JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The firefighter who sparked an internal investigation into Johnson City’s fire chief last year also filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Lt. Tommy Verran and other firefighters interviewed during that investigation said the chief called them unpromotable because of their age. The internal investigator did not find evidence to suggest the chief used age to influence the promotional process, but firefighters said in a 2014 leadership meeting the chief wrote the names of several firefighters who were within five years of retirement on a white board and called them “unpromotable.”
“I believe I was discriminated along with these other gentlemen,” Lt. Verran said during his interview with the internal investigator.
According to Lt. Verran, he filled his EEOC complaint in October 2015, saying he never got a fair shake at a captain’s promotion because “he would retire within the next five years.”
He and others specifically recalled one meeting held by Fire Chief Mark Scott.
“He put our names on the board, the older guys and said, ‘I’m writing you off,'” Lt. Rick Arnold said.
“We was unpromotable,” Lt. Eric Hyder said of the chief’s words. “That we was no use to him.”
“I don’t think that was appropriate,” Capt. Jason Powell said. “At the least, it was a very poor decision on his behalf to use those words and to separate the group that way.”
Several firefighters were at that meeting, including the two men who currently serve as his assistant chiefs. Both said they thought the chief’s intent was to emphasize the need for the department to come up with a succession plan, but they said neither of their names were on the board. If it were different, they said they’d understand the others’ frustration.
“I told Chief Williams, ‘I can’t believe he said that,'” Assistant Fire Chief Jerome Palmer said. “I said that was a bad example.”
In his conversation with the internal investigator Chief Scott denied part of the allegation and said firefighters took his comments out of context. The chief said he even put his own name on that board and helped promote one of the people.
“I never ever said that they were unpromotable,” the chief said. “I was explaining that succession planning, we needed to be preparing people to move up, that we were moving out.”
Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson told us it’s common for an organization of a thousand employees to receive a few EEOC complaints every year. He told us he’s not overly concerned.
“We have received an EEOC complaint and the response has been filed back,” Peterson said. “I feel more comfortable with this particular complaint than most other complaints that we receive.”
Capt. Steve Weaver told the internal investigator during the meeting in question the chief was trying to convey that the department would soon lose a lot of experience, but he also told the investigator something else.
“I’ve heard behind closed doors from Chief Scott’s mouth that they need to ‘get the f*** out of here, they’re too old to be doing this job'” Capt. Weaver said.
The internal investigation did not substantiate harassment or discrimination. However, the investigator did say the firefighters might have received the chief’s comments better if he hadn’t put their names on the board.
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