D.C. fire chief never fully vetted

Ellerbe had sex-harassment complaint in Sarasota post

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“The county chose to close the matter without going further after determining that the complaint was unfounded,” he said. “If I had committed the act that I was accused of, I would have been terminated. I wasn’t. The accusations were false and completely unfounded.”

But the report offered no findings or conclusions regarding the incident, stating there was no way to verify whether sexual harassment occurred. The report said officials “verbally counseled” Chief Ellerbe on the government’s policies on harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Dave Bullock, deputy Sarasota County administrator during Chief Ellerbe’s tenure, said verbal counseling is standard for any complaint and that the one against Chief Ellerbe was treated “like we treat every other one.”

Ms. Norwood said she did not pursue the complaint further because Sarasota’s human resources department told her Chief Ellerbe was counseled on the issue and that it would not happen again. From the time she lodged the complaint until Chief Ellerbe left the department in December 2010, Ms. Norwood said, she had no further face-to-face interaction with him.

Reflecting on the chief’s tenure in Sarasota, Mr. Bullock said Chief Ellerbe worked diligently to reduce overtime costs and came up with a staffing system that is still in use. The chief’s personnel file also includes an annual evaluation in which he is well-reviewed.

“While he was here, we got good value from Ken,” Mr. Bullock said.

Falsely accused?

Merv Kennell, president of the union that represents Sarasota firefighters and paramedics, said it was true the union was unhappy with Chief Ellerbe because of some of his policy decisions, but he vehemently denied the chief’s charge that the union prompted a complaint.

“The chief’s claim is absolutely false,” Mr. Kennell said.

Mr. Kennell said that, aside from the employees whose concerns Chief Robinson represented, he was made aware of six female employees who shared concerns about purported harassment from Chief Ellerbe on the basis of anonymity.

The concerns The Times reviewed — either in statements in Chief Ellerbe’s file or anecdotally — involved inappropriate looks or comments. None of the complaints involved physical contact.

“Many of the complaints seemed to arise out of station visits, where the chief reportedly suggested his vindictive nature if anyone were to oppose his views and that he was prepared to take legal action against people who said anything about him or his policies,” Mr. Kennell said, adding that the chief dismissed the concerns as false and “folks simply not respecting him or understanding him.”

He said the employees were offered options for filing official complaints.

“Most opted out of taking any action and later told me it was on the basis they feared retaliation,” Mr. Kennell said.

In the course of an interview discussing his frequent clashes with the union in Sarasota, Chief Ellerbe offered an off-the-cuff remark, saying he was the “first African-American chief in the department.” But when asked to elaborate on the significance of that fact, he declined to discuss it further.

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