Granby fire chief placed on paid leave pending conduct investigation

  • Granby Fire Chief John Mitchell, pictured in his office on July 12, has been placed on paid leave while an investigation into allegations of intimidation, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment takes place. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/18/2018 8:27:48 PM

GRANBY — Fire Chief John Mitchell has been placed on paid leave while the town investigates allegations against him, including intimidation, retaliation, creating a hostile work environment and questionable spending.

“I will say the town placing me on paid administrative leave is the right thing to do for the town,” Mitchell said. “I understand it. I support it.”

Citing a number of recent complaints against Mitchell, 20 members of the Granby Fire Department last month signed a letter stating they had “no confidence” in the chief’s ability to lead the department. In response, the town launched an investigation into the workplace conditions at the Fire Department and the chief’s conduct.

Town Administrator Christopher Martin, Select Board Chairman Stephen Chojnacki and Select Board member Jay Joyce declined to comment Wednesday.

Mitchell said it is not uncommon for a public official to be placed on paid leave during an investigation, and said he looks forward to its conclusion. He declined further comment on his leave, at Martin’s request.

“It needed to happen,” said Lt. Mike Pandora, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 4172, which represents Granby firefighters. “There’s a lot of issues that the town needs to resolve and the best course of action currently would be that the chief go on a leave of absence until it is resolved.”

The June 4 letter, signed by 20 of the 30-plus members of the Fire Department, accuses Mitchell of manipulation, hostility, censorship, lack of communication, retaliation and threats of termination against fellow members of the department. Other allegations of misconduct include reckless driving, aggressive confrontations with the public and “anger issues.”

In a 12-page response, Mitchell denied nearly all of the accusations raised in the letter and defended his leadership style. Prior to his joining as chief, Mitchell said the Granby Fire Department was “in shambles” and he has been trying to make long overdue changes.

“I am disappointed by the authors of this letter and those members of the department who signed this letter which include false, slanderous, ridiculous and fact less accusations,” he wrote in the June 25 rebuttal, calling the firefighters’ actions part of a “smear campaign” against him.

Pandora said he also looks forward to the conclusion of the town’s investigation. Last month he filed a complaint against Mitchell citing harassment and a hostile work environment, which is also being investigated by the town.

Public disagreement over a $225,000 expenditure on a new minipumper at Town Meeting in May led Mitchell to terminate a longtime member of the department, Bruce Carpenter, who was the deputy chief.

George Randall, a 14-year member of the department who had recently been appointed assistant fire chief, resigned soon after.

The “no-confidence” letter accuses Mitchell of spending large portions of time in the office preoccupied with business of the Pease Air National Guard Fire Department in New Hampshire, for which he served as the acting fire chief for seven months. When he accepted the fire chief position in Granby, Mitchell was already working for the Pease base’s fire department. He learned soon after accepting the position in Granby that the fire chief in Pease, and many of the staff, were being deployed overseas, leaving Mitchell to fill in as chief.

“There would be times that I would have to handle Pease matters here,” Mitchell said last week, emphasizing the responsibility did not interfere with his work in Granby.

Through an agreement with the town and Pease officials, Mitchell was able to work remotely as the acting fire chief in Pease, visiting periodically, while performing his full-time duties in Granby. This meant working weekends and evenings and frequent trips to New Hampshire with an exhausting personal toll, Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s service with Pease ended in December. Now he says he only spends the occasional weekend in New Hampshire for National Guard training.

The letter from the firefighters also criticized the department for relying heavily on mutual aid from the South Hadley fire districts.

“What Granby is going through hasn’t affected anything as far as our district is concerned,” Todd Calkins, assistant chief of South Hadley Fire District No. 2, said. “We are there to support them like we always have been.”

Calkins said that calls for mutual aid have increased overall in recent years, so he cannot attribute a rise in calls from Granby to the change in leadership.

“They are going through a tough time and we are here to help them in whatever way they have need,” Calkins said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.


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