Mayor David Allaire has suspended Fire Chief James Larsen for a week due to “conduct, which was perceived by the membership as intimidating, bullying, condescending and/or belittling.”
The complaints were outlined in a three-page letter to the city’s human resources director from the president, secretary and treasurer of International Association of Firefighters Local 2323 and co-signed by 16 other firefighters. The letter alleges the chief had created a hostile work environment and that his behavior was grounds for a complaint to the Vermont Labor Relations Board.
A subsequent letter from the mayor, undated but addressed to and co-signed by Larsen, states the suspension shall run Jan. 12-18. Upon his return, the letter said the chief will be on a performance improvement plan and that he will have to hold a meeting with the department to explain himself and his plans.
“I too recognize that you have made great strides with the Department since your arrival, and I do not want to diminish those,” Allaire wrote. “However, I believe your conduct has been unacceptable and cannot continue.”
Larsen did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The union letter objects to the chief’s behavior on several occasions, starting with his reaction to a June 20 letter in which the union objected to shift transfers scheduled to take effect the following month.
“This letter stated how our members had expressed feelings of frustration and anxiety, which had negatively impacted morale,” the union wrote. “Instead of using the letter as an opportunity to respond to our concerns or repair relations, Chief Larsen became angry and demanded the Union rescind the letter, citing it as a ‘career ending’ letter.”
In early September, according to the letter, the chief “stormed out of the building” when a utility truck was briefly parked in his spot to make room to pack an engine.
On Jan. 1, the letter said Larsen claimed his wife was not comfortable returning to the area because she felt threatened by the union.
“No one present at the time had any knowledge nor anything to do with this situation,” the letter read. “This is an untrue and unfair accusation. ... Regardless of the intent of Chief Larsen in making these comments, they left many firefighters feeling anxious about what could set the Chief off next.”
The letter describes “retaliatory and anti-union comments” such as an accusation — denied by the union — of using an illegal method to calculate overtime. The letter claims the chief blamed officers and firefighters for not completing projects “even though he provided little to no direction on them” and asking for firefighters to be honest and open about their feelings and then reacting to that honesty with belittling and condescension.
The letter also claimed city officials have failed to act on previous complaints about “age discrimination and bullying.” Allaire said he has not received such complaints.
“I have never been formally notified by anyone about that particular concern,” he said. “I have had a conversation one time, with a retired firefighter in a grocery store, about a purchase that was done for the group up there but was not done for him.”
The letter notes the level of turnover in the department, saying it has lost a third of its membership in 15 months and attributing a portion of that to firefighters leaving because they felt bullied. The union suggested conducting exit interviews with those firefighters, a move to which Allaire said Wednesday he had not had time to give any thought.
“Maybe after a consultation with the human resource director, maybe that’s something we could consider,” he said. “I do believe a number of the employees had a sit-down on the way out. Not a formal exit interview — I think they went over their benefits.”
Allaire’s letter to Larsen stated that he met with the union and they “acknowledged the progress the department has made under your leadership and stated in no uncertain terms their willingness to move forward with you as your leader, if you can immediately adjust your conduct.”
Allaire called the chief’s conduct “inconsistent” with department regulations on conduct of officers and noted that it occurred over the course of several months.
“If I had been made aware of any of this conduct prior to receiving the union’s letter, there may have been an opportunity to address the issue sooner and with lesser discipline,” Allaire wrote. “Unfortunately, this was not the case.”
Allaire’s letter warns that further misconduct or a failure to adhere to the performance plan “will likely result in my immediately considering terminating your employment.”
Initial inquiries about the situation on Tuesday were met with little comment. Allaire confirmed the existence of a letter from the department but said he would not discuss the situation further at that time. Deputy Chief Seth Bride would only confirm that he was serving as acting chief “until they tell me otherwise.” Union President Mike Roy referred questions to City Hall.
Allaire made the documents available Wednesday, following a meeting with city attorney Matthew Bloomer and human resources director Jody Breault. Bride and Roy did not return calls at that time.
Larsen took over the department in April 2018, having previously worked at departments in Minnesota and Illinois. he arrived at the end of a long search process in which one candidate selected by the mayor withdrew his name prior to confirmation by the Board of Aldermen.
Larsen soon found himself in conflict with senior leadership over his efforts to modernize the department. Deputy Chief James Miles was one of the firefighters to depart, and the only one so far to publicly criticize Larsen, saying morale was the worst he had seen it and the department was on its way to ruin.
Firefighters still with the department at the end of that year told a different story. Bride, then a rank-and-file member and the head of the union, said Larsen arrived with firefighting credentials that carried weight with the membership and that he had been solicitous of what firefighters thought when making changes.
Larsen also set about replacing large quantities of outdated equipment, establishing new training standards for officers and creating a process by which firefighters could pursue the sort of training and experience that would later make them eligible for promotion.
The loss of senior leadership created a vacuum at the top, and early last year, the Board of Aldermen voted to compensate him for hundreds of hours of overtime by paying him an extra $6,153 and awarding him an extra 18 weeks of vacation time to be spread over the remaining four years of his contract.
“I don’t think it can be diminished, all the good things that have changed in under two years and all the things that have gotten better,” Allaire said Wednesday. “That first year he was here has created a lot of stress. This could be how it’s manifesting.”
Allaire said the complaints caught him by surprise and that he had spent 2½ hours Wednesday meeting with the department as a whole.
“We’re dealing with a situation I only became aware of a little over a week ago,” he said. “There had been no notification from anyone up on the hill. ... I guess that’s my disappointment in all of this. It’s gotten to this point where maybe, if this information had been provided earlier, maybe there could have been a different path forward.”