Monday, November 27, 2017

Graham v Municipality of Anchorage #1: Overview - Firefighter Sues Municipality of Anchorage


Jeff Graham is a Korean-American fire fighter with the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD).   He originally took the exam to promote to engineer (the next step up in the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD)) in 2004, and passed.  A day or so later he was told he hadn't been eligible to take the exam and so he wasn't being promoted.  He had taken the test early (there's a five-year-as-a-fire-fighter requirement), but he had been given 'equivalency' from the Employee Relations Department as well as the Fire Department, based on the almost eight years he'd served as a mechanic for the fire department before becoming a fire fighter. Others had gotten equivalency and took the test early too. As a mechanic he had driven, repaired, and rebuilt all the AFD trucks, engines, and vehicles.  That experience overlaps a lot with what AFD engineers do in their role to maintain and drive the engines.  

He took the exam again in 2008 when he messed up one part of the practical.  He tested again in 2010, but, as he describes it, he didn't pass the practical exam because they deducted 'style' points even though he accomplished the required tasks.  The practical test involves driving the vehicles and performing specific tasks with the trucks, hoses, etc.

In the 2012 exam, AFD added an hour long oral exam section - ten technical questions and a 'peer review' that covered five questions about character.  That's about four minutes per question.   In 2012 Jeff passed the written exam with a strong score.  He also did well on the practical exam.  But he only got 69 on the oral exam.  70 was the lowest passing score and you had to pass all three exams to be eligible for promotion.  Across the three different exams, his average was comfortably above 70.  There were lots of issues about the subjectivity of the test and scoring that I'll get into in later posts.

After writing a complaint about the oral exam and getting a curt rejection, Jeff filed a complaint with the Alaska Human Rights Commission.  Jeff is trained as a mechanic.   He filed the complaint on his own, without the help of an attorney.  The commission investigated, but did not find discrimination.

Then Jeff hired an attorney, Jeff Jarvi, and after a long pretrial process, the trial finally began in July 2017.  (Yes, Jeff Graham and Jeff Jarvi.  Two Jeffs makes this a little confusing, but I'm pointing it out now so you'll be less confused.)

My Comments About Blogging This

I've had a couple of months to prepare these posts.  There's a great deal of technical detail that I want to cover as I write about this trial, but in this post I'm just trying to give an introduction.  This trial lasted three and a half weeks because of details.  (I'd note that each of the three Alaska political corruption trials - Anderson's, Kott's, and Kohring's - took two weeks or  less.)   I'm going to write about the issues the jury had to consider.  I'll write about issues in the Fire Department that came up during pre-trial (like the subjectivity of the oral exam, or the low percentage of women (about 2%) and people of color (about 15%) in the AFD) as well as things that turned up (for me) in the trial.  While there were some problem fire fighters,  I would note most of the fire fighters who testified impressed me.

I'm hoping that with the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein case and the growing number of powerful men being accused of sexual harassment and/or assault, that it might be a little easier for people to understand what was going on in the AFD. This is not about sexual harassment, but the dynamics are similar.

As I see it, there were a few bad apples who were taking advantage of positions of power.  They were in charge of training and promotion from fire fighter to engineer.  Some people had heard rumors.  Others had seen or been told first hand.  But people were afraid to say anything lest they jeopardize their own careers.  And people higher up, who should have been on top of things, didn't see it.  They apparently believed the perpetrators who reported directly to them and thus dismissed the complaints.

And when I say perpetrators, I'm not even sure how many there were.  There was at least one, but other people contributed to the situation.  It's not clear to what extent they knowingly and/or intentionally did this.

I know I called the first part above an overview, but there's really no middle or end.  I did put up one post on this case already.  It was a very factual, objective post, with little context.  Just the facts.  I posted this with permission of both Jeffs, mainly because I think the story is significant and no other media covered this case, to my knowledge, except for one brief pre-trial report by Casey Grove on APRN.   You can see my original post here.  I should add a spoiler alert, but this isn't fiction and the real story is not the outcome, but what was going on,  regardless of the outcome.

I don't know how many posts this will encompass.  A lot, I'm guessing.  I am also setting up a tab on top for a page that will have an annotated index of the posts.  I'd love every post to be interesting to everyone, but some will get technical and they're particularly there for people who are involved in human resources, the AFD, MOA, and other jurisdictions that might have similar issues.  I'd like to think that everyone who is an employee, and thus involved with the human resources departments in their own organizations, will be interested.  I hope everyone will find the posts readable so they can understand the ways that people abuse the fairness of selection and promotion systems.  A friend probably got it right when she said, "Steve, you really nerded out on this, didn't you?"

My goal in all this is to make this dysfunctional power situation as public and clear as possible so that it will get addressed.

And there will be a post or two on my own ethical challenges as I acted - for the first time - as an expert witness in a trial.  The challenges came because I was also viewing everything as a blogger.  I told attorney Jeff Jarvi, right away about my blogging and we had to determine guidelines.  We agreed I wouldn't blog until after the appeal date had passed.  And that I would not reveal things covered under attorney/client privilege - only things that were public in court or I found from other sources.

Not being able to post until everything was over was really frustrating.  But the deadline for appeal has passed, so I'm free to write.  Actually it passed several weeks ago, but I've held off just to be sure.

This would likely be more dramatic were it live daily coverage of the courtroom and the story as it unfolded.  But that couldn't be.  And despite all the time I've had before the deadline, and all the pages I've written, I'm not sure how I will proceed. There's so much to cover, lots of detail that needs to makes sense.  I've got an outline.  Let's see how it goes.

[Part 2:  Discrimination and Race Issues]

1 comment:

  1. My goal in all this is to make this dysfunctional power situation as public and clear as possible so that it will get addressed.

    Steve, I wish you the best in your goal.
    As always, thank you.


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