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Firefighters air grievances at South Hill meeting

SoVaNow.com / May 05, 2021
Nearly a year after members of the South Hill Volunteer Fire Department ousted longtime fire chief Rosser Wells, members of the department say he and town officials are harassing them out of revenge.

Wells served as South Hill fire chief for 28 years and had been with the department for 48 years before his retirement in July 2020.

For nearly two hours Friday night at a fire department meeting to which members of the Town Council’s fire committee were invited, current SHVFD leadership — Fire Chief Michael Vaughan, Deputy Fire Chief John Kelly and Capt. Kendall Kelly — shared a laundry list of grievances including harassment and alleged violations of town policies by council member Ben Taylor and town officials.

The firefighters said most of these actions began after the members of the fire department voted in July to replace Wells as fire chief and name Vaughan to the position.

Attending the meeting were Town Manager Kim Callis, council members Shep Moss, Lillie Feggins-Boone and Delores Luster and town human resources director Carol Hutchinson. Other fire department members in attendance were SHVFD president and treasurer Grady Waters, secretary Zachary Currin, safety officer John Hines, and lieutenants Ricky Jones and Josh Gosney, all of whom are volunteers.

Taylor, who does not serve on the fire committee, was not at the meeting.

The firefighters were accompanied by legal counsel Randy Sparks, an employment attorney with the Richmond law firm of Kaufman & Canoles, P.C.

The South Hill Volunteer Fire Department is a not-for-profit volunteer organization, separate from the town but housed in a building owned by the town. The fire department also receives a majority of its financial support from the town. Those funds are supplemented with outside grants and fundraising drives by members.

Prior to succeeding Wells as fire chief, Vaughan had been serving as deputy fire chief and fire administrator for the department.

The fire administrator is a paid employee of the town who serves as a liaison between the department and South Hill Council and Town Hall. The position of fire chief is a separately elected position that is not paid. The chief is the incident commander during 911 emergency calls.

Foremost among the firefighters’ allegations were random interrogations and misinformation campaigns they said were being led by Taylor. According to Vaughan and John Kelly, Taylor has on more than one occasion in the past 10 months shown up at the firehouse unannounced and “with an agenda.”

Both men said they have watched Taylor walk around the fire station taking notes, while questioning purchases and other decisions made by the department. They claimed he then misreports his findings to Callis and others.

Instead of reaching out to SHVFD members to verify the accuracy of Taylor’s reports, the firefighters collectively believe that Callis accepts Taylor’s information as gospel, according to Vaughan.

Moreover, Vaughan said firefighters believe they are being held to a different standard — rules that were never enforced during the time Wells was fire chief are now being imposed upon the department.

Firefighters are being told they must now follow policies and procedures that Callis has conceded do not exist in writing, but which he calls “standard operating procedures,” John Kelly and Vaughan told committee members. For the first time in more than 30 years, John Kelly said the department has been told their slate of officers would not be deemed “official” until approved by Council.

South Hill Town Code requires Town Council to accept the department’s officers, by holding a vote that has long been treated as a mere formality. Callis, asked about this, conceded that Town Council approval of SHVFD officers has not been required for decades.

Vaughan and John Kelly cited examples of Wells spending money on improvements to the fire station building in the past without having first received Council approval — $24,000 for a sign, $22,000 for a shop and $15,000 for roof repairs. Since July, Callis has denied Vaughan’s requests to spend money on the department, saying he must first obtain Council approval.

The firefighters said they have been told they can’t meet with Town Council members unless they follow existing protocols which call for them to first go through Callis. Yet, they say Taylor repeatedly tries to “meet” with them to discuss fire department issues without setting up the meetings through Callis.

Not lost on the members of the fire department is the irony that Taylor tried to have South Hill Mayor Dean Marion censured two years ago after Marion was accused of holding private meetings with town employees to discuss town business. Marion was told that discussions of town business outside of a Council meeting were the responsibility of the town manager, not the mayor or members of council. The censure attempt failed.

Other complaints were laid out by Kendall Kelly. He said Taylor has publicly accused him and the other SHVFD purchasing officer, Brandon Vaughan, of “attempting to bankrupt the department.” According to Kendall Kelly, Taylor claimed the pair spent “$32,000 on new gym equipment” without having the purchase approved by Council, and further wasted money by unnecessarily replacing equipment and purchasing a boat for use in rescue missions.

“We were questioned about the boat. ‘Why do we need a boat? We don’t even have a body of water in South Hill.’ And I told you” — here Kelly spoke directly to Callis — “in the last meeting that it was very coincidental and very hysterical that we got to watch our Boat 7 go to Clarksville and was able to assist and make a rescue of a civilian.”

South Hill was recently called in to assist the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department with a water rescue on Buggs Island Lake after Clarksville’s rescue boat broke down. The man was recovered safely.

Speaking about the purchase of new equipment, Kendall Kelly said, “So we have hotels, new construction stuff like that in the community. With our old pipe hooks that were on the ladder truck, if you sounded the roof, it’s got one sharp point. It will poke a hole in the roof. So, we replaced six of the 12 [pipe hooks] with new New York hooks, which is a more versatile tool, and we were questioned why were you replacing equipment that was not broken, but it’s for us to do a better job.”

John Kelly added that the department never planned to spend $32,000 on gym equipment. The figure came from a single price quote, he explained.

“What was said was that we were getting ready to buy $32,000 in gym equipment. Now that is what upset me. What was done was to go out there and get a quote — if money is not an object and we were going to put a full-blown gym up here with the best of everything, what will it cost? Then we got a bid come back that was 32 grand and we’re going ‘hell no.’ That’s a lot.”

In response, Callis conceded that he received misinformation, telling Kelly, “the word I got …”, his sentence trailing off. Callis did not say if Taylor was the source of the wrong information.

Attempts to reach Wells and Taylor for comments in response to the firefighters’ allegations were unsuccessful, as phone calls were not returned prior to press time.

Kendall Kelly expressed the frustration, which he said is shared by fellow firefighters, that Callis is listening to others and not speaking directly to the current SHVFD leadership about department spending or plans.

Callis acknowledged reaching out to Wells on one occasion after he was no longer South Hill’s fire chief. Callis apologized on Friday for that misstep.

“You never came and asked me. I’m the purchasing captain, right,” said Kendall Kelly. “Nobody ever came and asked me, ‘hey man are you guys getting ready to spend $32,000 or not’ and I will give it to you straight. There is nothing to hide. It was the high end, top-of-the-line commercial grade tread mills. I was instructed to do that by Chief Vaughan. Get us the top of the line and a bottom (quote). We usually work with what works for us based on our people, our growth and our development.”

Callis sought to deflect the criticism by telling fire officers that the problem was not with the expenditure, but with their failure to follow town protocols. The example he shared was of the time Tommy Arnold, who donated much of the money to build the town library, wanted to make upgrades to the library space. He went to Callis with a set of plans, told Callis what he intended to do, how much it would cost and how it would be paid for. Callis brought the request to Town Council which then approved it.

He said the fire department never followed these steps. In reply, Kendall Kelly said Callis’ criticism of the department was premature. Firefighters were not ready to seek Council approval, they were merely gathering price quotes.

“We can’t even vote on the issue [whether to seek approval to install a gym] until our meeting in May,” he said.

The idea to convert former kitchen space into a gym was suggested after a fire suppression system “dumped in the kitchen and caused major damage to the structure,” according to Vaughan. “My job as [fire] administrator is to prevent damage to the structure so that is not the kitchen anymore,” he said, pointing to the small kitchen space at the back of the fire station meeting room where Friday’s meeting took place.

“We want to feel like we are just as important to you guys as you are to us. We don’t feel like we are getting that [respect]. We feel like since July we’ve been ridiculed, picked on. Everything we do is questioned,” Kendall Kelly said.

This prompted Moss to ask, “If what you are talking about, has that been reported to the mayor, or the sheriff or whomever? I don’t know, because if it hasn’t that might be something your legal counsel might advise you to do. Because we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Vaughan said he had filed a complaint with Hutchinson, the town’s HR director, but town policy prevented her from taking any action.

“That’s a tough situation because we are told as employees that we go to HR, and I did. I filed with HR. I let her [Hutchinson] know officially that honestly, I am being harassed and bullied and I believe that it is hostile. Unfortunately, the situation that you all put me in is I have to go to Jimmy Butts [town attorney for South Hill] and that’s not going to happen,” said Vaughan.

Vaughan said that comment was based on the employee handbook containing the town’s grievance policy and procedures, which is approved by Town Council.

Vaughan shared his reasons for not speaking with Butts: “I’m not going to see Jimmy Butts who’s playing golf with Rosser [Wells]. And he’s out there with the town attorney and they’re discussing me. And then Ben [Taylor] goes to an airport meeting with Jimmy Butts and they’re making complaints about the new fire chief and his driving to citizens of this community who sent me the damn email saying that your town attorney is talking about me and this fire department. And you think I’m going to the town attorney? You’ve lost your mind.”

Vaughan said he’s stymied by the grievance procedure approved by Council. “So as an employee I have nowhere to go, no one to talk to. No one to communicate with. I have to go home and not sleep, and I have to worry about my job, I have to worry about my family, my brothers and sisters, this fire department and you as citizens. I have nowhere to go as an employee, I’m done.

“Do you condone it? Do you want me to work in that environment for the rest of my life? This is the first time you’ve heard this because you have us strapped. We have nowhere to go. I can’t communicate. I can’t talk. I can’t go to Mr. Butts because he’s going to turn around and talk to Rosser about it.”

Section 14-3 of the Town of South Hill Employee Handbook provides that “complaints involving the Town Manager, Mayor, a Council Member or individuals with a business relationship with the Town shall go directly to the Town legal counsel.”

Callis suggested that many of the problems and frustrations that members of the department say they are experiencing had to do with the premature removal of Wells as fire chief.

SHVFD officers and members in attendance pushed back at this assertion, telling Callis that the membership’s view was that it was time for Wells to go. Several speakers then explained their reasoning, outlining the number of ways they said that Wells failed to do his job.

Speakers cited examples of what was described as Wells’ abusive behavior including insulting the intelligence of volunteers, cussing at volunteers and paid staff, talking down to and talking negatively about members of the fire department, disrespecting other town leaders, including Callis and the former South Hill Police Chief Norm Hudson, and failing to purchase equipment needed to address safety issues.

A safety example cited by John Kelly involved the purchase of a pickup truck the department needed to pull a trailer used to haul around equipment. “He [Wells] says we will never buy a pickup truck to pull that trailer. That will never happen. Guess what. It happened because it was a safety concern. The safety officer will tell you it was a safety risk because he’s done the research on it,” said Kelly.

Responded Callis: “I’m glad you shared that because we did not have the benefit of that knowledge. All that we saw was somebody that had been in the department for 48 years and he had been elected chief 28 years and we took it at face value.”

Throughout Friday’s meeting, Callis on several occasions described the conflict as a labor problem the department was facing, with Vaughan being both a volunteer fire chief and a paid employee of the town.

Kendall Kelly called that a separate issue that should not be the subject of Friday’s committee meeting.

Speaking on the subject of the labor relationship between the town and Vaughan, Callis said the department was “violating some laws,” although he later sought to soften that claim by denying he said the department was breaking the law. Callis then shared his opinion that “when you have paid staff during the day and they respond to fires and do whatever they do and then after their paid shift is over and they volunteer and go on fire calls after hours, that that is a violation of Department of Labor regulations. They [paid firefighters] should be paid for that.”

Vaughan corrected Callis, telling him that statement is only accurate if his duties as fire chief and fire administrator were the same, which they are not. He added that he had researched the issue following guidance from the Firefighters Association. The Association’s handbook contains several examples of Department of Labor opinions related to firefighters. Vaughan said the handbook reinforces his understanding of labor laws indicating that no violation exists.

The Town of South Hill’s employment law attorney, in a written opinion, acknowledged that Vaughan’s dual role may only raise the specter of a concern. The attorney could not conclusively state that having Vaughan serve as both fire chief and fire administrator, without being paid for both roles, equated to a violation of Department of Labor standards.

Vaughan then asked Callis, “So when did you decide that was a problem? After Rosser left?” Vaughan had been deputy chief and fire administrator for more than a decade under Wells. During that time, he responded to fires both during and after his paid shift with the town ended, but his dual role was never questioned.

Callis did not respond.

Throughout the meeting, Callis as well as Luster and Feggins-Boone professed ignorance about the complaints. “This is the first we’re hearing of this and our ears and our hearts are wide open to you. We are hearing you,” Luster said to Kendall Kelly after he pressed Council members to explain why they have not tried to stop the harassment firefighters are experiencing.

“Okay, so we’re hearing you. I understand that you haven’t felt like you’ve been heard. I’m getting that, but I have not known that. Now that I know that we’re taking this all in. You’ve got to give us time,” Luster added.

Moss acknowledged that several of the problems outlined at Friday night’s meeting were also raised back in October 2020 when he, Luster and Feggins-Boone met with fire officials. However, none of them, as members of the town fire committee, shared these concerns with other members of South Hill Town Council.

“We should have reported on what was reported at that meeting, because obviously it’s gotten worse,” Moss said.

While nothing was resolved at Friday’s meeting, the three council members promised to take the information back to the full council for review. Callis agreed that certain “standard operating procedures” would now be reduced to writing and applied uniformly. Nothing was said about amending the Town’s grievance policy.

A separate meeting to discuss labor issues will take place May 7 at the fire station.

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