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Fire service changes must start from top


Published January 13, 2004

Largo fire Lt. Edward Sajdak Jr. resigned Monday, two days after a city investigation concluded he made an inappropriate remark to a firefighter and should be fired.

According to witnesses and the investigation, Sajdak, a 26-year veteran of the Fire Department, made the remark on Oct. 7 as firefighter Argelio "Frank" E. Rodriguez Jr. was in the fire station talking on his cell phone in Spanish to his brother. Rodriguez said he overheard Sajdak say, "That Puerto Rican is too stupid to understand how to use that like a cell phone instead of a walkie-talkie."

Rodriguez is Cuban, but took offense anyway, and no wonder. At the time, the city was implementing its new internal harassment policy to create zero tolerance for harassment based on race and certain other circumstances.

Rodriguez reported the derogatory remark to city officials. A few weeks later he received a negative performance evaluation from Sajdak - an evaluation that the city's recent investigation concluded was unfair and was retaliation for Rodriguez's complaint. Retaliation for complaints also is prohibited under the new internal harassment policy.

If Sajdak did these things in the very month that the new policy was being implemented, and at a time when the city's problems with harassment and discrimination were in the headlines, it says a lot about how deep the roots of racism and discrimination run in the Largo Fire Department.

Sajdak is the third fire lieutenant to leave the department under such circumstances since November 2002. Lt. Jeannine Horton was fired for using a racial slur. Lt. Brian McCrea resigned after allegations that he made inappropriate remarks about women at work.

In a Times story Saturday about the investigation of Sajdak, City Manager Steve Stanton said that fire employees seem to be the most resistant to changing their behaviors under the new harassment policy. It is important to note that lieutenants are supervisors in the Fire Department. They are part of the management structure. If they have conducted themselves in such a way, they must have felt protected from consequences.

With each revelation, it has become more clear that a culture of discrimination has been allowed to thrive in the Largo Fire Department for years. It has become so normal that department employees feel justified in defending it.

Responsibility for that goes all the way to the top of the department, to Chief Caroll Williams. Either he allowed such behavior to go on, or he looked the other way, or he was so removed from the rank and file that he was oblivious to the way they lived and worked.

None of those is acceptable. Stanton has a problem in the Fire Department that starts at the top and goes all the way to the bottom. And a new harassment policy - even a tough one - may not be enough to fix it.

[Last modified January 13, 2004, 01:33:02]


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