In an explosive report released to KCE following a public records request, investigators outline an inquiry into misconduct that was obstructed by the former Salem Lakes Fire Chief and Fire Inspector. The eight-page report begins with an executive summary saying “Overall, following nearly two-dozen interviews and the review of hundreds of pages of communications and records, it could be determined significant deficiencies exist in the respective performances of the Fire Chief and Fire Marshal. However, as explained in more detail below, the respective resignations of the Fire Marshal on November 12 and the Chief on November 13 have largely made this report moot.”
In addition, beginning November 9 and continuing throughout the weekend, the Fire Marshal engaged in several concerning email exchanges. First, interim Administrator Bretl emailed the Chief on November 9 regarding a “citizen request” seeking “a report concerning SLFD service calls for 2022 and 2023 YTD.” In response to the Chief asking that the Fire Marshal prepare a response to the request, the Fire Marshal responded at 9:41 PM he could provide the raw data “through an appropriate open records request, otherwise no.”
Ptaszynski replied in the same manor to KCE on January 1, 2023 when we issued a public records request. Ptaszynski attempted to withhold public documents from us. Then-Village Attorney Richard Schulze instructed Ptaszynski that our request was proper, regardless of the form it was submitted in. Ptaszynski then wrote to KCE saying: “Thanks for pointing out the flaws in the department’s system for responding to requests. I did contact the Village attorney for clarification and he agreed that the email is sufficient to fulfil the request. I have completed the request and attached the file to this email. I have made note of the requirements that you have pointed out and will adhere to these in the future. Please let me know if you need anything else or have difficulty opening the attachment.”
Roughly an hour later, the Fire Marshal (signing the email as an “Independent Journalist/Resident Village of Salem Lakes”) submitted a public records request to Bretl seeking a number of records, including, among others, “ethical guidelines that the board is governed by or has adopted … [confirmation] that your consulting firm has aided and abended [sic] in the village and village board members illegal activities … [confirmation of the rumor] that a member of the fire commission or village board has been accused/charged/convicted of any criminal or civil charges.”
Several key events occurred during the first two weeks of November. On November 9, Counsel virtually interviewed the Fire Marshal (beginning at 1:00PM) and Chief (beginning at 4:00PM), both of whom were represented by counsel during the interviews. Importantly, Counsel concluded both interviews by requesting the Chief and Fire Marshal complete their respective interviews the following week to answer several remaining questions. The Chief and Fire Marshal both agreed to complete their interviews the following week. The following day counsel for the Fire Marshal provided a letter to the Board President and counsels to the Village and Commission. The follow-up interviews would never occur.
Numerous interviewees and witness statements established that the Chief directed Department employees to direct all communications regarding the investigation to him, the implication being that employees should not independently cooperate with Counsel’s invitations to meet. Multiple employees confirmed both the Chief and Fire Marshal directed the employees not to cooperate with the investigation. One witness statement noted a crew was approached by the Department’s Administrative Assistant, Diane Beattie, on July 14, 2023, and was told “she had received an email from the village president in regards to the fire department” and that the email would be placed on the bulletin board located in the kitchen so the crews could read it. The statement then claims the Fire Marshal approached the crew and stated “[i]f anyone approaches you guys and asks about the fire department, Chief told me to let you know to not say anything and send them to Chief.”
Abusive Management Practices
In addition to specific examples of reactions from the Chief and/or Fire Marshal that could be construed as representing abusive management practices, numerous interviewees generally described a work environment where members are not supported and aggressive techniques have been utilized by the Chief and Fire Marshal. While some interviewees indicated nothing would rise to the level of formal harassment from any members of the Department and none of the activity could be described as criminal, others referenced the number of former employees that they believed would return to the Department if the Chief and Fire Marshal were no longer in leadership. Former and current members of the Department described numerous examples of either lack of support or outright hostility. One member referenced several incidents that “have indicated a hostile work environment at the fire department including but not limited to: 1. Verbal abuse and derogatory language: There have been several instances of the Chief using inappropriate language towards his subordinates, creating an uncomfortable environment, and encouraging toxic behavior. 2. Intimidation and bullying: Multiple times there [have] been incidents where both administrative parties have ganged up on individuals to make their point clear, resulting in fear and distress among the staff. 3. Retaliation against whistleblowers: Several individuals who have attempted to report issues regarding daily amenities, equipment, building maintenance and overall improvement to every day/night operations have either gone on deaf ears or face retaliation, including verbal and written reprimands.” Another member noted “the work environment is so toxic people keep leaving” and “[i]f the toxic leadership ever changes I would love to come back and stay full time.”
Management of Staff
Generally, concerns were raised regarding the management of the Department, including possible FLSA violations, confusion regarding the finality of suspensions and/or terminations, a lack of training, and an apparent lack of communication with the Commission. Overall, it is believed by many that the Chief simply follows the Fire Marshal’s lead and he is the one “running the Department.” Some believe the Chief doesn’t want help from anyone that can “outshine” him. Others claim that in one incident after a member encouraged the Fire Marshal to calm down, the Fire Marshal responded he wants to yell because “that’s the type of department he is going to run.”
A significant theme emerged regarding the Department’s inability to retain members of the Department. While some argued any departures were simply due to a lack of pay, others believe turnover is “crazy.” The departures or overall lack of staffing obviously has an impact on current staff. One member explained there must be two paramedics and four fire fighters for each shift which can result in some working 36 straight hours and ultimately burn out among members. With respect to availability, members noted an incident where the Fire Marshal demanded that full time members have to be available 24 hours a day and that he “didn’t give a shit if you’re in the Dells.” The limited number of paramedics can impact mutual aid. While the Department previously had nine paramedics, with only three (including the Fire Marshal), the Department risks mutual aid because any aid that doesn’t include a paramedic is only BLS (basic life support). Mutual aid responses must be at the ALS (advanced life support) level, i.e. include a paramedic. Other members also referenced a recent termination, noting members were forced to respond to calls without a qualified officer, which made them feel “very unsafe.” Other members noted the impact on part time staff, some of whom are approaching 2,000 annual hours worked (raising questions as to WRS and other benefit eligibility).
Another theme related to a lack of training or direct support. One member went so far as to raise concerns that because of the lack of support and training he’d be found liable for some of the situations he was put in and with a seven year statute of limitations could face significant liability. Another member explained that groups of new hires were given less than a week notice for a start date, some were unable to attend the full orientation, there was no real plan for assigning tasks, and when new hires were “waiting around,” leadership became angry that they weren’t “doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
Even with respect to suspensions and terminations, numerous members expressed confusion as to how such decisions were formalized and who should be involved. During the course of one conversation the Chief indicated he “superseded the Commission” and could “make the suspension go away.” Eight months later the member was not clear as to his status. Another member stated despite being on maternity leave her requests for PTO had been denied.
Among other statements, the Fire Marshal admitted he was aware of the Guidelines but believed they were “outdated and don’t reflect the current conditions of the Department.” He believed the former Village Administrator Mike Murdock “inserted himself into the Stage Stop and ATE situations.” Stage Stop and ATE are two of the business that say the Chief, Inspector, and Administrator were trying to shut down.
Additionally, some evidence exists to suggest the Fire Chief and/or Fire Marshal were inefficient in their duties as evidenced by the Department’s significant turnover, the lack of formal training to members, and the confusion surrounding payment and terms of suspension. Multiple interviewees provided details regarding the significant number of members that have left the Department, at times even for lower paying jobs, the lack of training for members, both new as well as veteran, and significant confusion as to whether members were eligible for payment and whether and for how long suspensions or extensions of probationary periods were implemented. Further, multiple interviewees provided detailed accounts regarding the often negative interactions and aggressive inspection techniques.
Reached by phone Thursday evening, Village President Bucur said she has reviewed the report and wants to be transparent but said her and her colleagues have been advised by their attorneys not to speak publicly about the report at this time.
The new Village Administrator, Cassandra Hiller, begins her tenure this Coming Monday, December 4, 2023.