Former fire chief sues SLO County CSD for alleged discrimination — and he wants his job back

A former Cambria fire chief wants his job back and to be compensated for what he alleges in a lawsuit was unfair termination after he raised concerns about potential sexual harassment at the town’s community services district.

Justin Vincent served as the small town’s chief, leading the department until the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors ended his contract on October 2023.

In a 40-page complaint filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court Jan. 26, Vincent asked for a jury trial, claiming he was the victim of retaliatory practices, racism, sexual harassment, violations of various government and labor codes and lack of due process, along with a number of other charges.

The complaint names the CSD, General Manager Matthew McElhenie and Administrative Assistant Haley Dodson, as well as 10 unidentified does, as defendants.

On Tuesday, McElhenie said he, the CSD, Dodson and the district’s counsel, Tim Carmel, “won’t be able to comment on pending litigation.”

Tribune requests for comment from Vincent’s attorney, Nicole Ricotta, were not immediately returned.

What was in former fire chief’s lawsuit?

Vincent’s five-year contract with the fire department began Oct. 20, 2022.

The complaint noted at that time Vincent was “the only African-American employee of CCSD,” and “the first African-American to be hired as a fire chief in the County of San Luis Obispo.”

Many of Vincent’s complaints seemed to center around a formal grievance filed with then-CSD General Manager Ray Dienzo in April 2023.

In that, Vincent alleged Dodson — who worked in the same fire station he did — had created a hostile work environment and made “unwanted sexual comments to members of the fire department for several years prior.”

His lawsuit itemized more than a dozen of these behaviors or instances he alleged he observed from Dodson, or about which other employees had told him.

Vincent claimed he “began to regularly observe Dodson engage in severe and pervasive sexual harassment, including but not limited to lewd and sexually offensive comments and jokes,” according to the lawsuit.

That included speaking “about the firefighter’s bodies and genitalia, sometimes in jest and sometimes with lustful intent,” the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also claimed “Dodson had on one occasion made sexual comments during a Cambria CSD Board of Directors meeting.”

Soon after Vincent filed the formal grievance, McElhenie took over the general manager job. He placed Vincent on administrative leave in September 2023.

McElhenie’s formal statement at that time said the fire chief had been let go after a “comprehensive review and careful consideration.”

“The separation results from a detailed examination and investigation of fire department operations while ensuring respect and confidentiality and following relevant laws and guides related to employee termination procedures and announcements,” the statement read.

In his lawsuit, Vincent said he feared retaliation, noting that McElhenie’s response to the fire chief’s formal grievance was to accuse him of taking positions adverse to the general manager, creating animosity between departments, sharing incorrect information and proposing a department reorganization without consulting McElhenie.

The lawsuit also alleged the defendants retaliated against Vincent by denying him a pay increase that was granted to all other department heads, firing him without “access to reasonable investigation and progressive discipline” and denying him the opportunity to a hearing in front of the Cambria CSD board regarding his firing.

Former fire chief sues for compensation, to get job back

Vincent is asking for both a jury trial to decide his suit and to be compensated with “punitive damages in an amount according to proof at the time of the trial.”

He also requested to be immediately reinstated to the position of fire chief, retroactive to the date he was removed from his duties, and for an injunction prohibiting the defendants from “taking any punitive or retaliatory actions against the plaintiff in the future.”

The Cambria CSD board discussed the lawsuit and possible actions or reactions during a special closed session on Feb. 14 but did not take any reportable action on it during that meeting.

It appears this may not be Vincent’s first such complaint against a former employer.

In a similar 2017 case he filed against California City in Kern County, he alleged discrimination and retaliation, saying he had refused to buckle under pressure from higher ups to go easy on applications from cannabis operations because the county needed the revenue.

According to legal records, his complaint and a subsequent appeal were denied in August 2020.

A Tribune request for comment to California City officials was not immediately returned on Wednesday.