STOCKTON, Calif. — A new report released Thursday by the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury alleges misconduct at the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District but says that the district has taken steps to improve its culture.
The 14-page report offers 14 recommendations for the fire district's Board of Directors to take to require more oversight over the fire chief, training for board members and employee complaint policies.
The investigation began after reports surfaced that fire officials improperly used the fire district's credit card for personal uses during a February 2021 retreat held in Napa.
According to the grand jury, the fire district's credit card was used to purchase personal items, services and alcoholic beverages during the retreat.
A third party was brought in to investigate the retreat, and shortly after, the district's fire chief retired with full benefits, according to the report.
The report found that an ordinance on file at the fire district allowed the fire chief to, "control most financial operations of the District with limited or no Board oversight, thus providing an opportunity for financial malfeasance."
Recommendations in the report aim to provide more oversight over the fire chief and how money from the district's credit card is spent. Some of the recommendations call for new policies to be implemented by Nov. 1.
The report also shed light on the district's Board of Directors saying that some board members lacked adequate training.
"Under the California Public Records Act, the District’s five Board members are required to provide their AB1234 Ethics Training Certificates upon request. Historically the certificates have been posted on the LMFD website," the report says. "Three Board member certificates currently posted on the website have expired, and two Board member certificates are missing."
The grand jury recommended that the fire district implement policies to require board members to complete AB1234 training and provide proof of completion upon request.
Allegations of harassment and intimidation were also investigated by the grand jury, which found that some administrative employees were not paid contracted raises after making complaints against the fire chief.
"Members of the firefighting and administrative staff reported that they felt intimidated, threatened or harassed to the point of taking medical stress leave, while some resigned their positions," the report says. "There have also been allegations of cronyism where preferential treatment or promotions were given to employees who were favored by the Chief."
The grand jury made five recommendations regarding harassment and intimidation including recommending that investigations are completed and employees are paid for missed mileage payments and raises.
The report notes that the fire district has taken steps to improve its culture by updating some policies, bringing in a third-party investigator and defining its mission, vision and values.
The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District, which began in 1987 and receives funding from property tax assessments in their district, serves an estimated 37,000 San Joaquin County residents in 90 square miles of rural land surrounding Lathrop and Manteca.
"The District improvement process is a work in progress. The Board acknowledges that the District will need more time to heal and restore trust following the turmoil and upheaval created under previous management" the report says. "The Board believes that the selection of a new Chief is a critical decision that must be done correctly if the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District is to move in a positive and effective direction."
A response by the Fire District, addressing each of the report's findings and recommendations, is due back to the San Joaquin County Superior Court within 90 days.
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