Investigation turns to PFC
Blame me for the so-called slush fund that has caused an uproar in Fitchburg, says Randy Pickering, chief of the Fitchburg Fire Department.
But while the Common Council just might do that, it’s reluctant to let the Police and Fire Commission know whether disciplinary action is warranted.
Although a 16-month investigation found no basis for criminal charges, the dispute over the off-the-books account in the fire department now appears likely to drag on for several more months and could lead to the replacement of members of the Police and Fire Commission.
The council objects to what it views as a “cozy” relationship between the fire department and the PFC, in part because several commissioners requested and accepted jackets and polo shirts from the fire department. (Commissioners said they needed the clothing so they could be clearly identified when at public events or the scene of an accident or fire.)
There’s also a dispute over whether the PFC has a supervisory role over the police and fire departments. The commission says it does; the council believes otherwise.
Ald. Carol Poole said the commission’s views were inconsistent because it denied it had any supervisory responsibility in determining who paid for the clothing given to commissioners.
When it met Aug. 27, the council temporarily removed funding for several positions in the fire department, until the city completes its investigation and decides whether to recommend disciplinary action to the commission. The PFC had previously refused a request from Mayor Shawn Pfaff and council president Ald. Richard Bloomquist to defer action on hiring.
Deputy chief Richard Roth strongly objected to any delays in hiring and said the vacant positions meant fellow deputy chief Chad Grossen has had to run the department’s fire prevention program and supervise 10 additional people, in addition to his usual duties. But Joe Conway, president of Fire Fighter Local 311, said the delay was “a prudent course of action.”
Pickering continues to insist that the off-the-books account, which funneled money from the sale of used equipment into an account at Jefferson Fire and Safety, was simply a method for the department to reap some benefit from used equipment and was not an attempt to circumvent city policies.
Pete Jefferson, president of the firm, said his firm had done nothing illegal or unethical and asked the council to end the “insinuations” that implied otherwise.
Bloomquist said he remains “dumbfounded” that the department didn’t know the account was prohibited. Several alders wondered whether the department viewed itself as special, a view reinforced by Meredith Shelton, business manager for department, who agreed with Ald. Patrick Stern when he asked whether the culture in the department was conducive to matters getting “hushed up.”
Shelton said she quickly learned to drop matters if she wasn’t encouraged by the chief and other supervisors. The department functioned as a family, where matters were kept in-house, she said.
“We’re a big city now, so we’re just got to start acting like one,” Bloomquist said.
City attorney Mark Sewell will ask the Government Accountability Board for a ruling on whether the Commission violated the state ethics code in accepting the clothing. The council may then act to remove commissioners, which requires support of six of eight alders, following a hearing in front of the council.
“It gets to be a fairly lengthy affair, and (it’s) brutal,” Sewell said. Pfaff said he would be the taxpayer to file a complaint, which is necessary to initiate a hearing.
Sewell and city administrator Tony Roach previously sparred with Tom Shellander, chair of the PFC, over guidelines as to when the commission is allowed to go into closed session. Shellander contended that Sewell’s recommendations usurped the commission’s independence and said the commission should be able to hire independent counsel.
Pickering and deputy chief Gary Heberling disagreed on whether Pickering approved all deposits to the off-the-books account. Pickering said he approved only the initial deposits involving the sale of breathing apparatus but was certainly not about to throw any employee “under the bus” in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
Heberling said other city employees apparently believed the fire department received “special treatment” because the council usually approved its requests for equipment. He also said volunteer firefighters felt they didn’t receive adequate recognition for their service, noting that they worked evenings, holidays and weekends, and that paid-on-call firefighters received $8.50 per hour, much less than, for example, the $16 per hour earned by a part-time employee of the parks department.
“We’re in this kind of weird category,” he said. “We have a larger budget. We have bigger toys,” Heberling said, noting that the department still “struggled to make ends meet.”
Pickering admitted he had shared disparaging remarks about the fire department made by other departments, and had encouraged his staff “to show some modesty” to avoid exacerbating misconceptions about the department.
Volunteer firefighters are an integral part of Fitchburg’s fire department and are a major reason why the department’s budget is about $2 million less than a department of comparable size that relies on career firefighters. There has been no public discussion as to whether the investigation has affected firefighters’ morale and the department’s efforts to recruit and retain volunteers.