By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Charges of endangered public and student health rang out at last week's hearing that preceded the dismissal of L.A. Unified's safety director, Hamid Arabzadeh. Not present, however, were half a dozen district staff members, some of whom attested in writing to the matter Arabzadeh was officially fired over: his management skills. Those staff - who had worked under Arabzadeh for a year inside the Environmental Health and Safety division - were blocked by district managers from attending the public hearing. Some of them say their jobs were threatened if they voiced support for Arabzadeh.
Arabzadeh attorney Pamela Mozer said in an interview she did not object at the time for fear of jeopardizing staff jobs, but said she plans to respond. "There is more than sufficient evidence to show that the witnesses were not allowed to attend the hearing and use their own vacation time, and as such were prohibited from speaking on Hamid's behalf," Mozer said. "This clearly is a violation of my client's civil rights. I will be filing litigation regarding this matter."
Given the charged climate, several staff members said they did not dare to request permission to address the hearing directly. But several may have wanted vacation time off that would allow them to attend - and were, in effect, discouraged by department administrator Dianne Doi.
In a curt e-mail distributed to all senior managers in the environmental branch the day before the hearing, Doi wrote, "Last minute vacation requests for tomorrow will not be approved. Please ensure your staff has assigned work, unless staff is required to be available as requested by counsel."
Doi is deputy director of the Environmental Health and Safety branch. She became acting director in June, when Arabzadeh was placed on administrative leave. Doi is a leading contender to replace Arabzadeh in the $99,000-per-year directorship. Asked about the e-mail, Doi protested that no one had requested permission to speak at the hearing.
"I did indicate that if there were last-minute vacation requests, they would not be approved unless counsel wished them to appear - either counsel," Doi told the Weekly. She stressed, "They didn't come and ask me to speak."
Mozer responded: "By refusing permission for staff members to attend and speak on Mr. Arabzadeh's behalf - even to use their own vacation time - management purposefully withheld vital information from the board pertaining to the very issue over which the termination was being decided."
Several board members reacted sharply when informed of Doi's e-mail. Board president Victoria Castro said it reflected "poor judgment," and board member Barbara Boudreaux likened the action to "trying to stop a whistle blower." Trustee David Tokofsky went so far as to write a memo on the matter to Superintendent Ruben Zacarias: "This is either a confusing e-mail or it indicates that we were, as a Board of Education and superintendent, lied to that day."
Doi has been at the center of a department personnel controversy before, one involving George Bostean, a 10-year staffer in the safety branch. In April of this year, Bostean won a ruling from the 2nd District of the California Court of Appeals stating that the district denied him due process when placing him on unpaid leave.
During his career as a safety officer with the district, Bostean, who has a degree in chemical engineering and is a registered environmental assessor, was repeatedly passed over for promotion despite his qualifications. Unlike Arabzadeh, whose incomplete probation left him with limited recourse, Bostean's vested civil-service status gave him solid ground to fight treatment that hurt his livelihood and, he says, his health.
Bostean's chief complaint was that fumes from a district hazardous-materials van, which he drove up to 50 miles a day, were making him ill. "I collected formaldehyde, mercury, pesticides, acids - some of which had become explosive after years of storage," Bostean said. The van lacked both an intact vapor barrier and air conditioning. Bostean further complained that prolonged work in crawlspaces caused a dangerous heat stress that aggravated his diabetes. When Bostean requested modifications in the van, he said, he was subjected to harassment and retaliation, including being denied a promotion.
Doi, a former P.E. teacher who is currently taking courses toward a master's degree in environmental health science, was Bostean's supervisor. According to the narrative in the appeals court ruling, she initially placed him on indefinite, unpaid sick leave, claiming that he was unable to perform the core functions of his job. He was offered no hearing, although he was offered a demotion and cut in pay. (Meanwhile, though officials argued that the van was safe, they installed air conditioning anyway.) Bostean sued, and after seven idle months without a paycheck and an initial ruling in the district's favor, a three-judge appeals panel reversed the decision 3-0, ordering back pay and benefits.
Now reinstated, Bostean said he learned the hard way how office politics can compromise safety. "My trust in the health-and-safety program was really diminished," he said.
Despite being unable to attend the hearing, some of Arabzadeh's staff submitted statements strongly refuting the district's accusation of poor management. Five such letters were entered into the public record. "Hamid has the technical and managerial skills to effectively lead EHSB through the current dynamics of Proposition BB projects and new-school-site construction," wrote certified industrial hygienist Gary Pons. Three other signed letters described Arabzadeh as fair, professional and ethical.
One of Arabzadeh's supporters, however, identified himself as John Doe, apologizing for his fear that, "if I used my real name or make an appearance in front of the board, current management would punish me for my actions."