Aurora city council to consider motion to remove fired Denver firefighter from civil service commission

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AURORA | Aurora City Council member Dave Gruber on Monday announced he plans to recommend removing a recently appointed member of the city’s civil service commission from his seat after it was discovered the new commissioner was fired from the Denver Fire Department six years ago for violating a slew of the agency’s rules.

Gruber said he plans to introduce a proposal to recall Harold Johnson from his paid city role at the council’s next regular meeting on March 8.

“I believe that council has no choice other than to bring that up for a vote and to determine whether or not we leave him on the civil service commission,” Gruber said during a study session March 1.

The council’s 10 voting members unanimously approved appointments for Johnson and Brooke Gabrielli, a counselor in the Cherry Creek School District, to the powerful commission tasked with overseeing the hiring and firing of Aurora police and fire personnel last week.

But Gruber and others reneged on their support for Johnson after reading years-old news reports that detailed his acrimonious departure from a decades-long career with Denver Fire, according to reporting by CBS4.

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.”

Gruber said he learned of Johnson’s termination after a CBS4 reporter contacted him last week.

“I was stunned, I was embarrassed and I just thought, ‘How could we let this happen?’” he said. “Especially with all of the things going on in the city right now, to let something like this happen is just so difficult.”

Johnson 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.

When reached by phone Tuesday, Johnson again condemned the allegations his former employer levied against him nearly six years ago.

“I fought as long as I could against the allegations,” Johnson said. “I said then and I say now: All of them are lies. They were trumped up charges.”

He said he did not pursue civil litigation against the city at the time due to a lack of resources.

Aside from the details of Johnson’s termination, several Aurora city council members have taken issue with how Johnson characterized his departure from Denver Fire on his civil service application. He wrote that he was retired from the agency — not fired.

“It’s that initial dishonesty that I really take account with,” Council member Juan Marcano said Monday.

Johnson, who has lived in Aurora for three years, said he spoke with several people in the legal profession prior to listing his retirement status on his application and largely attributed the description to a matter of semantics.

“I don’t think I was being misleading,” he said.

Johnson said he would like to address council prior to Gruber’s motion next week, though he’s yet to hear from individual members.

“I would certainly like to talk with the city council and let them know my part of it,” he said.

Council members Allison Hiltz and Nicole Johnston said they would like to speak to Johnson sometime in the next week, highlighting that his claims he was fired out of retaliation should be taken seriously.

“It’s safe to say that no one finds Mr. Johnson’s comments appropriate, but I believe him when he says that he was retaliated against for calling out racism,” Hiltz said. “Our country has a history of villiainizing those who speak out against injustices and he, at the very least, deserves the opportunity to respond to the elected body who appointed him, if he chooses.”

Still, Gruber said he is leery of any explanations Johnson may assert.

“If you are a confirmed liar, what do you do with what you tell us?,” he said. “If you say this didn’t happen and this didn’t happen, but I’ve got the city termination letter that says you did, how does that go? … I would talk to him, yes, but I would have to take what he says with a grain of salt.”

Several council members said they supported Johnson’s appointment based on an interview he gave when applying for the role.

Council member Alison Coombs, who said she will likely support Gruber’s proposal, added she would like the city to bolster its application process for people seeking roles on city boards and commissions.

“On all the applications, I didn’t feel I had sufficient information,” she said of the recent application process.

Johnson said he believed the city would have reviewed his history with Denver Fire prior to granting his appointment. He said he was surprised when he was offered the position.

“It surprised me that they would go ahead with an offer because of what was said about me,” he said. “ … I figured they would have looked at all this.”

In order to pass, Gruber’s motion will require a super majority of eight council votes, Aurora city attorneys have confirmed.

If Johnson is stripped of his new title, it will again result in the five-person commission being short one member. The powerful panel, which last month unanimously agreed to uphold the firings of several officers implicated in the Elijah McClain photo scandal, operated with only four members for much of 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic waylaid the application process.

The group has operated with just three members — the minimum needed for a quorum — in recent months after former commissioner Pam Turner resigned to care for an ailing family member.

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