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Cal Fire ordered to return battalion chief to coast
The California Department of Human Resources has ordered Cal Fire to reinstate a battalion chief at the Coastside Fire Protection District, finding that the state agency improperly transferred him miles away as a form of harassment. The 13-page ruling states the former Cal Fire chief in charge of Coastside fire services was not a credible witness in the case.
The decision made earlier this month by administrative law judge Karla Broussard-Boyd forces Cal Fire to bring back La Honda resident Ari Delay as a Coastside battalion chief.
The case adds fuel during a volcanic time within the local fire service. Three members of the fire board are facing an April 9 recall as they seek to replace Cal Fire with a new stand-alone department.
The Review received a copy of the judge’s decision Friday afternoon after a public records request. Speaking on Friday, Cal Fire officials say they intend to appeal the decision.
Chief John Ferreira
Approximately one year ago, John Ferreira, then the Cal Fire unit chief for the San Mateo-Santa Cruz region, ordered Delay reposted about 40 miles away in the Felton division.
This was not the first time Delay and other firefighters had been involuntarily transferred by Cal Fire after the agency took control of Coastside fire services in 2008, according to court documents. In 2009, Delay was temporarily transferred to the San Mateo Fire Station to become “immersed in the Cal Fire culture”.
Court documents show that in 2011, after Delay was reinstated on the coast, Ferreira warned him in an email that he was hearing rumors that Delay had a “grand scheme” to close a fire station in Skylonda and get new staffing for the La Honda Fire Brigade.
“Either you’ve got people gunning for you or it’s true,” Ferreira wrote to Delay. “I believe the former is accurate.”
Following the email exchange, Ferreira reportedly renewed efforts to “immerse” Delay in Cal Fire culture. Ferreira later explained in court he intended to train Delay.
Court documents state that in February 2012 Ferreira announced to Cal Fire union members that he was looking at ways to “address the problems of possible insiders that are creating problems for Cal Fire from the inside.”
Judge Broussard-Boyd notes the term “insiders” refers to a subset of firefighters including Delay. Two months later, Ferreira informed Coastside fire district board members he was transferring a battalion chief to other areas for training.
Delay was transferred to Felton, even though he protested the move. Once posted there, he reportedly received no special training and was assigned to rote tasks by his superior officer, Scott Jalbert, who has since replaced Ferreira as area unit commander.
State Government Code strictly prohibits public employees from being transferred for harassment or discipline. Ferreira and other Cal Fire officials contended the reposting was legitimate.
In her ruling, the judge expressed strong doubt about Ferreira’s testimony, noting he was frequently looking to Cal Fire attorneys for help in answering questions. Broussard-Boyd summed up her feeling about the unit chief: “His shifting justifications are suspect and not believable.” Ferreira has since retired.
The judge concluded that Delay should be reinstated within two weeks of her decision signed March 8. That would have him back on the job on the Coastside on Friday.
Chief Scotty Jalbert
Contacted on Friday, Jalbert could not say whether Delay was brought back to the Coastside fire district. But he noted that Cal Fire attorneys were planning to appeal the decision.
“This department does not agree with the decisions of the administrative law judge,” he said. “It’s going through the process of appeal and we’re waiting for the results of that.”
The case comes at a tense time in local fire services. The three embattled directors, Mike Alifano, Gary Riddell and Doug Mackintosh, have previously argued that Cal Fire mistreated longstanding Coastside firefighters through illegitimate transfers.
Supporters of the recall argue that Cal Fire brought much-needed stability and financial control over an agency previously plagued by internal squabbles and lawsuits.
In an interview on Friday, Jalbert was asked if Cal Fire’s choice to appeal the judge’s ruling had anything to do with the imminent recall election.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The issues revolving around Chief Delay have nothing to do with the recall or anything of that nature.”