really impacted by all the things that go on around this organization, whether it’s the economy or the challenges of pension reform.”

And yet, while the department has added more firefighters to the force, the department’s subjective promotion process and inability to properly report response times for much of the last four years remains a problem that has still not been properly vetted. In January, the department informed City Manager Debra Figone that it has no idea how long it has taken firetrucks—the first emergency responders in San Jose—to arrive on scene for the last three-and-a-half years.

Five months after that admission, at the June 20 Pubic Safety & Finance Committee meeting, McDonald gave a verbal report that breezed through the department’s shortcomings. When McDonald took over the department, the review found, SJFD met its target goal of responding on scene within eight minutes, 80 percent of the time. (The national goal is 90 percent, which is admittedly unreasonable by most respects.) But a year later, that proper response time percentage dropped to 79.3 percent, instead of the previously reported 82. And in fiscal year 2011-12, the department only arrived on scene by its desired time somewhere between 63-69 percent of the time.

Those numbers persist today, and yet somehow the fire chief has been able to continue telling people with a straight face that the only real problem was the reporting of time, and that service levels remain top-notch. By this logic, of course, response times are rendered irrelevant and a house or person’s physical health receive no tangible benefit from a swift reaction. One could blame the slower response rates on widespread company brown outs, where fire houses are temporarily furloughed to save money, but McDonald says that’s not the case.

It was notable when the fire chief skipped over the bullet point in his June committee report that stated: “Improvement to response time will improve outcome experience.” No one from the department has been disciplined for the oversight, according to McDonald, and this could be due to the fact that it’s easier to point a limp finger at a glitchy computer-aided dispatch system that was installed in 2009, or shadowy number crunchers.

“I don’t know if it was incompetence.” McDonald says in our interview. “I don’t know if it was poor communication. I don’t know if it was somebody working out of [rank]. I don’t know if it was somebody who was an analyst who had some computer knowledge and they helped write the report. I just think that it was a number of things that came together that caused the report to be wrong. And it took us a while to catch it.”

Sources within the department say that one issue that has not been mentioned during response time discussions is that several companies have been intermittently shut down without informing City Hall. The department recently received a multi-million dollar grant this fiscal year to fund companies in rural areas. “Someone is bucking for a job and they’re attempting to save money to look good for the city manager,” one firefighter said.

Another major issue that continues to dog the department is its policies, some unwritten, on recruitment and promotion. Victor Garza, founder of La Raza Roundtable, has met with McDonald on several occasions to encourage the hiring and advancement of Latino, Hispanic and female firefighters. While Garza says the two men have a cordial relationship, like many who come into contact with McDonald, his pleas have often been gone ignored.

“You have the opportunity to hire people and promote people and train them and prepare them,” Garza says. “That was one thing I always wanted him to do, and it’s something he didn’t do.”

A little more than year ago, in a lawsuit filed by two female fire captains against McDonald, in his personal and official capacity, the issue came to a head. The fire chief and his top deputy Ruben Torres, who will take over as interim chief this week, were accused of gender and religious discrimination, amongst other charges, in the process of reviewing applications by Debra Ward and Patricia Tapia for battalion chief positions. Both women ranked in the top 10 of applicants, the complaint noted, with Ward coming in first. Both were passed over.

In the legal complaint, which resulted in a $400,000 settlement where neither the city nor McDonald admitted guilt, Torres allegedly told Ward that her interview was inconsequential in the selection process, and “God has a different plan for” her. While Torres was not made available for comment for this article, McDonald denied any exclusion of top-ranking females for gender or religious reasons. Torres was noted in the complaint as the leader of an insular religious sect within the department called Firefighters of Christ. McDonald says he attended just a few meetings but is unaware of its reach or organizational structure.

“On the issue of whether there was any discrimination against women, I believe there was not,” McDonald says. “My evaluation is strictly based on merit and your qualifications for the position.”

The city says it will take that approach in its own national search for a permanent fire chief, but no timetable has yet been solidified.

“It’s not urgent we do it tomorrow, and it’s not urgent we do it by the end of September,” Vossbrink says. “What is important that we get right person for the job.”

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

22 Comments

  1. Josh,

    Morale is a citywide issue in why all public safety and other employees are leaving.  City council can say what it wants to to spin it but no one wants to come here.  And current employees see what is coming down the line.  Less pay, pay more into pension, raising medical costs and no pay increases.  Want to make more money, be forced to work overtime and pay jobs which result in more taxes and stress on the employee and family to make ends.  You cannot expect to put 40% of salary to meet city obligations.

    Are we really going to force citizens to pay for private security by a scorned police officer and failed city council loser?

    And take away in overtime, sick and vacation payouts at retirement is being cut.  Now get called on the carpet for using sick time that you are going to lose.  With Measure B pending people are right to leave now.  This is not going to get better and the candidates for mayor are not going to improve anything in the distant future.

    It is time for citizens of SJ to choose or do they really care by recent ballot turnouts?  My gut feeling is they really don’t care until they are a victim.

  2. Chief McDonald is not the only one who has been a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to the top engineer in the department; Chief Robert Osby was another one that loved to wear the costume as well. And who in the hell is this guy Garza? The next fire chief should kick this idiot right in the pinada and then throw him out on his ear.

  3. Double-dipping, triple-dipping? I see it all the time with the higher-up in this City, they work for the City of San Jose long enough to get a decent pension, then they move to another City or Agency, do the same, then move to another City or Agency. In the end what do you get? you get to collect an addition 1-2 retirement pensions on top of what the City of San Jose is giving you. This means you will live a retired life making a six-figure salary! I think this should be illegal, it is a slap in the face of more honest and hard working government employees. Heck, by the time you reach a certain level of management in this City all you are is a do-nothing chair-warming cheer-leader…I guess this is what happens when you get paid a 6-figure salary in government…the more you get paid the less you work…go team!

    In other news, I heard the airfield firefighters at Lockheed-Martin are private contractors making minimum wage, maybe Mayor Greed and is evil-doers are desirous of the same arrangement with our City. Would not surprise me.

  4. You’ve got to remember, this isn’t the real world. This is “Governmentworld”. Willie probably abandonded his committment to the people of San Jose so he could cash in on yet another pension.
    What a colossal racket “public service” has become.

    • John Galt, he wasn’t here long enough to collect another pension.  And, he’s going to earn substantially less in Las Vegas.

    • Because he did not do 5 years in SJ he is not vested and is not eligible for any retirement from SJ. Says a lot that he would rather leave. No one wants to work here any more. I think SJ only has 2 department heads left who have been here longer than 5 years.

    • Please ! He left because he was tired of dealing with an incompetent Mayor & Council , that put libraries before Public Safety.  San Jose is at the Top of the list Of “Places, People DONT want to Work” . The Mass exodus will continue ( & Possibly increase ) Nobody in their right mind would more for less.

    • The Fire Chief is not a union member and not subject to the terms of the union’s contract with the City, including their vesting period.
      What are the terms of his contract? Good question, Galt.

      • You tell us, Mr. Smartie Pants. You seem to think you know everything. Even the mayor and council have to hold their positions a certain amount of time before they can get their pensions.

        • That’s Smarty with a “y”.
          I don’t know the terms of McDonald’s contract but neither do any of the other commenters here who’ve leaped to the conclusion that it can only be because SJ is such a terrible city to work for.  He serves at the City Manager’s pleasure so maybe she’s forcing him out- perhaps she thinks it’s time for a lady fire chief. Or a gay one. Who knows?
          But I’m guessing he’ll collect a pension from San Jose. And from Fremont. And from Las Vegas. And from Scottsdale. And from San Mateo. And from Foster City.

        • John Galt:
            Time of service Contract.  He failed to meet that contract.  His “Pension” is then forfeited. Thats how it works for non-union folks.

        • I spelled it with an “ie” because that is how I WANTED to spell it. Like I said…you seem to think you know everything. Fire chief WILL NOT retire with a pension after just 3 years. Keep trying to stir the pot. You are one of those “sheeple” who get every thing wrong and go around spreading it and then the other “sheeple” pick up on it and continue to spread it. Some people are just bad news.

  5. Fire/Poice Chief Figone left for Vegas????  No she is alive and kicking destroying the police and fire departments…I guess when Measure B loses many of the new hires will be layed off, once again.  No wonder these city leaders were trying to get rid of seniority…this city is a joke;  Time for fire and police to have job fairs for their employees, since the city is hell bent on hiring private patrol security firms…hahaha

  6. I left San Jose fd and let me tell you, I would never, ever go back. The difference in morale is invigorating and just as important as the increase in pay. I strongly advise all my SJFD brothers and sisters, GET OUT!! You will be glad you did:-)

    • It is the same for engineers and inspectors as well.  Every one that has left is earning a higher salary, far better benefits with lower employee contributions, and in some cases, taken a lower position…and still make more money.  And all this with much less stress than this zoo. 

      City employees are about to face yet higher contributions to their retirements and medical, so nearly everyone is looking outside for employment opportunities.  In a few years this brand new City Hall will only be partially occupied.

  7. You question why the Fire Chief, among other department heads, have left, and why the fire department can’t meet their response times?

    To answer the first question, the Chief said it himself: “Most of those conversations took place with the city of Las Vegas, really making me feel that the opportunity was perfect for me, that I could lead the department and have a great deal of autonomy.”

    Read that last part again.  The Fire Chief, or Police Chief for that matter aren’t allowed to run their departments with autonomy in San Jose, rather Alex Gurza and Debora Figone are the real shot callers.  Who would want to “lead” and organization where you really aren’t in charge, and where morale has been decimated.  Here in lies some of the results of the past few years of Measure V, Measure B and other cuts made to public safety in San Jose.  We never denied that fact that the pension system needed to be changed, and we tried to negotiate changes with the city only to be shot down. 

    You can’t continually cut, cut and cut some more and not expect to have a department that can’t meet national standards, which answers the second question.  Check the numbers, we are THE lowest staffed fire department of any big city in the nation.  At a certain point, you can’t do more with less.  We’re a busy department, far, far busier than any surrounding city, yet we have less stations per square mile and less firefighters per capita.  The city of San Jose has a population of roughly 1,000,000 with 33 fire stations and a 679 firefighters.  Compare that to the ENTIRE rest of the county with a population of around 780,000, 57 fire stations and 780 firefighters. 

    If what you want is a substandard department that can’t meet the needs of it’s citizens, then that’s what you’ll get.

    • absolutely correct . The only thing i would add is , as far as response times go , the City does not count ( recognize) responses from one area to another area . this is crazy because it absolutely changes the response times.  an example of this would be ” a person in full arrest at Costco Almaden Engine 17s(Blossom Hill/Coniston)  first Due , but Engine 17 is on another Call , next up would be either Engine 13(Pearl/Branham ) or if they are out Engine 12 (Santa Teresa/Cahalan) as you can see , they are coming from much farther out , and in the case of full arrest literally means , life is slipping away. Those responses Definitely Matter

  8. If the newspapers and the San Jose Insider would post how many police officers and other city employees have left I am sure the public would question the mayor and city council.  They should also show the amount of money the city is spending in overtime because what they have created.  What it comes down to is working for the city of San Jose is a joke and the professionals that work there are tired of the decisions our so called city leaders have been making.  That’s why people are leaving!

    • I read somewhere that the number to date since the downturn began is something like 600 Officers have left or retired ( No , I have not verified this number ) but even if its close to that , San Jose will never recover from the loss of all that training , experience , and Knowledge . The Public Safety that have remained are being forced to work unwanted overtime . which in turn , Im Positive all local Rags will write about and complain about .

  9. I am sorry that the author of this article is not really concerned about the facts of the real national recognized response times.  The standard is six (6) minutes ninety (90%) percent of time.  Years ago San Jose watered down the national standard to eight (8) minutes eighty (80%) of the time. The department was unable to obtain this goal even before we underwent closing stations, companies, brown-outs, and staffing reductions.  For the statement that the national standard is unrealistic why don’t you research the City of Santa Clara and Mt. View to see if other cities put such a low standard to the health and safety of their citizens.

  10. Chief McD gave up years ago. It has been very obvious that he does not care about SJ or his employees. Watch the budget hearings or the audit hearing and you can tell from his body language that he has contempt for it all. I think most everyone in the fire department is glad he’s leaving. It shows his character that he would send out emails within 3 days of each other that are completely opposite. It also speaks to his character when in this interview he was willing to throw his employees under the bus rather than own the problem. If a report is wrong it is ultimately the chief’s mistake. He’d rather blame it on incompetence or an analyst who helped write the report. He should grow up and accept responsibility.

    As for the discrimination lawsuit, things like that are still happening. He allows his deputies and his AO to harass staff and does nothing about it. There are several more lawsuits in the works right now. Maybe then the city will make him or whoever takes his place stop allowing discrimination and harassment to continue. He obviously learned nothing having lost the last one.

    This city is a sad place to work. Wonder how long it will take to find his replacement. Figone has been unsuccessful in other department head recruitments. Look who she has appointed in the past year. No one wanted the parks director. Not the community. Not the staff. Yet that’s who got the job. Same goes for IT. PD couldn’t get anyone competent to apply. Luckily they got someone who was willing to be acting and who is trying to make a difference. Let’s hope Chief Torres can learn from Chief Esquivel and our public safety can start the process of moral building and respecting its employees. It’s the only way the city will survive.

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