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Granby firefighters claim ‘no confidence’ in chief, who vehemently defends himself

  • Granby Fire Chief John Mitchell in his office on Thursday. The chief denied many allegations about his leadership made by some firefighters last month. He has submitted a 12-page letter to the Select Board refuting the claims against him in a two-page letter outlining why firefighters took a vote a no confidence in the chief. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2018

GRANBY — Citing a hostile work environment, staffing issues, faulty leadership and fiscal irresponsibility, 20 members of the Granby Fire Department last month signed a letter stating they had “no confidence” in Fire Chief John Mitchell’s ability to lead the department.

In a strongly worded 12-page response, Mitchell rejected the allegations in detail, using terms like “hog wash,” “outlandish and grossly exaggerated lie” and “peculiar.”

“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.

The fire department’s vote of “no confidence” comes after months of in-fighting within the department as Mitchell, hired a year and a half ago, tries to implement changes and longtime members of the department push back.

“Due to numerous ongoing issues and the lack of a collaborative, respectful working relationship, the members of the Granby Fire Department feel that they have no choice but to take a vote of no confidence in the leadership abilities of Fire Chief John Mitchell,” read the June 4 letter. “It is with great disappointment that we have come to this unprecedented point in our department’s history.”

Mitchell responds by saying, “I came to Granby when the department was; simply, in shambles. There was a serious lack of leadership, morale was extremely low, there was ‘in-fighting’ between the day staff that was spilling over into the call-force and a valuable member of the full-time staff was ready to walk out the door.”

Members of the Fire Department are calling on the Select Board to help resolve the issues, while Mitchell asks the board for its support.

The town hired a special counsel to investigate the allegations soon after the firefighters’ letter was delivered to the Select Board, Town Administrator Christopher Martin said.

“We have an independent investigation going on at this point in time into the allegations made,” Martin said. “I have no comment until the investigation is complete.”

Making their cases

The International Association of Firefighters Local 4172 union, which represents Granby firefighters, includes about 30 members, 20 of whom supported the no-confidence vote and signed the letter to the Select Board. Another 10 members volunteer on an infrequent basis.

The June 4 letter 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.”

Lt. Mike Pandora, union president, said the problems caused by Mitchell are affecting the department’s ability to adequately serve the town.

“We need a chief that is going to focus on the needs of the department as well as the community,” he said. “A leader that’s going to encourage more staffing, actually actively recruit staffing, and then maintain and train that staffing once they are there.”

Mitchell denies that he threatened termination or manipulated anyone, but admits there have been passionate conversations with staff behind closed doors.

“Some of the discussions we have are spirited, but… we come to a consensus and we move on,” Mitchell said in an interview.

“Nothing I have done places Granby residents nor the members of this department in any danger,” Mitchell wrote. “These are grossly exaggerated claims and an attempt to incite anger and exaggerate the paltry accusations they have made with inadequate evidence.”

Mitchell vehemently rejects the idea the department took any kind of “vote.” He said some staff members were pushed to sign the June 4 letter authored by other staff members. He thinks pressure to sign the letter came from a place of allegiance and friendship, and a few have expressed to Mitchell regret for having signed it.

“They don’t know me like they know the people they grew up with,” Mitchell said in an interview. “I had one person tell me they never even read it.”

Assistant chief resigns

Frustrated by what he saw happening to the department, 14-year member George Randall, who was recently appointed assistant chief, resigned on May 25.

“I had made the Town Administrator, Chris Martin, aware of my concerns several months prior,” Randall said. “In the months that followed, the behaviors continued and escalated. I’m hopeful that my resignation after 14 years of service, combined with the vote of no confidence and numerous other documented issues will result in the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator taking appropriate actions to support the firefighters and protect the residents of Granby.”

Mitchell said he was brought in to make changes and run a professional fire department. “These individuals are making this difficult and their actions are disruptive to the operations of the Fire Department,” the chief said.

The firefighters’ letter claims that Mitchell has dismissed members of the department in retaliation for their dissent, including Deputy Chief Bruce Carpenter, a 40-year veteran of the department. Pandora, the union head, said Carpenter was fired for publicly disagreeing with the chief’s decision to purchase a new fire truck.

Mitchell again denies these comments.

“There has not been a single matter in which he supported the ideas I presented, and I have learned by many that he has undermined me and spoke ill of me to others,” Mitchell wrote of Carpenter.

After the Town Meeting in May that approved spending $225,000 on a new mini-pumper for the department, Carpenter made a comment to Mitchell about how the truck was a “waste of money.” In response, Mitchell gave Carpenter the option to either retire or be terminated, citing the deputy chief’s prior insubordination and unconventional leadership technique on emergency response scenes as contributing factors.

“We don’t have to agree, but we at least have to show the other officers we are on a united front,” Mitchell said. “He forced my hand.”

However, Mitchell regrets seeing a longtime member of the department leave on such terms. “I wanted him to leave with the dignity and respect of someone who had served his time,” he said.

Staffing a concern

Mitchell’s behavior has had a detrimental effect on department membership, Pandora said, with fewer members willing respond to calls when working with him.

“It’s getting to a point because of Chief Mitchell and how he treats people and how he responds to people — including the general public — firefighters and EMTs no longer want to sign up for calls or take a shift,” Pandora said.

The letter raises issues of staffing, saying the chief failed to ensure adequate staff levels on a daily basis, often relying on mutual aid without properly notifying the responding departments. The firefighters also alleged that the chief is regularly away from the office. In a specific example on June 2, when the chief was notified of insufficient staff levels, he responded by saying, “It is what it is; just call mutual aid.”

Mitchell calls these statements “peculiar.” He said the staffing of the department has been consistent for nearly 20 years. The current fiscal year’s budget includes funds to hire an additional full-time firefighter/paramedic. “This is certainly contradictory to their claims,” he wrote.

Members of the fire department also feel the chief made irresponsible fiscal decisions by purchasing “fidget spinners and other non-essential items.” Mitchell said he purchased fidget spinners with his own money, as well as other trinkets to give away at Charter Days and Dinofest. 

“He delegates a significant amount of his Chief duties to the day staff members,” read the letter. “When he does respond to calls, he drives at a high rate of speed and is potentially reckless and unsafe, both to himself, members and the general public.”

Mitchell counters that he often fills in for open shifts, including overnights. He takes on these additional shifts “often at the cost of having to give up personal plans or obligations to ensure the adequate coverage.”

“I believe this further dilutes the claims that have been made regarding my lack of assurance of adequate staffing levels and safety of the community,” he wrote.

Mitchell assumed the role of fire chief in January 2017. Previously, he worked as fire chief for the Barnes Air National Guard in Westfield.

Pandora said problems began soon after Mitchell joined the department.

“We’re willing to fix the issues, whether or not the town chooses to terminate him,” Pandora said. “There’s a lot of other issues that have been brought forward to the Select Board and town administration that are currently being looked into.”

Pandora said a dramatic change in leadership is needed. The difference between Mitchell and the former fire chief Russell Anderson, who retired in March 2016 after 10 years with the department, is like “night and day” according to Pandora.

“He was actually interested in his members, making sure they had what they needed to be successful,” Pandora said.

Mitchell said he is confident that any investigation regarding his performance will “bear the truth of the facts as I have laid them out.” He told the Select Board in his letter that he will need their support, as well as that of the town administrator, to continue the job of moving the department forward.

The town’s investigation could last the next several weeks Martin said, after which more information will be available.