A high-ranking Salt Lake City Fire Department official has filed a claim against the city alleging a pattern of misconduct at the department, including a failure to enforce important fire codes. At this point, they are unproven allegations, but the serious nature of the accusations demands a thorough investigation by the city that is appropriately open to public inspection.
Martha Ellis, the city’s first-ever female division chief, has alerted the city of her intent to pursue claims that also include charges that higher-ups in the department used city time for personal business, engaged in payroll fraud and tried to cover up the activities. It isn’t clear if Ellis’ claims are related in any way to the recent announcement by Fire Chief Brian Dale of his intention to retire this fall. The chief has been under scrutiny for his work with a national organization that develops protocol for emergency dispatchers. The chief reportedly received income from the organization and spent time traveling on its behalf.
Ellis was working in the capacity of a fire marshal until she was demoted last year, a move she claims was taken in retaliation for her having voiced concerns about department operations. The filing of a notice of claim is a precursor to a formal lawsuit. Under Utah law, people intending to sue government entities must give notification of that intent before going to court to allow authorities to investigate the allegations in a timely matter. Agencies are not required to make public disclosures of the findings of any investigation, which may be troubling if the matter is settled before going to court, where the nature of the claims may be fully explored.
There is certainly a legitimate public interest in what’s going on in the capital city’s fire department. Aside from any potential conflicts of interest among department managers, Ellis’ claims about fire code violations are indeed a matter of public concern. She claims the city failed to install proper fire-detection devices in a fire station that caught fire last year, causing $500,000 in damage and injuring several firefighters. Four of those injured have also filed notice of claim against the city alleging code violations.
Ellis has also alleged the city willfully violated fire codes when it installed dedicated bicycle lanes on 300 South that have restricted the ability of large fire equipment to maneuver along the street. She alleges the city was made aware of the problems the bike lanes may cause but went ahead with the project, which was popular among officials in the previous mayoral administration.
Current mayor Jackie Biskupski has pledged to look into matters related to the department, and we trust she will make good on that promise. Under state law, the city has 60 days to respond to Ellis’ claims. In the meantime, it’s in the city’s best interests to make sure the concerns about department operations are not left smoldering.