Local civil rights leaders agreed that a recent move to reassign Fire Chief Bertral Washington to the City Manager’s Office following an internal feud with the Fire Department’s powerful union is “troubling.”

“Has the black community of the city of Pasadena become invisible?” Allen Edson, president of the NAACP Pasadena Branch, wrote in a statement issued Monday.

“The audacity to put Mr. Washington on leave a day after Martin Luther King Day then try to embarrass him during Black History Month is another shining example of Pasadena city leadership, which seems to be led by the fire union and shows lack of respect for the African-American community,” Edson wrote.

The question of Washington’s reassignment to the City Manager’s Office, where he will be working on the city’s Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system while retaining his same salary as chief, came up again later that night during a standing-room-only meeting of the City Council. Both Council members John Kennedy and Tyron Hampton were adamant in demanding answers to questions swirling around Washington’s reassignment. 

Washington was absent from the meeting and has not commented on his work situation or the controversy surrounding his reassignment. Deputy Chief Bryan Frieders has been named acting fire chief in Washington’s absence. The top pay for city fire chief is $228,000 a year. Washington came to Pasadena in 2104, replacing former Chief Calvin Wells.

In 2018, Washington and the Pasadena Firefighters Association openly clashed over a decision by firefighters to wear black mourning bands in memory of Northern California firefighters who had died while battling wildfires.

Acting on grievances filed by firefighters, Administrative Law  Judge Bernhard Rohrbacher  in November criticized city officials for not retracting a petition created by two battalion chiefs to win support for Washington from firefighters over his decision to disallow the armbands.

Rohrbacher found the Fire Department violated the law governing collective bargaining for public employees by circulating the petition among union members “in a manner that tended to coerce them to sign it and to, thereby, side with management against Local 809,” the judge wrote.

According to the City Council’s Monday agenda, Mermell was set to meet in closed session with members of the Pasadena Firefighters Association (PFA) and the Pasadena Fire Management Association (PFMA) for about about an hour before the City Council meeting began.

City spokeswoman Lisa Derderian told Pasadena Now that the meeting was about labor negotiations.

“Because a small group that works within the department has decided they have issues with the chief, for our city manager to reassign him is extremely disappointing,” Hampton said of the PFA, Local 809, which Washington has knocked heads with over other issues over the past few years. 

City Manager Steve Mermell said he empathized with Edson and others who spoke out for Washington. 

“I hear you. I hear the concern in your voice. I see the conviction in your eyes,” Mermell said, adding he wanted to clarify a few points regarding the discussion. 

“First, like all city employees, Chief Washington has an absolute right to privacy as it relates to his employment, and I cannot and will not comment on a personnel matter. I do not know if Chief Washington wishes to be the subject of a public discussion, but I will not engage in it because I cannot engage in it,” Mermell said. “I will continue to work constructively with the chief to move forward.”

Kennedy wondered whether Washington’s due process rights had been violated in relation to the legal dust-up with the PFA.

“What appears to be an issue for me … is the allegation that Bertral Washington’s due process rights were violated in the process. And so if not tonight, then in a closed session, because it’s a personnel issue we, in my view, need to explore, as we have done on other occasions, whether the fire chief’s due process rights were violated,” Kennedy said.

Hampton said Washington has invested in Pasadena, noting he is among top city administrators who actually live in Pasadena.

“First of all, I’d like to thank the NAACP and all the community members who have shown up tonight for a man who lives in our community. We have plenty of department heads throughout the city who have decided not to live in the city of Pasadena, and I definitely understand that. But we have a fire chief who lives in the city. So I, as one City Council member, was also taken aback when I heard that the fire chief was going to be reassigned to another department. This fire chief has brought diversity in to our Fire Department,” Hampton said. 

Although council chambers were packed with potential speakers, Mayor Terry Tornek reminded audience members that Washington’s case was not on the council’s agenda, and that only 20 minutes would be allotted to speakers on the subject. Most people opted to leave rather than wait until the end of the lenghty regular meeting to express their feelings.

“I expect each of you to come back until our fire chief is reinstated,” Hampton said.