A synopsis of the investigative report received by the Sonoita Elgin Fire District (SEFD) Board in late January, prepared by Green and Baker of Scottsdale, indicates that from late summer through fall, 2020, current and former SEFD employees and community members submitted letters (some anonymously) to the Board regarding SEFD employees Joseph DeWolf, Mark Bennett, Kathe Prentice, and Laura Sink.
Supporters of Prentice and Bennett argued they were treated unfairly, while supporters of DeWolf and Sink argued the allegations against them were unfounded. As a result, the SEFD Governing Board requested an investigation into a potential toxic work environment. The following is a summary of allegations and findings contained in a redacted copy of the report.
Allegation #1: Bennett was purportedly wrongfully discharged in supposed retaliation for his knowledge of the Chief’s activities regarding Chrystal Belt. Conclusion: Not Sustained.
Allegation #2: SEFD Paramedic Kathe Prentice was allegedly retaliated against based on her knowledge of the Belt incident. Conclusion: Not Sustained.
Allegation #3: Chief DeWolf created an unpleasant work environment. Conclusion: Sustained in part. Chief DeWolf was terminated Jan. 5, 2021 for allowing and/or accepting an increase in pay without Board approval and a further analysis of his behavior was deemed unnecessary.
A second redacted report was also completed by Green and Baker on SEFD employee Sink based on allegations of employee misconduct as follows:
Allegation #1: Sink was unpleasant to work with and occupied a position that may be eliminated as unnecessary in the organizational structure. Conclusion: Sustained.
Sink, who had been placed on administrative leave, resigned her position on Jan. 25, 2021 and the Department elected to abolish her position and transfer the duties to the Operations Chief. Acting Chief Jon Buonaccorsi noted that eliminating the position will create an annual savings to the district of approximately $77,500.
During a Board meeting held Feb. 23, 2021, Board Chair Chris Johnson announced that a partial forensic audit of DeWolf’s pay and benefits was received; however, the audit was limited to a partial period beginning Nov. 12, 2018 through Oct. 30, 2020. Working with SEFD contractor Vicki Rutter, Johnson estimated DeWolf’s over-payments for the same period at over $75,000, accumulating from a combination of the $300 per week for a salary increase not approved ($30,550) along with unauthorized insurance payments for family coverage ($26,428) and excess benefits and taxes paid ($18,477).
The Walker and Armstrong audit was not yet made available and Johnson wants to compare the two reports, pin down the methodology, and talk to the District’s attorney regarding a plan to move forward. He also stated they would probably issue a letter of demand to DeWolf to recover the over-payments and discuss the matter with their insurance provider.
Rutter also briefed that expenses linked to the investigation exceed $114,600 which include salaries for staff placed on administrative leave, paid time off, retirement contributions and insurance premiums, legal fees and auditor fees. These accrued costs do not include the over-payments to DeWolf.
Board discussion then focused on filling the Fire Chief position. Johnson identified two options, one being an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with Palominas to provide 50% Chief Services and the other to recruit for a full time chief for SEFD.
The board is interested in community input on the proposed options. Johnson agreed to speak with Palominas to obtain the estimated cost to SEFD for an IGA. Acting Chief Buonaccorsi stated he has a copy of an employment contract from Palominas for their Chief position and is currently reviewing it. Johnson also said that an IGA with Palominas would be a bridging strategy for no more than a few years and down the road they would hire a full-time chief for SEFD.