by KEITH EASTHOUSE
FRANK FRITZ STARTED WORKING FOR HUMBOLDT COUNTY IN FEBRUARY 1973, when he was just 19. His first job was as a night watchman at what was then and still is the only facility in the county capable of handling large commercial airliners: The Arcata-Eureka Airport in McKinleyville.
Employees came and went but Fritz stayed and his responsibilities grew. Possessed of a mechanical turn of mind, the energetic young man was soon doing maintenance work of various sorts; after a few years he was showing other people what to do. "As new people were hired I started training them because I'd been there the longest," Fritz explained recently.
In 1985, when he was 31, Fritz was named airport operations supervisor, which meant it was his responsibility to keep the airport safely running. Make that airports, actually, for Fritz was also responsible for the five municipal airfields in Humboldt County: Murray Field, Rohnerville, Garberville, Kneeland and Dinsmore.
The job was not for the squeamish or for those who dislike multi-tasking. Fire suppression equipment had to be constantly maintained, as did fueling systems. Work crews had to be trained repeatedly in all aspects of airport operations, from security to passenger rescue. All pavement areas -- runways, taxiways, ramps -- had to be kept free of obstructions, and runway edge lights and taxiway lights had to be in working order. Deer that had wandered onto airport property had to be repeatedly hunted and shot lest they have a meeting with an arriving airplane. Giving the job a special sense of urgency, of course, was the reality that lives hung in the balance every time a plane took off or landed. But also driving things was the Federal Aviation Administration, which could shut down Humboldt County's only commercial airport if it felt anything was amiss.
This was also not a job for clock-punchers or for people who don't like to drive. County airports operate from 5 a.m. to midnight, and, since things can go wrong at any time, whoever's in charge of airport safety is pretty much on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And since Humboldt's airports are far-flung, travel is part of the bargain. None of that bothered Fritz much. In fact, it suited him. An independent type with a brusque style, he's the antithesis of a dutiful bureaucrat waiting for his orders. He's a man of action, a guy who likes variety, a guy focused less on process and more on results.
"I came and went all hours of the day and night. I got there [at the airport in McKinleyville] at 3 o'clock in the morning sometimes, or at night at the other airports, because of problems with deer or because there were cattle on a runway. A multitude of things came up, and I handled all of those.
"My supervisor would call me and say, `We're having trouble with a gate getting left open up at Kneeland.' So I'd take off and go up there." Another time, Fritz recalled, vandals dumped a case of clay pigeons on one of the runways at the McKinleyville airport. His "morning man" called him and Fritz went out there in the dawn's early light to clean things up.
"If I'd already worked an eight-hour day, I'd mark down a couple of hours of overtime or whatever. I checked with my bosses every day and they knew what I was doing. They knew I was always putting in more than 40 hours. They knew I was putting in the time. That's how I got the things done that I needed to get done."
During his 18 years as airport operations supervisor, not once was the airport in McKinleyville shut down after an inspection, according to Fritz. Nor were there any fatalities from crashes, he said. Not surprisingly, Fritz enjoyed a string of good to glowing performance evaluations in this period.
It was Ray Beninga, for years the county's airport manager, who chose Fritz for the airport operations supervisor position. "He asked me if I had any problems working on weekends or at night and I said no," Fritz recalled. "So he went to [then County Public Works Director Guy Kulstead] and had it OK'd. He [Beninga] said it was for a nominal 40-hour week -- so if all the work was done I didn't have to work 40 hours. But I never did that. It was always more than 40 hours."
The issue of Fritz's work schedule is critical to understanding what has happened to him over the past year. It was a key issue in the termination letter sent to him on March 17, 2003, by the current public works director, Allen Campbell, who justified his firing of Fritz by saying he had repeatedly falsified his time cards to inflate his work hours. It was also the single most important factor in a pair of hearings last fall in Eureka before an administrative law judge with the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, a judge who rebuffed the county's attempt to deprive Fritz of unemployment benefits, saying that there was no evidence for the county's claim that Fritz had, in effect, stolen money from the county and was therefore ineligible for unemployment. Finally, it forms the heart of a lawsuit filed on Fritz's behalf on March 16 in Humboldt County Superior Court charging Campbell with wrongful termination and defamation of character, a lawsuit that could cost taxpayers $75,000 to $100,000 and possibly more.
But perhaps most bizarrely, his work schedule was the driving force behind the decision of Campbell and County General Services Director Kim Kerr to hire a Redding detective firm, North Valley Investigations, to secretly tail and videotape Fritz as he went about his daily rounds. For 13 days in late 2002 and early 2003, Fritz was under surveillance, always on weekdays and for the most part during daylight hours. Detectives would arrive at his house first thing in the morning, and follow him for several hours, taping him whenever the opportunity presented itself. The 52-page report that resulted from the surveillance makes for spectacularly boring reading. The following is a representative example of the report's contents:
"On Monday, Nov. 4, 2002, Investigator Lee Wolfe arrived at the Fritz residence [in McKinleyville] at 6:40 a.m. and noted two vehicles were at the location. There was no activity until 10:30 a.m., when the [subject] drove the county vehicle from his residence to the airport. About two hours later, he left the airport, drove to the Sequoia Auto Supply store and went inside for nearly half an hour. He was lost in traffic and found back at the airport. He left the airport at 3:45 p.m. and drove home via Dow's Prairie Road. Surveillance was discontinued at 4:05 p.m."
The spy operation stemmed from an anonymous letter Campbell received in late 2002 which claimed that Fritz was visiting the Moose Lodge in McKinleyville, about three miles away from his airport office, during daytime hours when he should have been at work. According to the written decision by the administrative law judge, Alison Colgan, Campbell personally went down to the lodge one afternoon, observed Fritz leaving the lodge and not long afterward requested that Kerr authorize surveillance, which she did. The spying began soon afterward.
The Redding firm makes clear in its report that one thing they were asked to look for was whether Fritz was drinking on the job. "We were specifically to note if he drank alcoholic beverages during work hours," the report said. That directive explains why many of the daily reports of the surveillance operation describe attempts to determine if Fritz was boozing it up on county time. On several occasions detectives actually followed Fritz into Luzmilla's restaurant in the Valley West area of Arcata, a favorite lunch spot of Fritz's. On Nov. 5, 2002, for example, a private eye went into the restaurant but, for unclear reasons, couldn't find Fritz. A couple of weeks later, in the same restaurant, investigator Lee Wolfe walked right by Fritz's table. "Investigator Wolfe located [Fritz] in the restaurant and noted he was drinking water with his meal," reads the daily report from that particular day, Nov. 26, 2002. Fritz himself claims he never drank on county time and the tailing operation backs him up. Not once did they find evidence that Fritz was consuming alcohol while on the job.
Campbell did not return a call that was placed at his office this week. Kerr, however, did. When asked, she said the county spent $11,000 on the surveillance. But she declined to comment on anything else pertaining to Fritz's case. "I haven't seen the complaint," she said. "And it's not appropriate to litigate the trial in the press."
While Fritz's lawyer, Tom Petersen, who has offices in Fortuna and Willow Creek, alleges invasion of privacy in the complaint, it is not one of the core charges that he levels against the county. There is no evidence the investigators crossed a line and did anything illegal, such as peering through a window at Fritz's house, located on the McKinleyville airport property. "They were very careful," Petersen said.
Ignorance of work schedule
Evidently from Campbell and Kerr's point of view the surveillance was well worth it, as they used the report's findings to argue that they proved Fritz was charging the county for time he didn't actually work. "The falsification of time cards amounts to a theft of county funds," Campbell wrote in his final termination letter to Fritz of April 17, 2003, exactly a month after the initial notice.
But in making that statement, Campbell revealed his ignorance -- willful or otherwise -- of Fritz's irregular work schedule. For, again, the surveillance only tracked Fritz during regular working hours. The detectives never observed what Fritz did at night or on weekends for the simple reason that, unlike Fritz, they weren't on duty then.
As required by law, Campbell met with Fritz after issuing the initial termination notice. The meeting took place in Campbell's office on April 11, by which time Fritz had retained Petersen as his lawyer. According to Petersen's 19-page complaint, it was at this meeting that Campbell was told that Fritz worked an irregular work schedule. Campbell "was unaware of plaintiff's irregular work schedule," according to the complaint, but stated he would investigate the matter before making a final decision on termination.
Six days later, Fritz received his final termination letter, which according to Petersen was essentially unchanged from the initial notice. Not only that, but according to the complaint Campbell made no effort between April 11 and April 17 to determine whether Fritz did indeed have a flexible work schedule -- even though doing so would simply have required a telephone call to Dan Horton, Fritz's immediate supervisor at the time of his termination, or to Beninga, the man who made Fritz airport operations supervisor in the first place. "Campbell's failure to contact Airport Manager Dan Horton to determine the truth or falsity of plaintiff's work schedule constitutes a gross denial of plaintiff's due process rights under both the state and federal constitutions," the complaint says.
At the hearings on the county's challenge to Fritz's unemployment benefits, which took place on Aug. 5 and Sept. 11 of last year, Campbell said under oath, "It was my contention that [Fritz's] work hours were basically 8 to 5." Both Horton and Beninga testified that Fritz worked a flexible work schedule. Horton, who resigned from the airport manager position the same month Fritz was terminated to take care of an ailing family member, testified that Fritz "was on a floating shift. He worked whenever we needed him. When I took over [in 2000] we just had two deer strikes. His job, whenever we had some sightings of deer, was to go out [at night] with a government hunter and remove the deer from the airport. So [his schedule] was very flexible. It depended on what we needed."
When asked if Fritz worked a 40-hour week, Horton said, "I never found at any time that he worked less than that." When asked if he sometimes worked more than that, Horton said, "Oh, yes," and laughed. "There were times he would drive to Sacramento and return the same day, and he'd do that without putting in for overtime."
When Colgan, the presiding judge, issued her decision, it was pretty much a slam-dunk for Fritz. "It is found that the employer's evidence regarding [Fritz's] work hours is too incomplete to be compelling in that the investigators did not observe [Fritz] after normal work hours on most days. [Fritz's] credible testimony taken together with that of his two previous supervisors regarding the flexibility of his work hours leads to a conclusion that [Fritz] did work at least 40 hours a week and usually more. The employer provided no credible evidence to refute any of the hours the claimant reported he worked."
Colgan dismissed other reasons the county offered for terminating Fritz, such as that he had driven an unauthorized visitor onto a runway at the McKinleyville airport and that he had pointed a pellet gun at a co-worker as the co-worker came around the corner of a building.
Fritz testified that he had never pointed the gun at the co-worker, and that the co-worker "was at least 45 degrees away" from the direction in which Fritz was aiming. Colgan, noting that the co-worker gave conflicting accounts about the incident, said the alleged "discourteous treatment is too unreliable to be given credence." As for the unauthorized tour, Colgan said Fritz had given the tour at the direction of a supervisor and that the county had failed to "offer any evidence as to what regulation may have been violated."
The county appealed Colgan's ruling, but an appeals board upheld her decision in January.
In light of that, and in light of the surveillance that was used to justify Fritz's termination, Petersen called on the county Board of Supervisors to conduct an investigation independent of the county risk manager's office, which Kerr, the official who authorized the spying, heads.
"If [Kerr] concludes that Frank did not falsify his time cards she would be admitting that she erred in authorizing the spying and the thousands paid to the detectives was wasted. The supervisors need to ask Mr. Campbell and Ms. Kerr why Frank was spied on and fired for not following his work schedule when they didn't know what his work schedule was."
'I am not a thief'
While the victory handed Fritz by Judge Colgan was welcome, it merely meant he had a right to his unemployment benefits. Those expired in December. At the moment, he's living rent-free with a friend in McKinleyville and odd-jobbing it, mostly as a construction laborer.
"The only way I get jobs now, and they're little jobs, is from people who know me, who know I wouldn't steal from them," Fritz said recently as he sat in Petersen's Willow Creek office.
Fritz and Petersen ticked off the financial damage done to Fritz by the county. Approximately $50,000 for a year's lost income. (That includes Fritz's $44,000 salary, plus overtime.) Approximately $10,000 to $15,000 worth of lost benefits. Over $10,000 in attorney's fees. "So $75,000 to $100,000," Petersen said. He noted that Fritz, who is 50, was five years away from retirement. If he is not reinstated, he will receive $600 to $1,000 less per month in retirement benefits for the rest of his life, Petersen said.
In addition to reinstatement, Fritz wants a public apology from Campbell.
"This has pretty much ruined my life," Fritz said. "I did everything I thought I was doing right, and I was told it was right, and then I'm terminated and called a thief. I'm told I stole time from the county. Which I did none of that.
"I am not a thief."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.