SEFD Board members Reba Webber and Chairman Chris Johnson study the report on the investigation into charges of a toxic work environment at the Sonoita Fire Station at the Jan. 26 Board meeting. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

During a special meeting on Jan. 8, 2021, the Sonoita Elgin Fire Board voted unanimously to sustain the termination of Chief DeWolf effective January 5. 

Prior to the termination, the Board provided DeWolf an opportunity to submit documentation of Board approval for his increase in compensation from $700 to $1,000 per week effective November 1, 2018, for providing services to Palominas Fire District (PFD). Although DeWolf provided a written statement and financial documents, he did not provide proof of Board approval for the increase, yet he continues to deny any wrongdoing.  

According to a statement read by SEFD Board Clerk Reba Webber, “DeWolf admits creating a document dated December 3, 2018 in which he expressed his intent to ask for the additional $300 per week. He then directed, allowed, and/or accepted the increase without having the request placed on the Board’s Agenda and/or without any documentation of Board approval.”  

Webber also stated, “Chief DeWolf occupies a position of public trust and must act to maintain the confidence of the public and the Board. He has an obligation to avoid any appearance of impropriety and should act in a manner that brings credit to SEFD.”

The Board also directed Chairman Chris Johnson and Attorney Donna Aversa to contact the auditors, Walker and Armstrong, to undertake a forensic audit to determine the amount by which DeWolf was overpaid, to include discrepancies between his contract which provides for group insurance coverage and SEFD policies which allow SEFD members to elect dependent coverage with full cost of coverage to be paid by the member through payroll deductions. The Board also requested the auditors to review the amount overpaid to DeWolf for providing service to Palominas Fire Department and the amount refunded to PFD, because he did not provide services under the IGA while on leave.  

Official documents provided to the PRT indicate that, at least since 2015, the SEFD paid both the employer and the employee contributions to DeWolf’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System based on both his salary and PFD compensation. For Fiscal Year 2019, the employer contribution was $21,594 and the employee contribution was $10,436. According to Johnson, “We are looking at the payments to make sure they are correct and comply with governing statutes.”

Fire districts are special taxing districts and most of their funding is derived from personal property taxes paid by residents within the fire district. The costs emanating from the original hostile work environment investigation and expanding into additional audits and actions taken by the Board continue to grow. As the PRT goes to press, the known expenses exceed $100,000. No bill for services performed by Walker and Armstrong has been received. It is unclear what costs may be recovered from the SEFD insurance provider; however, according to Johnson, the Board intends to file a claim.  

During a Special SEFD Board meeting on Jan. 25, 2021, the Board reported that they had received the results from the investigation into a toxic workplace, which stemmed from allegations made against Chief DeWolf. Johnson stated that the investigator found no evidence of retaliation against SEFD members stemming from involvement or perceived involvement in the Nov. 2018 incident when Chrystal Belt alleged misconduct against Chief DeWolf. A motion was approved for the Chair to issue a written response to Kathe Prentice and Mark Bennett based on their inquiries. 

The investigator did find workplace conduct in violation of SEFD policies. Acting Chief Jon Buonaccorsi is addressing potential disciplinary matters. According to Johnson, conduct by Chief DeWolf does not warrant additional discussion as the Board has terminated his employment contract. 

Buonaccorsi stated that since Laura Sink was on administrative leave, Medical Chief duties have been assigned to the Operations Chief and her position has been eliminated. He was authorized by the Board to coordinate a waiver and release of claim with Sink and present recommendations to Johnson for review and approval. In a follow up interview with Johnson, he stated that no lawsuits have been filed  against SEFD. 

The Board agreed to discuss filling the Fire Chief vacancy at the next meeting. No lawsuits have been filed to date.   

According to Board Chair Johnson, “I regret having to take the actions we did, but ultimately, we will end up having a better, more efficient and happier district. I remain concerned about the budget, but I am confident that we will end up with a net positive at the end of this fiscal year because of the changes we made.”