In what seems to be a disturbing trend, the third California fire chief in the past 2 weeks has filed suit against his employer. Fire Chief Ron Hittle filed suit last Thursday against the city of Stockton, seeking to challenge the city’s right to fire him. He joins Alameda Fire Chief Dave Kapler and Monterey Park Fire Chief Cathleen Orchard in having filed suit since April 14, 2011.
The complicated background to the Stockton case begins with Chief Hittle, who was appointed fire chief in 2006. At the time, the city charter stated that the fire chief could only be suspended or removed from office for cause, and gave the chief the option to return to his previously held position in the department. Chief Hittle was a Deputy Chief at the time he was promoted.
Last November, Stockton voters approved a charter change that made the fire chief an “at will” employee. Accordingly, the city contends that Chief Hittle has no protection and can be fired at the pleasure of the city. He was placed on leave in March of this year while the city investigates the fact that he attended a Christian leadership conference in August, 2010 at taxpayer expense.
Chief Hittle contends that the new charter provisions do not apply to him, and that in any event they cannot be applied retroactively for something that occurred prior to the charter being amended. He also denies any wrongdoing in connection with the conference.
The city has hired an outside attorney to conduct the investigation. Hittle’s attorneys are quoted as saying “The allegations of professional misconduct or deficient performance … are baseless and, even if they were all true, do not rise to the level to demote, suspend or remove the fire chief from his office.”