SLO hires law firm to investigate firefighter video involving city manager, fire chief

A Santa Ana law firm has been hired by the city of San Luis Obispo at a cost of up to $50,000 to conduct an independent investigation into personnel complaints against fire Chief Garret Olson and City Manager Katie Lichtig in connection with a video they participated in that allegedly sexually objectified city firefighters.

The video, produced by Olson with what he said were humorous intentions, was shown at the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce annual dinner Jan. 20. Olson served as emcee.

In the video, Olson wears a body camera and meets with chamber employees who jokingly refer to “hot,” “full monty” and “shirtless” firefighters.

Lichtig appears in the video as one of three women posing as male firefighters and wearing muscle T-shirts that resemble naked male torsos. The video at one point cuts to shirtless men, seemingly male models, with chiseled muscles.

Two personnel complaints have been filed against the city over the video, naming Olson and Lichtig, and alleging 11 violations of city workplace-related policy, including sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming of city officials.

Olson and Lichtig have apologized for the video and vowed to fully cooperate with the investigation.

Olson said he was trying to convey a self-deprecating, “tongue-in-cheek” explanation for why a fire chief might be emceeing a chamber of commerce dinner.

The city entered into an agreement Feb. 10 with the law firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen, and the investigator of the firm’s Santa Ana office, Katy Suttorp, has begun interviewing city employees and witnesses to gather information.

The agreement for the city’s cost of the investigation sets an initial limit of $15,000, with up to $50,000 if needed. Assistant City Manager Derek Johnson would need to approve any cost above $15,000, City Attorney Christine Dietrick said.

Dietrick said Suttorp began her inquiries Feb. 16 and 17 and was in San Luis Obispo again Thursday and Friday to investigate.

“There is no set time frame for the completion of the investigation,” Dietrick said. “The expectation is a thorough and independent job, and to bring it to resolution as expeditiously as we possibly can.”

The firm’s role will be to investigate the facts and offer legal advice, but it “will not render a legal determination whether there was any violation of law or statute,” according to the contract.

In coordination with the city’s Human Resources Department and the City Council, Dietrick’s office will determine any employee disciplinary action after the investigation is completed, taking into consideration state and local workplace policies, she said.

The city received a letter Feb. 11 — obtained by The Tribune with the sender’s name redacted — that threatens a lawsuit for some of the aspects of how officials are handling the investigation.

The letter — addressed to city’s Human Resources director, Monica Irons — objected to Irons making initial inquiries about the complaint before an independent investigator was hired. It also objected to the city issuing a “gag order” to stop parties involved in the case from talking about it, an alleged violation of First Amendment rights.

“You are clearly not the appropriate party to conduct the investigation,” the letter states. “You are an at-will employee who directly reports to individuals who may be involved and/or complicit in the authorization, creation, publication and/or distribution of the video.”

Additionally, the letter states, “The order you gave to not discuss the complaint except as necessary in the course of the personnel investigation and/or to consult with your representative in this matter, is illegal.”

The city has responded, saying that Irons’ inquiries were consistent with her job duties to assess the scope of the complaint before the city hired an independent investigator.

“It is certainly normal and best practice for the Human Resources director to ask any preliminary questions she feels necessary to understand the complaint so that we can convey an accurate scope of investigation and preliminary facts to the outside investigator,” Dietrick wrote Feb. 13 in response to the letter writer.

Dietrick said “a gag order” was a mischaracterization of the city’s attempts to warn parties not to interfere in the investigation or unduly influence witnesses.

“Because components of any investigation of this type necessarily turn on both subjective and objective perceptions regarding the conduct involved, the city is attempting to ensure that the investigator is able to obtain the best quality information possible, untainted by information or facts or third-party impression information learned after the fact of the events at issue,” Dietrick wrote.

Matt Polkow, the president of the city’s fire department employees union, said that he’s not sure who sent the letter to the city threatening the legal action, but it wasn’t on behalf of the union.

“We didn’t send it,” Polkow said. “It probably came from an individual, but the union learned about it when the city posted the notice on its council agenda for a closed-session meeting (of anticipated litigation).”

He added: “We asked for an independent investigation, and that’s what the city is doing. At the highest level of an organization, people can make mistakes, and all we ask is for them to be held accountable and that a third party looks into it.”