Blowing off steam

Dave Gardner swears he's not planning to blow up City Hall, but some offhand comments he made about bombs have created an explosive situation in the City of Dallas' Code Enforcement department.

On June 24, Gardner, who has worked in code enforcement for three years, was fired after a city investigation concluded that he had displayed "unacceptable conduct" toward his fellow workers. Gardner's supervisors sent him a letter saying he showed "indifference toward work" and that he created a "disturbance" by "unnecessary disruption of the work area" and the "use of profane, abusive, threatening, or loud boisterous language."

Although the letter listed eight different gripes about Gardner's office behavior, Gardner believes it was the bomb comments that got him fired. (Ramiro Lopez, assistant director of code enforcement and Gardner's supervisor, would not comment when contacted by the Dallas Observer.)

Gardner says he was discussing the Oklahoma City bombing with inspectors Shelly Nelson and Jerry Scudder in April. He concedes that he held forth on the actual mechanics of blowing up a public building--pointing out mistakes the Oklahoma City bomber made, like using too many explosives and not placing the bomb in the best position.

Gardner says he explained to his co-workers that if he wanted to blow up a building, he would place the explosives at different points to make sure the whole thing collapsed.

"It was just general, harmless conversation," Gardner says. The two people Gardner was speaking with certainly took it that way.

Scudder says Gardner, a former paratrooper, liked to talk about his days in the military. Both Scudder and Nelson say they didn't find Gardner's comments threatening, and didn't get the impression that Gardner actually wanted to destroy city buildings.

But another inspector, Lind Bane, overheard the conversation and apparently complained to her bosses that she felt offended and threatened by Gardner's comments.

"No way I could have misinterpreted," Bane told the Observer, although she declined to discuss the incident further.

Gardner finds it hard to believe he was fired for something Bane happened to overhear.

"How can I be discourteous to other employees if I'm not talking to them?" Gardner asks. "If you are overhearing what I have to say and you feel that it is offensive, you need to do one of two things: Ask my supervisor to ask me to lower my voice, or you need to move away."

Five days after Bane filed her complaint, Gardner was placed on administrative leave, and in late June he was fired.

Gardner's letter of dismissal also took him to task for using profanity around the office, including such phrases as "white trash," "rednecks," and "motherfucker."

But Gardner says code enforcement would be a very lonely place if the city fired everyone who curses in the office. Nelson and Scudder agree. After a hard day of issuing citations and confronting property owners, inspectors often come in cursing, Nelson says. The job is stressful, and much of the foul language is a way of letting off steam. "We're probably under more pressure than police officers," says Scudder.

But the city says Gardner's comments went beyond normal profanity. In several conversations with co-workers, Gardner is said to have mentioned death, bombings, and a post office massacre.

Scudder and Nelson say the real root of Gardner's firing may be a simple personality conflict with co-worker Bane. The two never really hit it off, they say, and Nelson says he believes Bane enjoyed baiting Gardner.

Gardner says his troubles with Bane began when she started trying to tell him how to do his job. Nelson says Bane often jumped into conversations Gardner was having with others and interjected her own opinions. Gardner says Bane's behavior prompted him to ask Interim Manager Mike Fulps to tell Bane to leave him alone. Gardner says he found her temperamental to work with.

For almost a month after he was put on leave, Gardner says, he heard nothing from his supervisors, and was not sure what he had been accused of doing. Even after he was fired, Gardner says, the city did not provide him with documents he requested outlining the complaints.

Gardner is appealing his firing. Nelson says he believes the investigation against Gardner was biased. "They picked people they thought would write something negative...I know I wasn't asked to write a statement," he says. Nelson says he would have been a likely observer of Gardner's behavior since their desks are just two feet away from each other.

Both Nelson and Scudder say they believe any problem could have been easily resolved if Gardner and Bane just got some counseling. "I think neither one of them ever had their boundaries set on where they need to be and where they need to go with each other. I think counseling would have been the order of the day," Scudder says. "I don't really see that big of a problem between the two of them."

Gardner is the first to admit he is a little loud sometimes. Dallas Police officer Leon Brannon has known Gardner for some time. Occasionally the two men crossed paths on the job. He agrees Gardner's voice is loud. "Dave's voice carries," Brannon says. "When a person has a deep voice, he may seem more intimidating than he needs to be. His voice may come off like that, but he's not that type of person."

Gardner describes himself as a hard worker who often takes work home. Scudder and Nelson agree and say he puts in a lot of overtime. In fact, Gardner was featured in the February 1996 issue of The Advocate, a northeast Dallas newspaper, which said he was an instrumental player in keeping the neighborhood clean.

"They like me because I'm straightforward," he says. "I'm a no-nonsense inspector. No, I am not the sweetest person in the world to get along with, but if you do what you are supposed to do, then you have no problem with me."

Gardner says he wants his job back. But if he gets it, he'll cut down on socializing with his co-workers. "If I choose not to put you on my social agenda, I don't have to," he says. "I can walk in the office and not speak to anyone if that's what I choose.

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Lisa Whitley