AURORA | A motion to remove a unanimously appointed civil service commissioner failed among Aurora City Council members Monday night, leaving some members worried the board’s reputation is further diminished.
The vote was split 5-6 for removing Harold Johnson from the commission. Council members Dave Gruber, Marsha Berzins, Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner and Mayor Mike Coffman voted in affirmation of the removal.
Council members Nicole Johnston, Juan Marcano, Alison Coombs, Crystal Murillo, Allison Hiltz and Angela Lawson voted to retain the commissioner.
Gruber brought the recall to council after learning from a CBS4 report Johnson was fired from the Denver Fire Department six years ago for violating a slew of the agency’s rules.
A 2015 order of disciplinary action from the Denver Fire Department stated that Johnson broke 13 of the entity’s rules, including lying to the internal affairs panel, neglecting his duties and exhibiting “extremely offensive, lewd, lascivious and disrespectful communication to staff.”
On his application to the commission that oversees disciplinary actions for the city’s police and fire departments, Johnson said he had retired from the Denver Fire Department. He also said several times during his interview with the city council that he retired.
Councilmembers who voted for Johnson’s dismissal said the removal was an issue of integrity because Johnson lied, but those who voted to keep him on the commission claimed there was more to the story after spending time talking with Johnson over the weekend.
“I have to say what he told us, or me rather, was compelling because I have had similar situations with people in my own family, people in my friend groups and I’ve had, you know, some questionable things happen on the job in my past as well,” Marcano said. “I strongly empathize with his side of the story.”
Johnson, who is Black, has repeatedly rebuked the statements made in his termination letter, characterizing the allegations as retaliation for calling out racist policies among the department’s ranks, according to reporting from Westword from 2015.
Councilmember Allison Coombs, who voted to retain Johnson, said she received information from people who had worked with Johnson and said they felt he was “hard to work with.”
“But again, I think we have to question what role does implicit bias play in those types of assessments that we make of people,” she said. “And so nothing that I heard convinced me that Mr. Johnson was wrong in what he shared with me in the conversations that I had with him.”
For other members of the city council, keeping Johnson on the commission is a bad look for Aurora.
“He’s absolutely unqualified for this position, and somebody who has virtually no integrity. Maybe (he) can do a great sales job over the phone with some of the members here, but (he has) no integrity,” Coffman said of Johnson remaining on the commission. “And you choose to believe him now, but (he’s) going to be making decisions over first of all, whether or not people get into police and fire and second if they’re able to stay in for disciplinary reasons.
“And let me tell you, I think it takes an act of God to get rid of somebody in police and fire in a unionized organization, whether it’s Denver or Aurora,” he said.
Councilmember Curtis Gardner said some of the council members were turning the issue into one about a legitimate firing by the Denver Fire Department, and while he said that may be true, it isn’t the point.
“The point is that he lied on an application. That action would lead to termination for a regular city employee, and I certainly hope, by keeping Mr. Johnson on the Civil Service Commission, we aren’t opening ourselves up to lawsuits by past employees that have been terminated for falsifying applications or future employees that are terminated for falsifying an application,” he said.
Johnson is one of five members on the commission. It operated for the better part of 2020 with four members, recently upholding the firings of several officers implicated in the Elijah McClain photo scandal.
— Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report