The Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission has issued a blistering report regarding the lack of evidence and apparent manufactured allegations by fire department brass in the demotion of the city’s first female battalion chief.
The commission said that it appeared Assistant Fire Chief Robert McMicken was “looking for reasons” to discipline Martha Ellis, a 22-year-veteran firefighter.
On May 3, 2016, Ellis was demoted to the rank of captain.
McMicken asserted, among other things, that Ellis had demonstrated an “apparent lack of engagement with [her] current assignment, a lack of ownership of [her] job responsibilities, an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions and a lack of respect for [her] chain of command.”
Prior to her demotion, Ellis had ruffled department brass by, among other things, failing to approve the narrowing of 300 South that would put it in violation of the fire code, and that she would not endorse the makeover of Fire Station #2, which later was found to be without smoke detectors after it caught fire.
The commission’s 49-page report issued Nov. 1, makes a detailed examination of seven allegations McMicken leveled as the basis for the demotion. None was found credible by the commission, which held a two-day hearing on the matter in May of this year.
The commission also found that the allegations against Ellis “appear as an attempt to manufacture misconduct and alleged failure of performance to justify disciplinary action, when there were no performance issues.”
Although McMicken claims that he alone demoted Ellis, the commission found that former Fire Chief Brian Dale apparently approved it.
The commission ordered Ellis’ rank be restored to battalion chief with the rate of pay she received prior to the demotion.
A spokesman for Salt Lake City, said Monday that its legal department was reviewing the report.
“We are exploring our options as we move forward,” said Matthew Rojas.
Complicating matters, is that Ellis was fired in March, after six months of leave for mental health issues suffered due to the unexpected demotion, she said.
After months off the job, she had requested short-term refresher training, a physical exam, an opportunity to run through the department’s physical ability test, and to receive an Occupational Safety and Health Administration test on her breathing apparatus mask.
But the department was unwilling to provide those accommodations and terminated her.
In a statement Monday, Ellis expressed her gratitude to the Civil Service Commission. She also said the experience has been an “unbridled hell” for her and her family.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have this impartial commission recognize what I have been trying to tell people in the city [government] since 2012,” Ellis said. “The discipline I’ve been subjected to has been targeted and does not reflect my performance as a Salt Lake City Fire Department chief officer.”
The specific allegations cited by the fire department for Ellis’ demotion from battalion chief include her failure to move forward with the expansion of the Incident Command System, arriving late for a captains’ meeting, failure to gather appropriate budget information for that meeting, failure to take the lead in moving the Engineer Task Book forward, that she made a presentation to the Utah State Fire Chief’s Association without notifying superiors, failure to follow directives on how to maintain her computer calendar, and her inability to be contacted from Oct. 15 to Oct. 17, 2015.
The commission found that “the discipline imposed on Ellis was unduly excessive” and does not appear to have followed the Fire Department’s process.
Earlier this year, Ellis filed a claim in U.S. District Court for Utah against Dale, McMicken and Karl Lieb, who is now chief, for whistleblower retaliation and sexual (gender-based) harassment, discrimination and retaliation, leading to a hostile work environment.
The lawsuit asserts that in March 2015 she uncovered information that suggested the department was allowing members of its executive team to pursue outside endeavors on city time without disclosure or pay reduction.
The suit also says certain employees were paid for a 40-hour week when they worked only three 12-hour shifts.
Further, Ellis’ suit states that she received pressure to use her influence to get “a seal of approval” from the department’s engineering committee for concrete bike lanes on 300 South that narrowed the roadway, rendering it out of compliance with state fire code. She refused to cover up the “deliberate violation of the state fire code,” the suit states.
Ellis also refused to cover up the lack of smoke detectors in Fire Station 2 before a fire there in March 2015, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks reinstatement of Ellis to her previous position as battalion chief, back pay and benefits. It also seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress, damage to her reputation and loss of enjoyment of life.
In May 2009, Ellis became the first female battalion chief and fire marshal in the city’s history.
Her main duty as fire marshal was to make sure that all public and private streets and buildings met the fire code.
She began her firefighting career in 1993 as a wildland firefighter and as an emergency medical technician for an ambulance provider. She joined the Salt Lake City Fire Department in 1995, serving in capacities including engineer, public information officer and a captain assigned to the Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting Academy.
Ellis served as Airport Fire Marshal for Salt Lake City International Airport before being promoted to battalion chief.
Correction: March 30, 2018: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Civil Service Commission.