SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission has released scathing findings regarding the demotion of the city's first female battalion chief, concluding that her demotion appeared to be based on allegations that were manufactured.
Martha Ellis, a veteran firefighter of more than 20 years, was demoted from battalion chief to captain in May 2016 by then-Assistant Fire Chief Robert McMicken.
But the commission said in a report dated Nov. 1 that the allegations against her appear "to be an attempt to manufacture misconduct and alleged failure of performance to justify disciplinary action when there were no performance issues."
Citing testimony from a fire department employee, the commission also found that McMicken "almost from the outset of the time that Ellis became a division chief, was monitoring her in a way that singled her out and indicated he was looking for reasons to discipline her."
In a prepared statement issued Wednesday, Ellis thanked the commission for its review.
"There are no words to express my gratitude for the time, attention to detail and commitment the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission has invested in this process," she said.
"This entire experience has been nothing short of unbridled hell for my family and me," Ellis continued. "To be vindicated and validated by this statutory body has restored my faith in the process of questioning unsubstantiated discipline. It's an amazing feeling to have this impartial commission recognize what I have been trying to tell people in the city since 2012."
When McMicken demoted Ellis, he claimed Ellis was having an "apparent lack of engagement with (her) current assignment, lack of ownership of (her) job responsibilities, an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions, and a lack of respect for (her) chain of command," according to Ellis' notice of decision.
But about a year later, the commission overturned Ellis' demotion after hearing testimony from McMicken (now the department's chief deputy), Ellis and other witnesses.
The 49-page report shows the commission examined the allegations against Ellis but concluded they weren't supported by any substantial evidence and her demotion was "unduly excessive."
But two months prior to when her demotion was overturned, Ellis was fired from the fire department for not returning to work on March 1 as ordered after six months' leave for mental health issues that resulted from the demotion. Ellis said she made a "good faith" effort to return to work but the fire department didn't provide her with requested accommodations, including a brief period of training to ease her back into emergency response work.
Currently, Ellis still does not work for the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Her case is now pending in federal court after she filed claims against McMicken, then-Deputy Chief Karl Lieb and then-Chief Brian Dale of whistleblower retaliation and gender-based harassment and discrimination.4 comments on this story
McMicken asserted that he alone made the decision to demote Ellis, but he also testified that the two levels of authority above him, Lieb and Dale, "played a small role." The commission determined Dale "at most" approved of the demotion.
Dale has since retired as fire chief, after which Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski named Lieb to take his place. His appointment was approved by the City Council.
Biskupski's spokesman Matthew Rojas declined to comment on the commission's report, citing pending litigation.