Nevada County Consolidated firefighters and Former HR director square off
On the afternoon of April 25, a reporter from The Union met with Randall Gross and Wyatt Howell, both firefighters with the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District. The two firefighters came to the office at 464 Sutton Way to discuss what they perceived as the poor performance of fire district administration. Upon the conclusion of the meeting, the two firefighters and the reporter saw Lisa LaBarbera, former human resources director of Consolidated Fire, taking pictures of Gross and Howell’s trucks parked in the parking lot. When confronted by another employee of The Union, LaBarbera said her presence was a coincidence, that she was at The Union filing paperwork connected with the effort to recall Director Keith Grueneberg. Front desk workers at The Union confirmed LaBarbera was there to take out a paid advertisement relating to the recall.
The former human resources director for the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District is proceeding with an attempt to recall a member of the district’s board of directors, amid questions from firefighters about the purity of her motives.
Members of the Consolidated firefighting ranks allege that Lisa LaBarbera, who resigned from the fire district in January, acted unprofessionally and inappropriately in sharing employees’ personal information in an attempt to strong-arm them into health insurance plans that were cost-effective for the district.
Wyatt Howell, Randall Gross and Patrick Mason, all members of Consolidated Fire, said Director Keith Grueneberg is being unfairly singled out by LaBarbera.
They claim the former HR director is more interested in exacting revenge on the official who contributed to her departure, rather than the public good.
LaBarbera said the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District has made a litany of poor decisions in the past year or so, foremost of which was restoring concessions made by the firefighters back to January.
LaBarbera said she held Grueneberg particularly responsible because he was the lead negotiator at the time of the restoration. He has since been replaced by Bob Rhodes.
“The board looked to Grueneberg as their go-to guy, he was the fire chief of Elk Grove, he said all the right stuff to them,” LaBarbera said. “Shame on the board for deferring to one person. When we start to massage this and try to figure out what to do … If we recall all the board members, who’s gonna step up with knowledge and experience to run the board at this level?”
Mason for one is not buying it, saying Grueneberg is being recalled for questioning the way district administration, including LaBarbera, former Fire Chief Tim Fike and Battalion Chief Spike Newby behaved toward employees.
“He asked pointed questions and began holding people accountable,” Mason said.
Complaints about HR
Wyatt Howell, an engineer at Consolidated Fire who has acted as a spokesman for the rank-and-file firefighters throughout the turbulent last year at the district, said LaBarbera was a huge part of the problem in administration.
The fact that the firefighters’ repeated complaints regarding her conduct as HR administrator constantly went unheeded led 27 of the 31 consolidated firefighters in attendance at an April 2012 labor meeting to vote to withhold confidence relating to Fike’s performance as chief.
In a March 2, 2012, letter listing employee grievances, Howell wrote:
“The chief has been notified on several occasions that the human resources manager is out of line and bullying employees.”
In October 2011, Howell said, he met with Fike and talked about the behavior of LaBarbera and Newby.
“I shared with the chief that Spike and Lisa were bringing him down and that he should show the guys he hears our concerns,” Howell wrote. “Fike blew up and said that they weren’t going anywhere and that we better accept that.”
Firefighters provided documentation of multiple complaints filed against LaBarbera during her time as HR administrator.
In one complaint dated Dec. 4, 2011, a firefighter, who prefers to remain anonymous, chose one type of health insurance plan over another. The firefighter said LaBarbera then attempted to convince him to choose the other plan, as it was ultimately cheaper for the district, stating the name and age of a fellow co-worker and detailing the price of the plan he selected.
LaBarbera then called the firefighter’s supervisor, a captain who also preferred to remain anonymous, to ask why the firefighter chose the plan.
“I feel that Human Resources acted in a way that did not reflect the deserved confidentiality of multiple employees … and seemed to have further agendas than my needs at that time,” the firefighter wrote. “I do not (appreciate) nor condone the discussing of my family’s personal choices or options with any persons but myself, nor the discussion of others’ personal information.”
On Dec. 14, the captain involved in the incident filed a separate complaint, corroborating the firefighter’s version of events.
“I told Lisa that this matter was none of my business and should be taken up with (the firefighter) if she had that much of a concern,” the captain writes.
The captain wrote how LaBarbera also allegedly used his action on a workers compensation claim as an example of what not to do with another employee.
“The previous statements should be a reflection on my complete lack of trust and confidence in the professionalism and confidentiality of the Human Resources Department,” the captain wrote.
Those complaints were accompanied by two other formal complaints written by firefighters who preferred to remain anonymous, all of which were provided to The Union.
Patrick Mason said that Grueneberg, unlike Fike, was the first person to listen and take action regarding the complaints from the rank and file — and that is why he is being singled out.
“He understands how to run a district,” Mason said.
LaBarbera said the firefighters are attempting to distract district residents from the true issue at hand.
“You know what they’re doing here, they’re just trying to deflect,” said LaBarbera when confronted with the allegations. “What does all this have to do with Keith Grueneberg?
“The bottom line: I was a whistleblower, and I am being retaliated against,” she said.
LaBarbera said the firefighters are attempting to smear her reputation to defuse the momentum toward recalling Grueneberg.
“It’s not their place,” LaBarbera said. “Salaries, benefits, working conditions, those are their parameters of what they can deal with, other than the job they’re supposed to do. Now, if they feel Grueneberg is part of their salaries, benefit and work conditions …”
LaBarbera said the firefighters are casting Grueneberg as a knowledgeable individual who objectively assessed the situation and crusaded to clean up an inept administration, but that characterization is not consistent with the facts.
“Grueneberg had way less experience of this district than the current chief at that time, Tim Fike, who had been here for 15 years,” she said.
She further stated that Grueneberg never sought to understand the administration’s side.
“In two years, Keith never asked to meet with me,” she said. “I asked to meet with him one time over a budget item. We had one 15-minute meeting, and that was it. Never once did he meet with me.”
Regarding the reports submitted by the anonymous firefighter and captain, LaBarbera recalled the incident but said it was more innocuous.
“(The firefighter) was on board with HSA, telling me it was the greatest thing,” LaBarbera said. “He was so excited about HSA … When it came time to sign up, he signed up for the HMO and I was a little confused.”
LaBarbera said when she asked the firefighter about the change of heart, he “sounded odd.”
Due to the close relationship between the firefighter and the captain, she called the captain in an attempt to make sure “everything was cool.
“It was not a violation of anything,” LaBarbera said of telling a supervisor about a firefighter’s insurance decisions. “It’s public knowledge.”
LaBarbera agreed with Howell’s characterization that the vote of no-confidence against Fike last April was the result of the chief’s refusal to side with firefighters over the administration.
However, she said that firefighters were drumming up complaints against her because she was the one who had to deliver news about dwindling district revenues and the adverse affects it would have on firefighter salaries. “They loved me. I could do no wrong … until we ran out of money,” LaBarbera said. “We ran out of money. They start getting upset. They don’t like that … The chief relied on his HR administrator. You get shot for giving the bad message.”
Consolidated Fire Shop Steward Patrick Mason said that characterization is convenient in that it paints firefighters as greedy and money-hungry, but it doesn’t square the truth.
“The financial downfall of the district was a blessing in disguise because it revealed the problems with how this place was being run,” he said.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.
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