This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Newly revealed information surrounding the demotion of the Salt Lake City Fire Department's first female battalion chief may bolster her assertion that she was the target of sexual discrimination and harassment, as well as retaliation, at the hands of department brass.
The Salt Lake Tribune has obtained City Hall responses to three third-party complaints alleging that outgoing Fire Chief Brian Dale referred to Martha Ellis who was recently bumped down to captain as a "b" and a "f-ing b." The comments allegedly were made when he was deputy chief.
The city's Human Resources Department has said its investigation into those allegations was not conclusive.
The Tribune also has obtained several audio recordings with a male voice referring to female firefighters other than Ellis as "b-s." That voice is Dale's, according to attorney Jaqualin Peterson, who represents Ellis.
"This alone should give you pause," Peterson said. "This is coming from the top of the department."
The information points to a "culture of sexism" within the department, Peterson said. But the city's Human Resources Department has determined not to act on it, she added.
Dale's administrative assistant said the chief could not comment for this story, citing the possibility of a lawsuit.
On June 6, Ellis, a 21-year veteran firefighter, filed a notice of claim with the city, a requirement necessary before a lawsuit can be brought in state court.
Ellis says she was demoted after raising a number of concerns, including allegations aimed at members of the fire department's executive team engaging in personal activities on city time; payroll fraud; a lack of smoke detectors at Fire Station 2, which caught fire; and installation of bicycle lanes on 300 South that yielded a roadway narrower than state and city fire codes allow.
Dale recently announced that he will retire in October, when he reaches his 30-year work anniversary.
The fire department referred Tribune inquiries to the mayor's office. Matthew Rojas, a spokesman for first-term Mayor Jackie Biskupski, said there is no connection between allegations made by Ellis and the chief's recent retirement announcement. Further, Rojas said, there is no investigation into allegations by the former battalion chief against top fire department bosses.
The mayor's office offered no further comments regarding Ellis' case due to potential litigation.
Campaign issue • During the run-up to last fall's election, Biskupski made the fight against discrimination a hallmark of her campaign. It came on the heels of the forced resignation of Police Chief Chris Burbank by then-Mayor Ralph Becker over substantiated sexual-harassment allegations by three female officers against a deputy police chief, who was placed on administrative leave until he reached retirement.
Further, it was candidate Biskupski who first disclosed publicly that a female firefighter had filed a sexual-discrimination claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Biskupski ripped Becker for allowing cultures of sexism and discrimination within the police and fire departments.
It turns out, the claim Biskupski was referring to was filed by Ellis. In early January, shortly after Biskupski was sworn in, Ellis met with the new mayor and described what she believed was discrimination and retaliation aimed at demoting her, Peterson said.
In a written response to a Tribune inquiry, mayoral spokeswoman Holly Mullen said Biskupski takes discrimination and harassment seriously.
"The mayor has directed the Department of Human Resources to implement harassment-prevention training for all employees," Mullen said. "We are also in the early stages of revising most of our HR policies, focused on opportunities to disrupt entrenched cultures that have existed for decades. This includes designing specialized harassment-prevention training for particular departments or divisions."
Even so, Peterson said she is disappointed Biskupski has not acted in Ellis' case or moved forcefully enough to squelch what the attorney described as the existing "sexist culture" within the fire department."
Ellis says she suffered discrimination dating back to 2012. That treatment from top executives was punctuated in 2014 after she completed a master's degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School. Two days later, Ellis was removed from her position as fire marshal and moved to the logistics division.
"She had become more qualified than her male counterparts," Peterson said. "It was a concerted effort by executives at the fire department to do everything they could to push down the one woman who had risen to this level."
As fire marshal, Ellis said, she angered top brass when she refused to sign off on protected bike lanes on 300 South that yielded a roadway narrower than required by state and city fire codes.
Ellis also alleges that, as fire marshal, she was kept out of discussions by top executives regarding the design of Fire Station No. 2 in the Marmalade neighborhood. The station caught fire in March 2015. There were no smoke detectors in sleeping quarters, contributing to unspecified injuries to firefighters when the blaze broke out at 1:27 a.m. Four have filed a notice of claim with the city alleging negligence and violations of city fire code. They seek unspecified damages.
"The Salt Lake City Fire Department hierarchy creates a problem for the fire marshal," Peterson said. "Martha was pulled out of that position because they wanted a 'yes' person."
Whistleblower or troublemaker? • Within five months of her transfer from fire marshal to logistics, Peterson said, Ellis was disciplined with a two-day suspension. It came as former Chief Kurt Cook was retiring in spring 2015, which meant a top administrative post could become open.
"Every time a pivotal event occurs where she might get a promotion," Peterson said, "she gets a write-up."
In February, The Tribune highlighted Dale's affiliation with the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED).
While he was deputy chief, Dale has explained, he taught classes at IAED conferences, earning $20,000 to $30,000 annually.
The city paid him a salary of $110,116 and benefits worth $11,116, for a total package of $121,232.
On March 16, three weeks after that story, Ellis was placed on administrative leave because "she failed to meet certain performance expectations."
Shortly thereafter, Ellis was demoted to captain.
For the past several years, Peterson said, city officials have endeavored to brand Ellis a "troublemaker" and a "disgruntled employee."
In May 2015, David Everitt, then-chief of staff for Becker, said that Ellis was a "disgruntled employee" who had been passed over for promotion.
Earlier this year, City Council Chairman James Rogers said Ellis was known as "troublemaker" who was always complaining.
Efforts by fire department executives to undermine Ellis' credibility in City Hall have been successful, Peterson said.
And they cleared the way for them to undercut her exemplary career without providing recourse, she said.
The city has 60 days from June 6 to respond to Ellis' notice of claim. It seeks reinstatement to her former battalion chief rank, back pay, benefits and unspecified damages.