Video shown at SLO Chamber of Commerce dinner draws allegations of sexism
A video shown at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce annual dinner on Jan. 20 in which chamber employees jokingly refer to “hot,” “full monty” and “shirtless” firefighters has resulted in at least two personnel complaints filed against the city, naming fire Chief Garret Olson and City Manager Katie Lichtig.
Olson, who emceed the dinner, conceived the idea for the video, and both he and Lichtig participated in it.
The city has initiated an investigation into the incident.
In an email to department heads and fire department employees, Lichtig wrote Sunday that she apologizes for the video and “will cooperate fully and accept the consequences” of the investigation.
On Monday, Olson told The Tribune, “I sincerely apologize to anyone I’ve offended with my comments and actions.”
He said he was trying to convey a humorous, “tongue-in-cheek” explanation for why a fire chief might be emceeing a chamber of commerce dinner.
“The video was meant to be self-deprecating, and I had no intention to disrespect anyone at all,” Olson said. “I deeply respect firefighters and their service mission. My intentions were good and genuine, and I thought I was trying to convey a positive message, but I missed the mark.”
I would never want to offend any member of the city family or the community.
San Luis Obispo City Manager Katie Lichtig
The firefighters’ union issued a news release Monday afternoon, calling for the City Council to appoint an outside entity to investigate the issue and recommend appropriate action.
The release says “multiple personnel complaints have been filed” against Olson and Lichtig over “a highly offensive sexual objectification video of city firefighters.” Other union members have “been dissuaded” from filing complaints out of fear of reprisal, according to the release.
As of Monday afternoon, two separate employee complaints against Olson and Lichtig, alleging similar workplace misconduct in relation to the video, have been filed, according to the city.
“Members of Local 3523 are disturbed, sad and embarrassed that the highest-ranking city officials blatantly demeaned their chosen profession and believed it appropriate to sexually objectify city firefighters both publically [sic] at the chamber’s annual dinner and to circulate the video on the internet,” the release stated.
In the 6 1/2 -minute video intended as a spoof, the first half of which was shot with a body camera worn by Olson, the city’s fire chief walks through the chamber’s office and discusses his duties as emcee.
Female firefighters are not depicted in the scripted skit, only men. The department has no full-time female firefighters or engineers.
“Hey, are you bringing any shirtless firefighters to the dinner?” one chamber employee asks Olson, who laughs off the comment.
“No,” Olson says, “I’m probably going to be the only one, and I’m going to need to wear a shirt.”
At one point in the skit, chamber Director of Governmental Affairs Charlene Rosales said, “That’s the only reason I’m going on the interview panels,” in reference to the physical attractiveness of firefighters.
Chamber Executive Director Ermina Karim is shown asking, “Who is that new guy driving Truck 1? His chestnut hair and ice blue eyes and a laugh that sounds like a tropical waterfall at sunset.”
The video cuts to images of anonymous shirtless men, seemingly male models, with chiseled muscles, before transitioning into a second half of the shoot in which Lichtig and two other women — chamber members — don shirts of faux, naked male torsos and fake mustaches.
The scenes have drawn allegations of sexism and conduct unbecoming of city officials. The video has been taken down from YouTube.
Not one of the nearly 600 guests in attendance, who were surveyed after the event, complained about the video, Karim said Monday. The chamber has a traditional roast of the outgoing chair, and the event is intended have a humorous tone at times, she said.
“It’s regrettable that any of the actions created negative feelings in regards to the firefighting video or that anyone’s feelings were hurt,” Karim said. “That would be contrary to the intentions of those who created it.”
As of Monday, neither Olson nor Lichtig had been placed on administrative leave. City Attorney Christine Dietrick said she was in the process of retaining an outside investigator — Katy Suttorp of the Santa Ana-based law firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen — to conduct a fact-finding investigation about the workplace conduct.
In coordination with the city’s Human Resources department and the City Council, Dietrick’s office will make a determination on any employee disciplinary action, taking into consideration state and local workplace policies, she said. Without specifically assessing the range of options in this case, Dietrick said personnel complaints can range from “no action to termination.”
In her email Sunday night, Lichtig apologized for the video and for “not fully contemplating the reaction” people might have to it. Lichtig, who said she is out of the office this week recovering from a medical procedure, wrote that she wished to apologize in person.
“I apologize that my role was offensive to some,” Lichtig wrote. “Additionally, I deeply regret not fully contemplating the reaction some had to the video. I wish that I had anticipated the reaction in providing guidance regarding the script and in participating in the video itself.”
She added: “I would never want to offend any member of the city family or the community. The city intends to initiate a personnel investigation about this matter. I will cooperate fully and accept the consequences.”
I believe that the very nature of this video violates a number of city policies and is offensive not only to myself but many other members of this department, our families and the community for which we serve.
Erik Baskin, San Luis Obispo City Fire Department engineer
A copy of the complaint obtained by The Tribune shows that Erik Baskin, a 17-year city fire engineer and past president of the San Luis Obispo City Firefighters Local 3523, alleged on Feb. 8 that Olson and Lichtig’s participation in creating the video violated 11 sections of city policy.
“I believe that the very nature of this video violates a number of city policies and is offensive not only to myself but many other members of this department, our families and the community for which we serve,” Baskin wrote.
Among his allegations, Baskin listed violations of the city’s code of ethics, municipal code and respectful behavior policy. He specifically alleged sexual harassment; sexual inference and innuendo directed at male firefighters; “inappropriate and unprofessional solicitation by Chief Olson and female employees of the chamber of commerce who engaged in suggestive sexual characterizations of firefighters appearance and their bodies;” and “demeaning, degrading and negative stereotyping of male firefighters.”
He also said the video was a misuse and misappropriation of city time, facilities and materials, and that a department-owned body camera was “utilized and worn for the purpose of display of inappropriate and demeaning sexual innuendo.”
All this has created a hostile work environment, Baskin said.
“These are just a few of the violations of city policy, violations of the municipal code and violations of state and federal law that resulted from the creation, display, and distribution into the public domain and social media of Chief Olson’s video,” Baskin wrote.
In his complaint, Baskin requested the immediate seizure and safekeeping of all materials related to the video by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. A representative from that agency could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Baskin also requested an “independent Special Master be appointed to conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation.” Fire department sources told The Tribune that more complaints are expected to be filed.
The fire department’s employee union has tangled with the city over multiple administrative and legal disputes, including a lawsuit filed against the city in December over an alleged miscalculation of the rate of pay used to calculate overtime.
The fire union also tried to intervene in a complaint against the city, filed by the police union and settled in December, stemming from an August 2011 vote by San Luis Obispo residents to overwhelmingly repeal binding arbitration.
The Public Employment Relations Board denied the fire union’s attempt to continue the legal battle on its own behalf.