Former Fire Chief Pegs Ontario As A Hotbed Of Racial Prejudice

ONTARIO—In December 2011 Floyd E. Clark’s ascension to the position of Ontario Fire Chief was an auspicious one, or seemed so. At the age of 53, he had been with the department for a quarter of a century, having originally been hired as a fire inspector in 1986. In those 25 years he had risen to the rank of assistant fire chief/city fire marshal, and was eligible to retire with a comfortable pension. But 22 months previously, Ontario’s city manager, Greg Devereaux, had been lured into becoming San Bernardino County’s chief executive officer, touching off a promotional round within the fire department when fire chief Chris Hughes was chosen by the city council to replace Devereaux.
Then-assistant chief Dave Carrier was promoted to succeed Hughes in February 2010. A year and seven months later, at the age of 54, Carrier retired. It was at that point that the city council turned to Clark, elevating him to chief, making him the first African-American fire chief of the Ontario Fire Department in its more than a century of existence. Clark remained as fire chief for three-and-a-half years, a seeming success story, a living, breathing example of Ontario having joined the ranks of other San Bernardino County cities such as Montclair, San Bernardino, Grand Terrace, Colton and Victorville, which have embraced African Americans as top administrators or key members of management. Clark lasted in the chief’s position well beyond his 55th birthday, the age at which most firefighters retire, and looked to be aiming at staying in place until he was 60, an increasingly rare accomplishment for the firefighting profession in this day in age, with its emphasis on employing youthfully enthusiastic and robust personnel capable of meeting the physical challenges of the assignments and lucrative pensions which incentivize early retirement.
But with the Fourth of July celebrations around Ontario in 2015, Clark’s seemingly unblemished reputation as a fixture of both Ontario history and within Ontario’s firefighting pantheon was at first questioned, then sullied. With subsequent events the situation devolved into a circumstance in which Clark was ignominiously terminated and Ontario’s government structure is now being lambasted as a culture dominated by white Anglo Saxon males in which Clark had been given a token promotion to keep the true nature of the racism in the city under wraps.
At the July 7, 2015 council meeting, councilman Alan Wapner confronted both the chief of police, Brad Kaylor, and Clark, pressing them on the proliferation of illegal fireworks throughout the city on July 4, three days earlier. Kaylor responded, saying the city’s codes did not allow the police department to issue citations to those blasting off illegal fireworks within the city limits unless they were caught in the act of doing so. Wapner demanded of Clark how many warnings fire department personnel had issued with regard to the possession or use of fireworks. Clark said he did not have that information but would research it. From the tenor of Wapner’s exchange with Clark, it seemed to many that Wapner was bating Clark for a fight. Clark did not engage with Wapner at the time, but the public scolding Clark sustained continued to resonate. Subsequently, the Sentinel has learned, the other members of the council, Jim Bowman in particular, privately rebuffed Wapner for having taken the fire chief to the woodshed in public, prompting Wapner to offer a somewhat sheepish apology to his colleagues, claiming he did not fully realize what he had done. No apology was made to Clark, however, and the relationship between Clark and the city went downhill from there.
Wapner’s slap at Clark was the first public indication of any hint of dissatisfaction with Clark. That public demonstration, exposing Clark as politically vulnerable, triggered, it appears, some show of dissension in the fire department. That dissension manifested not down but rather up the chain of command, perhaps accentuated by the impatience of the most ambitious members of the department who were angling for promotions, ones that were being held up as Clark remained in a position atop the heap in the fire department beyond his normal retirement age.
One well-placed source has told the Sentinel that by the end of last summer “there was some ill will toward Floyd within the ranks.” That sentiment, involving a handful of firefighters, was conveyed to city manager Al Boling, who in October of 2015 was giving indication that the city was looking toward Clark’s upcoming departure sooner rather than later, and certainly no later than at some point in 2016. Boling articulated to a select group that it was anticipated the department would be moving on with Bob Elwell, who was Clark’s assistant fire chief, succeeding him.
Boling’s evolving plan for the fire department, however, did not match with Clark’s intentions, which were centered on his remaining in place as chief until, as he put it, he had “accomplished remaining goals.”
Boling informed the council and other senior administrative staff members of Elwell’s pending ascendency to chief but would later seek, at least temporarily successfully, to insulate the council from the developing acrimony that ensued as Clark resisted Boling’s retirement plans for him. The matter remained temporarily moot, as Clark had taken what he assumed was to be a relatively short term medical leave in November 2015. In his absence, deputy fire chief Raymond Ramirez served as acting fire chief. Ramirez’s move into the post was done quietly; there was no public report that Clark was absent from his post.
Earlier this year, however, the circumstance in the fire department could no longer be sustained, as the contretemps escalated with some firefighters making expressions of dissatisfaction of Clark as chief and Clark retaining a lawyer to represent him. In February, When Clark returned from medical leave, Boling, without fanfare, placed him on administrative leave. At that point, the council was informed that a potential bone of contention had erupted between Clark and Boling. The contention momentarily intensified, but there ensued a several month-long de-escalation in which it appeared the differences would be resolved amicably, with Clark being granted his wish of coming back as fire chief and remaining in that position until the end of July.
So things stood, or appeared to stand, with the prospect that Clark would return as fire chief for a few months duration and leave at the end of July. In the meantime, however, Clark changed attorneys, retaining Redlands-based attorney Sandra Noel to represent him. Noel was far more aggressive in representing Clark than had been her predecessor; the tension between Clark and Boling re-escalated.
In early April, it was publicly announced that Elwell had been chosen to replace Clark as fire chief and would assume the chief’s position on April 18. The city publicly stated that Clark had “retired at the end of December.” This unilateral announcement was at odds with Clark’s understanding. The contretemps between Clark and Boling intensified, yet remained hidden from the public and even the city council.
On June 29, Boling, having already done so practically, officially relieved Clark of his command.
While the action was clearly a termination, the city did not publicize it, and on July 14, when Clark filed his civil rights discrimination lawsuit, using language that included “discriminatory prejudice,” the city council was blindsided.
In his suit, Clark maintains his treatment and firing were racially motivated. At the age of 20, Clark committed to a career as a firefighter. From the outset of his hiring as a fire inspector with the department at the age of 25 in 1986, Clark maintains in his suit, he was confronted with a culture in which African Americans were less than welcome. At that time, he claims and the city disputes, he was the only black firefighter, and since then, not a single black firefighter has been hired.
He sought to change that aspect of how the city operated, according to Clark’s lawsuit, registering protests about the fire department’s hiring practices. But that resulted in conflict with members of the department and led to his firing, according to the suit.
“Ontario discriminated, and continues to discriminate against African/American employees, specifically the plaintiff,” according Noel’s 39-page complaint on Clark’s behalf.
As early as his hiring in 1986, according to the suit, Clark was aware and sensitive to the disparity in the hiring of African Americans by the department, to the point that he volunteered, repeatedly, to be brought onto the oral board, consisting of one firefighter, one engineer, and one captain, which interviewed firefighter applicants. Clark was never put on that panel.
During a four-year period recruitment push that occurred during his tenure as chief from 2012 to 2015, Clark alleged he was informed that a number of African American candidates had been interviewed but were not offered positions.
“The alleged African American candidates were strategically eliminated at the oral board process,” according to the suit.
When Clark confronted Boling over the issue, according to the lawsuit, Boling told Clark, “he did not share the same view of the imbalance of the racial inequality.”
Prior to her client’s June 29 sacking, Noel maintains, Clark was subject to a “campaign, plan and scheme” by Boling that was several months in duration and which was calculated to force him into early retirement.
The suit names Boling, the City of Ontario and its fire department, and seeks unspecified damages.
Clark’s suit alleges the defendants created a hostile work environment after a series of events in 2015. One of those events included an apparent falling out between Clark and councilman Jim Bowman, a former Ontario fire chief himself who had enthusiastically heralded Clark’s promotion to fire chief in 2011, saying Clark was someone who was “well respected, knowledgeable and who can get the job done and will do the city well.”
Clark maintains that last year Boling and Bowman pressured him to sign off on an undeserved promotion of one of the department’s engineers that would have enhanced the engineer’s retirement benefits. The retaliation against him began in earnest at that point, according to Clark’s suit.
Ultimately, a showdown between Bowman and Clark ensued during a meeting at which he, the councilman and the department’s deputy chiefs were present, according to Clark. At that point, Bowman told Clark point blank, “You need to go because you are not in touch with the culture of the department anymore,” the suit claims.
The suit maintains that Clark was shown the door on trumped up charges, which were documented in his termination notice. That notice informed Clark’s forced departure was being effectuated “due to incompatibility of management styles.”
In that notice, according to the suit, Boling told Clark “I find your management to be ineffective; your relationships with the department members have deteriorated and impacted the overall morale of the department, resulting in increased complaints, grievances and general dysfunction in the department.”
Of note was that Boling considered Clark’s fixation on hiring more African Americans as firefighters to be a misapplication of his authority, and that Clark should be more appropriately focused as fire chief on the department’s financial issues and its budget.
A year ago, the city’s push toward easing him out and replacing him with Elwell had begun, according to the suit, when Boling requested Clark to promote Elwell to deputy fire chief. Clark refused, asserting Elwell lacked the requisite certifications.
According to the lawsuit, Boling intensified the effort to induce Clark to retire. Clark was noncommittal, hoping at that point he might stay in position for as many as two to three more years.
“After several other conversations with Al Boling concerning this topic and to prevent future bullying, harassment and vexing, Floyd Clark provided a tentative [retirement] date for July 2016,” according to the suit.
Yet, after Clark made that compromise, Boling did not keep his end of the bargain, according to the suit. When Clark took what was supposed to be an abbreviated medical leave in November, Boling sought to have him move up his retirement date to December 30, 2015. Clark refused. Boling then presented Clark with a settlement agreement in December that specified his retirement would commence at the end of that month upon his voluntary resignation. Simultaneously, in what Boling intended as a fait accompli, according to the lawsuit, Boling sent out a memo, without Clark’s knowledge or consent, informing fire department personnel that Clark had given notice of his retirement.
On February 10, when Clark returned from medical leave intending to pick up where he had left off, Boling placed him on administrative leave with pay.
A City Hall insider told the Sentinel this week, “There’s absolutely no resolution in sight. It’s upon us and now it is getting litigated.”
Saying he was “torn” by what had occurred, the knowledgeable source said, “I never heard that there were any complaints about the fire department’s production while Floyd was chief. It was only relatively recently that this supposed acrimony among staff has come up.”
He continued. “This is said to involve a racial issue. I have trouble accepting that. People are saying he is playing the race card. Some have suggested he might play the religious card. The fire chief put out a monthly letter. In that, he would quote scripture. That is something some might take offense to, but I never heard of that, just like I can’t imagine anyone would object to his race. If there was dissatisfaction among the troops, it had to be for some other reason. If the question is whether the department is as racially diverse as it could be, maybe it’s not. It is top heavy with Anglos. But there are Hispanic firefighters who have done very well in the department. Al Boling is not a racist. He is performance oriented. Over in the police department, [deputy chief] Derek Williams [an African-American] is in line to be the next police chief. I know that in this lawsuit Floyd is saying that the city was gunning to get rid of him because he was black. I don’t believe that is true. He may see it that way, but I have not seen that. I’m a friend of Floyd’s. If this city was racist, then he would never have gotten to be fire chief. I think some things happened that everyone now wishes had not and it has gotten out of hand. People are angry and decisions are being made out of anger and now you have this hodgepodge of craziness.”
Boling did not return calls seeking his response to the suit. Indeed, the matter is considered so serious that Ontario’s city attorney, the venerable John Brown, is not handling the case. Instead, the case has been turned over to the law firm of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore.
Elizabeth Arce of Liebert Cassidy Whitmore told the Sentinel this week she was not yet up to speed with regard to the assertions contained in the complaint. Nevertheless, she said the suit is without merit. “We have just received the suit,” Arce said. “I am still evaluating it. As far as the allegations set forth in the complaint, the city disputes them.”
With regard to when, precisely, Clark had departed from Ontario – either as of the December 30 date initially provided by Boling or as of the June 29 date subsequently given as to the day of his firing – Arce vacillated or prevaricated, at first indicating she was not certain and then stating she could not say. “I cannot comment as to his retirement date. This is a personnel matter and I can’t clarify that,” she said.
With regard to Wapner’s July 2015 public criticism of Clark, which in the minds of many set off the downward spiral of events leading to the lawsuit, Arce said, “I don’t believe that is an allegation in the lawsuit.”
As to indications that Boling, perhaps in an attempt to insulate the council from fallout that might ensue from sacking Clark, had kept the city’s elected officials in the dark as to what was transpiring with regard to the matter, Arce said, “I’m not aware of that.” Asked point blank if it was the council’s perception previously or at this point that Boling had erred by forcing Clark into an earlier retirement than the fire chief personally desired and then speeding up the timetable for Elwell’s advancement to the chief’s position and not allowing Clark’s tenure to run its course through to the agreed-to compromise date of July 31, Arce said, “I can’t say one way or the other.”
Arce did not deny, but would not confirm, that the city council had been “blindsided” by the lawsuit. Despite several of the council members’ expressions of surprise at the filing of the suit, Arce said such a conclusion was based on “speculation.”

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