GREENWOOD TWP— Township officials here are facing more fallout from the firing of fire department officers in 2014. Ken Peterson, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry has filed …
GREENWOOD TWP— Township officials here are facing more fallout from the firing of fire department officers in 2014. Ken Peterson, the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry has filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings alleging that township officials improperly discriminated against former fire captain Jeff Maus when they fired Maus as an officer after he raised concerns about violations of safety procedures by the department.
The commissioner served papers on the township by mail this week. Firing of employees for raising safety issues is a violation of Minn. Statute 182.669, according to the commissioner.
Maus, who has served as a firefighter for the township since 2006 and as a First Responder since 2008, first filed his complaint in June 2014 with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees enforcement of regulations under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. More than a year ago, on March 31, 2015, state OSHA officials determined that Maus’s complaint was legitimate, but the finding was just the first step in a longer process.
The newest filing by the commissioner represents the next step, which will take the dispute to an administrative law judge at the OAH in a hearing set for June 20. That is, unless the two sides can reach a settlement before then.
Efforts at reaching a settlement have proven ineffective to date. Maus is seeking reinstatement to his former position in addition to about six thousand dollars in back pay. The township did offer Maus a $5,000 payment, contingent on his leaving the department, but Maus contends he wants to remain on the department. “It’s not about the money,” he said.
The complaint filed by the commissioner seeks Maus’s reinstatement as a department captain along with payment of back pay, compensatory damages, as well as Maus’s legal costs.
Maus contends he was let go from his position as a captain after raising concerns that some department members lacked required training and certification, and that First Responders lacked appropriate safety gear. He also raised objections to a proposal to jointly train and work with the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade, which Maus contends lacks the required training and certification. Brigade members, by and large, are not trained firefighters and the township’s insurance carrier has twice advised township officials against working with the brigade, out of liability concerns.
Previous fire chiefs had declined to work with the brigade, but that changed when the town board hired David Fazio as fire chief in late 2013. Fazio pushed to begin working with the brigade, despite Maus’s objections.
Maus also raised concerns that some department members had been showing up for fires without appropriate personal protection gear and that one member had entered a smoke-filled residence without breathing apparatus. In addition, Maus objected to a decision by Fazio to substantially reduce the training requirements for department members, but Fazio allegedly ignored Maus’s suggestions.
The dispute came to a head in April 2014, when Fazio and the Greenwood Town Board held a closed meeting to discuss Fazio’s request to remove Maus and other officers from their positions, a request which the board subsequently approved. The commissioner notes that, by doing so, the town board and Fazio violated the fire department’s constitution and bylaws, which require that department members elect their officers annually.
Township officials, in various responses during the course of the investigation, termed Maus’s actions as “a disruption to management” of the department and stated that his position was eliminated to cut costs. The township did reduce the number of officer positions from five to three, but the town board subsequently approved contracts for the new fire department officers with salary increases that pushed their combined pay above the level previously paid to the five former officers. The board also approved increases in the fire department pension for all members, from $1,500 per year to $1,800.