Sparks fly over fire chief’s severance
June 29, 2012
The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District board of directors voted 6-1 Thursday night to award former Chief Tim Fike with a severance package that totals approximately $75,000, when healthcare costs, vacation pay and executive leave pay are accounted.
Fike was reportedly involved in a physical altercation in March with Fire Mechanic Kevin Greene, where Fike placed his hand around Greene’s neck and made threatening comments, according to a Nevada County Sheriff’s Office report.
Soon after, Fike submitted his retirement papers.
Subsequently, Local Union 3800 filed a grievance and the board conducted an independent investigation into the matter, ultimately agreeing to part ways with Fike, who had been the leader of the fire district since 1997. Prior to Thursday’s action by the board, Fike had been on paid leave since April 19, according to Board Chair Warren Knox.
Knox read a prepared statement Thursday in which he said it “would be extremely difficult to prove gross malfeasance” and that a potential legal battle with Fike over wrongful termination was best avoided, considering the fire district’s economic constraints.
“Financially and operationally, the district simply cannot afford to spend any more time or money on this issue,” he said.
Following the meeting, Knox said the severance package was in the best interest of the district’s residents as it avoided legal fees and allowed the district to move forward.
Board member Keith Grueneberg, who offered the lone vote in dissent, disagreed.
“I don’t see any public benefit as far as I’m concerned,” Grueneberg said. “To me, (the severance package) represents a gifting of public funds. I’m fine with paying out the vacation pay and the executive leave, but beyond that, I don’t see where the public benefits.”
Local 3800 Union President Wyatt Howell also was dismayed by the decision, saying the board gave the outgoing chief a large sum of money when the fire district was facing many fiscal challenges.
Voters within the district approved a fire tax in a March special election geared to help close a reported $500,000 budget shortfall, in order to avoid the closure of fire stations and layoffs of firefighters. A failure to pass the tax would have meant a 20 percent reduction in personnel and the permanent closure of two fire stations, Fike warned in February.
During Thursday’s public comment period, several people chastised the firefighters in attendance for criticizing Fike directly after residents approved the tax measure, which added about $52 in property taxes to the average household.
The altercation between Fike and Greene – which occurred exactly one week after the district had passed the tax measure – was reportedly related to a “vote of no confidence” taken by the Local 3800 Union, wherein 27 of the 31 consolidated firefighters in attendance voted to withhold confidence relating to Fike’s performance as chief, according to Howell.
“There has been damage to the trust in this department,” Nevada City resident Linda Chaplin said during Thursday’s meeting. “There has been damage to the name of Nevada County Consolidated. Obviously, there are personnel issues that need to be resolved, but I question the timing of the no-confidence vote questioning your leader.”
Greene replied to the criticism Thursday night by asserting he was the victim in the March incident, not Fike, and compared the situation to a recent case involving former Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was found guilty last week of child molestation despite several supporters speaking on his behalf.
“Four months ago, Penn State thought Jerry Sandusky was a great coach,” Greene said at the meeting. Those comments were quickly followed by a loud chorus of boos from both members of the audience and the board.
After the comment, board member John Leonard said,”We should fire the son of a b—- right now.”
Both Greene and Howell have said Fike ran the department by intimidating employees, withholding promotions due to personal friction and openly discussing poor performances of employees with other employees.
Firefighter Rob Penn said those allegations are without merit and that Fike was a good leader for the district.
Greene said earlier this week the matter has been mishandled by the board and the Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell, who told The Union he chose not to press charges in the incident because it amounted to little more than “two adults behaving badly.” Greene has said the complaint was not pursued by the District Attorney due to Fike’s prominence in the community.
“This is just Nevada County’s good ole boy system,” Greene told The Union. “If the roles were reversed, if I had grabbed Tim Fike by the neck, do you think I would be on paid administrative leave today? We’d already be down the road.”