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.”