Email exchange, complaint spur investigation of city manager Peterson

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – An outside attorney is reviewing a fire prevention officer’s formal complaint against City Manager Pete Peterson surrounding emails regarding a building safety issue and a subsequent meeting about those emails.

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson_146111
Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson

Peterson stated the employee “is on my $#*& list” in one email. In another he said “I have no need for employees who create problems” — apparently in reference to Fire Prevention Officer Roger Davis’s suggestion a building should be inspected, which came as a response to Fire Chief James Stables’ request that people “share their thoughts.”

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock told News Channel 11 Wednesday she ordered the outside review after determining the complaints needed further investigation. The normal internal review process for such complaints isn’t appropriate given Peterson’s position as city manager, she said.

“We need the facts,” Brock said. “And there are suggestions of some things in there that really warranted us looking in a way that we could get the facts.”

A portion of Fire Prevention Officer Roger Davis’s formal complaint against City Manager Pete Peterson.

Davis lodged his initial complaint Sept. 17 after what he said were two postponements — one a no-show — by Peterson of requested meetings to discuss his concerns. That complaint outlines what Davis describes as “personally threatening behavior and actions” and mentions “previous attempts to intervene and unduly influence fire prevention activities.”

The complaint includes references to Aug. 15 emails from Peterson to multiple recipients. In them, the city manager stated “We DO NOT NEED TO GET THE STATE FIRE MARSHALL (sic) involved,” directed Stables to “Tell Roger he is on my $#*& list!!!” and told Stables and Davis “I have no need for employees who create problems.”

The complaint also alleges that during his “relatively short time” with the city, Davis has — along with his colleagues in fire prevention — been subjected to “ridicule and atttack” by Peterson.

“He has attempted to exert undue influence on plans review, construction approvals, fire prevention activities and fire code enforcement to the point where the two senior fire prevention officers are hesitant to make the necessary and appropriate decisions for fear of ridicule, retribution or retaliation from the City Manager or his subordinates,” Davis wrote.

An email from Peterson included blunt language about Davis.

The external review follows a Sept. 23 meeting between Davis, Human Resources Director Steve Willis, Peterson and Stables.

Davis amended his original complaint following that meeting, which he described as unproductive. “If (Peterson’s) intention for this meeting was to resolve my complaint, or to make me feel less threatened, it was a monumental failure,” Davis wrote.

He wrote that he was not allowed to bring a witness/representative to the meeting and described Peterson as “argumentative and aloof” and appearing to be “more focused on justifying his actions and reinforcing his point, then {sic} understanding my valid concerns and complaints.”

In his Sept. 23 memo, Davis requested a meeting with city commissioners and the mayor in person to discuss the situation. He also asked that an independent special investigator from outside the city be appointed to review the situation and investigate his complaint’s issues and concerns as well as “any additional information that is discovered or alleged through this investigation.”

After learning of the complaint, Brock said, the evidence definitely supported the expense of an investigation.

Asked about general expectations for inter-personnel communication, Brock said one of the commission’s guiding principles is showing respect to all employees.

“There’s terminology in some of these documents I’ve seen that certainly does not reflect that and so that’s disappointing, but we need to figure out how we resolve this and move forward,” Brock said.

“I think the way we handle this and the process by which we are approaching this is very important to demonstrate to the employees that all in all, no matter what, it’s accountability in any organization,” Brock added.

She said the commission, which hires, reviews and when necessary disciplines or fires a city manager, isn’t “prosecuting this case ahead of time.”

“We’re going to make sure the facts are on the table and that we can have a set of facts that we can try to seek this resolution and try to move forward.”

Concerns about old Ashe Street courthouse

The trouble started with a simple email informing city officials about use of the old Ashe Street Courthouse for temporary housing.

The complaint stems from an initial incident surrounding use of the former 911 Communications building at 401 Ashe Street to house homeless people who were COVID positive. An email from the city’s Anthony Light referenced one patient housed in the building’s conference area.

That 5:03 p.m. Aug. 14 email prompted an 8:32 p.m. response from Chief Stables to Davis, Peterson and the building department’s Preston Mitchell and David McClelland. “I have a concern whether this is acceptable and safe under the building and fire codes,” Stables wrote. “Certainly a life safety concern in my mind.” 

Fire Chief James Stables solicited opinions and expressed his concerns.

The email asked if anyone was in the loop “on this planned action” and requests people share their thoughts. It prompted this response from Davis at 9:22 a.m. the next morning:

“I was wondering about the jurisdiction on the bldg. Regardless if there is temp residential use of the facility, it should be inspected for safety by us or state fire marshal. I can forward copy of this to state fire marshall. He is very familiar with those rules and temp uses. More to come.”

Davis suggested some sort of inspection to ensure approval for the temporary use of the formerly unoccupied building.

Exactly two hours later, Peterson emailed the following to Davis, Stables and four others:

“This is a temporary use meeting an extraordinary circumstance created by the COVID pandemic. There are very limited options for housing homeless positive patients. We need to make this work with minimal changes, if any are needed. We DO NOT NEED TO GET THE STATE FIRE MARSHALL involved!”

A minute later, at 11:23 a.m., Peterson emailed Stables to say: “Tell Roger he is on my $#*& list!!! No need to get State involved and copy him on an email.”

Davis said in his complaint he considered the highlighted comment to represent a threat to his job from Peterson.

And 30 minutes later, at 11:52 a.m., Peterson emailed Davis and Stables to say: “What do you mean you (Davis) CAN send to State? You already sent him the damn email. You need to get all the facts and make contact with appropriate local officials  and property owners BEFORE getting overly bureaucratic! Terrible customer service!!! I have no need for employees who create problems.”

News Channel 11 asked Brock whether she would have interpreted as threatening an email from a CEO that was similar to Peterson’s “I have no need for employees who create problems” email. She said it would depend partly on what she’d been doing and what the email was criticizing, but added this.

“No one needs to feel like they’re threatened in the city. We want to make sure we investigate that and make sure that was not a threat, or was it a threat? That’s just a thing we have to get figured out.”

As far the questions about housing people in the building without a prior inspection, and the possibility of a culture that might encourage avoiding the state bureaucracy, Brock wouldn’t comment directly. She did say generally that life safety code and issues are “paramount” in Johnson City.

“Our obligation to our citizens is their health and safety and so we have the statutory regulations in place to ensure that in our fire codes, and there are others on the health side as well, and we have a tremendous obligation to enforce that.”

She said she knew nothing about the housing of people inside the building until she read Davis’s complaint.

Part of a pattern?

This issue isn’t the first involving the city’s fire department and Peterson. Stables’ predecessor, Mark Scott, eventually resigned in the wake of personnel issues brought to light in 2015 and 2016. Peterson was also criticized during that episode, with the pattern of Scott’s behavior unearthed in part from a News Channel 11 investigation. PREVIOUS STORY

Davis referenced that part of the city’s past in his complaint. He said he was a longtime public servant with “an unblemished employment record” who has years of managerial and supervisory experience.

Davis wrote that what he has alleged to have endured and his knowledge of the past situation left him “truly disappointed” that Peterson “has not learned from the past.”

That episode resulted in pointed comments in Peterson’s 2016 evaluation, a News Channel 11 story reported.

“A review of Peterson’s 45-page evaluation reveals general comments from every city commissioner about the lack of accountability at city hall, especially for employees and department heads who don’t perform or act unprofessional.

“Commissioner Jenny Brock specifically referenced the fire department situation.

“I encourage Pete to work harder to deal with issues in the Fire Department and establish a mutually respectful environment,” Brock said in her comments.”

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