In August 13, Murfreesboro Fire & Rescue Department (MFRD) Fire Chief Cumbey Gaines, a thirty-five year veteran, will retire from his post. For a number of months, the city has been engaged in a search for Gaines’ replacement. So far, the results have some firefighters worried.
According to Michael Browning, Murfreesboro’s public information officer, “The city is conducting a national search to replace Fire Chief Cumby Gaines, who will retire on August 11. The city received 80 applicants and it is hoped that the position will be filled prior to Chief Gaines’ retirement.”
Given that timeline, a concerned veteran firefighter in MFRD reached out to Out & About Nashville to report that Mark Foulks, fire chief in Greenville, Tennessee, was among four finalists. He declined to identify himself for fear of retribution, but noted that a number of firefighters have raised objections to the city over Foulks’ candidacy. Browning declined to identify Foulks as a candidate for the position, but an independent, anonymous source within Murfreesboro city government did confirm Foulks' standing as one of four finalists.
Formerly the assistant fire chief in Knoxville, Foulks was the subject of a grievance filed with the city of Knoxville’s Civil Service Board by transgender firefighter Captain Jaime Faucon in early 2006. Then-Chief Carlos Perez was also named in the grievance.
According to Faucon, who had begun her transition under the previous chief, the work environment changed once Perez came to Knoxville. After comments by Foulks and other leaders that displayed anti-trans bias behind measures taken against her, O&AN reported, Faucon complained, maintaining “that her office was moved to deliberately hinder her abilities to perform her duties with regard to stocking emergency-related supplies at various fire stations.
Faucon’s office was moved to a location distant from the supplies in an effort to create a more stressful work environment, according to the plaintiff. Faucon also cited loss of on-call pay and drive-home vehicle in her formal grievance.”
By June of 2006, Perez had resigned over the issue and the Civil Service Board ruled in favor of Faucon’s complaint. Further, a job performance evaluation that Faucon felt was an attempt to retaliate against her was pulled and rewritten at the behest of the Board.
The Board’s report, according to an article originally published by the Knoxville News Sentinel, also centered in on comments made by witnesses during the investigation. “Finally, I am concerned by statements made by several witnesses indicating fear of retribution by Mark Foulks and Mike Brown," Civil Service Director Vicki Hatfield wrote, citing one fire officer who said he'd "never seen such a vindictive group in his department and that 'if you make waves, you get punished by these people.'"
Similar fears were echoed by the Murfreesboro firefighter who contacted O&AN. “I contacted you guys because no one’s listening to us. The Fire Department is a hard place, and I know most LGBT people are in the closet here, but does anyone want this kind of guy as chief? The people of Murfreesboro deserve better than a bigot, and the firefighters of Murfreesboro deserve someone they don’t have to be afraid to serve under.”
For his part, Foulks continued to maintain that his behavior was appropriate, even after the Board’s determination. Foulks' attorney, Gregory P. Isaacs, said "Mr. Foulks denies any wrongdoing as it relates to the discharge of his duties as a member of the fire department and was surprised by the tone and tenor of the report."
Foulks left Knoxville’s fire department shortly after the Faucon controversy to become fire chief in Greenville, Tennessee, but his time there was, early on, marred by issues with top officers. In 2007, Foulks suspended veteran Greenville fire captain Jack Tilson for 20 days for "insubordination and willful disregard of a direct order" for continuing “to respond to fire scenes although he was told not to do so, and had been assigned to administrative duties only,” according to the Greenville Sun.
Through Browning, the city of Murfreesboro declined to comment on specific applicants, merely adding, “The city has a record of conducting systematic and equitable job searches. As an equal opportunity employer, the City of Murfreesboro embraces diversity and the fair and equitable treatment of its employees. The city strives to identity qualified minorities and females in the creation of a more diverse workforce that is reflective of the diversity of our community.”
Photo at top courtesy of Philip Shofner, via Creative Commons License
Mark Foulks photo via Greenville Fire Department