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Grand jury pins district woes on ex- fire chief
Lathrop Manteca Fire logo

While the Lathrop Manteca Fire District signaled its desire to continue moving forward following the announcement of incoming Fire Chief David Bramell this week, the full scope of what transpired under previous leadership became clearer on Thursday morning.

According to the findings of the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury, the tenure of previous fire chief Gene Neely was a period of “tumult and upheaval” for the district complete with claims of intimidation and harassment, “financial abuse,” and the ability for the fire chief to run the district with little to no oversight from the elected officials tasked with providing such.

In the section of the report dealing with financial matters, it was revealed Neely had virtually total control of the district without the checks and balances are typical for such a position.

It is something that played a major role in the scandal that erupted when $25,000 worth of receipts from a high-end Napa resort surfaced that showed a staff “retreat” that was complete with alcohol, massages, and other luxury amenities.

The big takeaway? According to the grand jury, such expenditures amounted to examples of “financial abuse” that occurred under Neely’s tutelage.

“Ordinance 1 grants the Chief broad authority to make decisions with little to no oversight by the Board,” the report read. “The District does not have a system of checks and balances to thwart financial abuse or malfeasance by the Chief, thus providing opportunity for financial abuse, which occurred in several ways over recent years.”

The grand jury is recommending that Ordinance 1 be completely removed and replaced with clear language that specifies that scope of the duty of the fire chief and the oversight that exists for the position.

While Neely had already retired at the time that the Napa retreat became public knowledge, the rest of the administrative staff that went on the retreat – which was apparently a requirement by Neely – were left to answer the legal and ethical questions that the retreat raised.

The disclosure became a huge impediment for the board that was unaware of the spending at the time and the remaining administrative staff that were attempted to steer the district into smoother waters.

And to make matters worse, those that were required to attend were not justly compensated for their time according to the district’s agreements and regulations.

“Non-exempt administrative employees who were required by the Fire Chief to attend this retreat, which began on a Wednesday evening and ran until Sunday, received no overtime pay or compensatory time off for the time they were in attendance beyond their normal 40-hour work week,” the report read. “Also, those who drove their personal vehicles to the retreat did not receive mileage reimbursement.”

Neely’s tenure has apparently spawned at least one lawsuit that alleges multiple instances of intimidation and harassment.

According to the grand jury’s findings, multiple people that filed complaints against the Fire Chief had their earned merit or step raises withheld pending the signing of a Non-Disclosure Agreement – something that the board was not aware of and was not part of an established written procedure approved by the board.

The “hostile work environment” that was created, the report states, coupled with the fact that the board no idea that these issues existed created a situation that could open the district to financial liability.

“Several employees alleged that, after filing complaints against the Fire Chief, earned merit or step increases prescribed in Section 7A: Eligibility for Advancement in Pay, stipulated in the Executive Staff MOU, were withheld pending the signing of a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA),” the report reads. “Staff viewed this as a form of coercion. There is currently no policy or procedure to address this situation.

“Members of the firefighting and administrative staff reported that they felt intimidated, threatened or harassed to the point of taking medical stress leave, while some resigned their positions. There is at least one legal action filed (Superior Court of California−Case #STK-CVUCP-2021-0009068) involving the District which cites multiple occurrences of intimidation and harassment.” 

While the report was a scathing indictment of Neely’s decade-long tenure at the helm, it drew distinctions between the periods of time when he was the district’s leader and the efforts that have been underway since his retirement to right the ship.

The report was completed prior to the announcement that a permanent fire chief had been hired.

“The Board acknowledges that the District will need more time to heal and restore trust following the turmoil and upheaval created under previous management,” the report concludes. “The Board employed a third party to conduct the search and screening process for hiring the permanent Fire Chief.

“The Board believes that the selection of a new Chief is a critical decision that must be done correctly if the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District is to move in a positive and effective direction.”

Neely retired in April of 2021 after being placed on administrative leaving pending an investigation into a number of complaints.

His decision to apply for a vacancy on the Measure C Oversight Committee late last year – which would have given him a position to influence the disbursement of more than $2 million in tax dollars every year to the district – ignited a political firestorm when a member of the council asked questions about his desire to seek the appointment.

A conversation that occurred after the meeting concluded between Neely, his wife Rozelle, and councilwoman Minnie Diallo resulted in claims that Neely made Diallo feel unsafe and led to her seeking a restraining order against Neely and his wife.

Diallo also filed for a restraining order against Lathrop City Manager Steve Salvatore about what she claimed he said to her the following morning during a phone call.

While a temporary restraining order was issued against Neely – requiring him to surrender all his firearms while the case was adjudicated – the court denied the temporary restraining order for Salvatore. The matter was ultimately resolved between Diallo and both separate parties without a formal restraining order going into effect.

Neely claimed to the court at the time that he would be moving out of state with his family.

To read the entirety of the report, visit the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury’s website at

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.