It would be a mistake for officials in Greenwood Township to think the recent dismissal of a criminal complaint against the town’s two top fire officials means case closed. While the three-judge panel in the case found insufficient evidence to demonstrate that fire chief David Fazio and assistant chief Mike Indihar used their official authority to “compel” members of the fire department to sign on to a political ad supporting several candidates, including Fazio’s wife, they made it clear they found such behavior beyond the pale.
“Calling subordinate employees to participate in a campaign advertisement is ill advised and cannot be condoned,” stated Chief Judge James Lefave. “This is particularly true when one is in a position of authority and married to one of the candidates,” he concluded.
In a concurring opinion, Judge Ann O’Reilly went further, stating that the actions of the township’s top fire officials “present serious questions as to their professional judgment and the type of working environment they have created at the Greenwood Township Fire Department.”
It would have been reasonable to believe that things would have changed in Greenwood after the township’s penchant for finding itself in legal trouble prompted the Minnesota Association of Townships to drop the township’s errors and omissions insurance coverage. Events have proven otherwise.
The definition of “condone” is to “accept and allow (behavior that is considered morally wrong or offensive) to continue.” And that, unfortunately, has been a pattern of behavior that has been too readily accepted in Greenwood in recent years. By failing to address past mistakes, the township seems unable or unwilling to effectively address the next one. We would hope that the strong words of the judges in this case could serve as a wake-up for a town board that is being presented with some inconvenient truths, namely that their fire chief is a continuing liability due to poor judgment.
The question now is whether the board will take disciplinary action to address infractions that most any thinking person would have recognized as inappropriate from the start, or whether they will ignore the advice of the judges and simply condone such behavior.
We recognize that there is a political divide in Greenwood, which can color the way that people interpret and react to events. That’s why the words of three impartial judges, with no axes to grind, and no personal feelings on the matter, are worth giving special consideration. Three informed and intelligent people with no stake in Greenwood’s petty political and personal infighting took a look at the goings-on in the township and were alarmed by what they saw. Judge O’Reilly certainly did not have to take the time to write a concurring opinion in the case. But she obviously felt strongly about the ill-advised actions that were described in her courtroom.
Greenwood officials could certainly choose to start a new chapter, by heeding the insights expressed by the judges, who actually seemed disappointed they couldn’t convict the township’s fire officials of something. Judge O’Reilly even seemed to suggest the law should allow conviction for attempting to use one’s official authority to compel another to take part in political work. In that case, wrote O’Reilly, “a violation would certainly have been found… and a significant penalty imposed.” In other words, the township’s fire officials may have attempted to break the law, they just lacked the gumption to succeed. Not exactly vindication.
While the Office of Administrative Hearings, which handled the complaint against the fire officials, may have been unable to exact a penalty for what they clearly saw as inappropriate behavior, the Greenwood town board can and should take action in response.
As the township has already found, continuing to condone misbehavior will only lead to more of it.