November 5, 2020 By Kat Crockett and Marion Vendituoli
Sonoita Elgin Fire District (SEFD) Fire Chief Joseph DeWolf was placed on paid administrative leave at the October 9 Fire District Board meeting, pending an investigation of allegations of a hostile work environment within the fire department. On October 20, a second member of the SEFD administration, EMS Director Laura Sink, was also placed on paid administrative leave.
Chris Johnson, Chairman of the SEFD Board. stated that “the board received a number of letters over the past several months from the community and current and former employees that led the board to appoint an investigator.” According to Johnson, Mark Bennett, who had been employed as Operations Chief, resigned in July 2020, and that many people felt that he was forced out by the Chief.
In early August, Chief DeWolf had been placed on medical leave at his request. He appointed Jon Buonaccorsi, a former captain at the station, as the acting chief at SEFD, with his salary set at $2,000 per pay period. At the October 9 board meeting, DeWolf was directed to have no contact with the district except for responding to the investigator and dealing with the Acting Chief. He was also directed not to work with Palominas or use any district vehicle. (The SEFD Chief also serves as Chief of the Palominas Fire Department under an intergovernmental agreement between the two Fire Districts.)
“I am really trying to make the fire department a nice place to work”, said Johnson. He stated that it is the board’s responsibility to the people to do due diligence and investigate these allegations and the work environment. “I would rate the morale on scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being excellent) at about a 4 or 5 since the beginning of the year. Contributing factors are supervision, not being listened to, and not getting answers. We are looking into allegations of retaliation, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and possibly sexual misconduct, and involving multiple members of the administration.” The investigation is also looking at qualifications and certifications of Fire Station employees.
“I have no comment on that, because I am not aware of anything like that,” Chief DeWolf said in a recent phone interview. He has been with SEFD for 24 years, and Chief for 18 years. “I came out of my medical leave. I emailed a letter [to the board] from my doctor saying I could go back to work. I went into a meeting and they put me on administrative leave. It was a total shock.”
There has been some sentiment expressed that both Bennett and current employee Kathe Prentice have been ousted from their jobs in retaliation for their perceived support of a complaint of sexual misconduct on the part of Chief DeWolf, although Bennett denies having had any involvement in that complaint. Chrystal Belt, formerly of Elgin, filed a complaint in January 2019 alleging that DeWolf, on Nov. 9, 2018, became inebriated at a local bar, where she was working. Later that evening he accosted her at her home and tried to kiss her. According to the report she sent to the SEFD Board, “He lunged toward me, grabbed my left arm and put his right hand around my neck and pulled me towards him trying to kiss me.” DeWolf declined to comment on this allegation.
According to Johnson, the board-initiated investigation into the 2018 incident revealed that DeWolf was not on duty, he did not use any firefighter vehicles or resources, he made appropriate arrangements for coverage and was not on call or working at the time. Johnson stated that disciplinary action was taken against the Chief; however, he cannot say what that action was due to privacy and confidentiality restrictions. In a recent interview with the PRT, Belt stated that she was never informed of the results of the investigation.
Phil Burdine, of Sonoita, addressed the SEFD Board at the Sept. 28 board meeting. “I was a firefighter here for 17 months,” he said. “What I am about to say is not going to be welcome to some, but I have to say it. I left the day that Mark Bennett allegedly quit. I believe there were some improprieties with his departure. Also, there’s another person here leaving in November, for reasons I believe are questionable…These two people are tremendous assets to this department, and I don’t believe their departure is legal.”
At that same board meeting, Jade DeForest, of Sonoita, a volunteer at SEFD, said, “I am concerned for myself what is happening to this department. I am working with these people on a regular basis and I see more and more depression, despair, anxiety…How can we do our job and not be afraid of retaliation?”
There are members of the department, and in the community, who are opposed to this latest investigation. Angel Perez, who is a volunteer at SEFD, spoke at the Oct. 26 board meeting to praise Chief DeWolf both personally and professionally. “I could never see him create a hostile work environment,” he said.
Suzanne Jenkins, of Elgin, a past member of the SEFD Board, felt that “the board has taken some actions that may or may not be necessary…The board, by putting the Chief and Laura on administrative leave, it’s costing the district a lot of money. Is there any real reason for them to have done that? He could have come back to work.”
The cost of the present investigation is also a point of contention. At the Oct. 26 board meeting, Vicki Rutter, SEFD bookkeeper, spoke about the “huge” expense overages due to the unbudgeted salaries for the acting Chief and for temps filling in for personnel on administrative leave. “Necessary maintenance is being set aside” because of these expenses, she told the Board. “Expenses should be monitored very carefully for the rest of the year,” she advised.
The 2019 investigation and attorney fees totaled $19,478, a cost borne by the fire district taxpayers. When asked about the cost of the current investigation, Johnson stated that this investigation is much broader in scope than the 2019 investigation and involves multiple events, a broader time frame and multiple people to be interviewed to determine if there are recurring problems so the cost will be higher than the last investigation. “We are also encouraging all volunteers and staff to speak with the investigator if they feel they have relevant information to share and to do so without fear of retaliation,” he said. The goal is to conduct the interviews by the beginning of November and have a report by the end of November so the Board can move forward with necessary actions.
DeWolf receives a salary of $84,413 from SEFD, as well as $52,000 for his role as Chief of the Palominas Fire District, for a total salary of $136,413. This past spring, DeWolf’s contract was extended for two years effective Sept. 1, 2020. It can be terminated by either party as provided in the contract.