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Verona fire truck

A plan introduced Tuesday by Verona officials to address problems within its Fire Department is being criticized by the employees’ union for excluding them from helping create the plan that highlights the need for more employee input on key department matters.

“They’ve already broken one of the most important tenets of the plan,” said Ted Higgins, secretary/treasurer for Fire Fighters Local 311.

“The plans said leaders in the department should work in collaboration with (employees), include them in the process of fixing things within the department. But right off the bat they didn’t include them. If they were serious about what’s in the plan, the (employees) shouldn’t have been the last to learn about it,” Higgins said.

The plan was in response to a report by the Riesling Consulting Group, of Madison, which found that Fire Department leadership was poor and “does not seek out or want input from subordinates.” The evaluation also found “a lack of professionalism” and “a toxic, hostile work environment.”

Verona Mayor Luke Diaz introduced the plan hours after the union released the report. Diaz said the plan was created to “enhance the culture and professional direction” of the department. He said Fire Chief Joe Giver supports the plan.

The plan directs Fire Department leaders to delegate responsibilities to other members and communicate with “greater collaborative focus” on matters of department importance. It also orders department employees to undergo training to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation as well as cultural sensitivity and interpersonal communication training.

The union and its members were unaware any plan existed until the city released it, Higgins said. He called it “a PR-focused gesture meant to pacify a crisis rather than build coalitions and produce meaningful improvements.”

Higgins said Fire Department officers were told at a meeting on Nov. 5 that there was going to be mandatory training on Dec. 19 for all employees. “But there was no explanation of why. There was nobody saying, `Hey guys, there are problems and we need to address them,” he said.

Giver said the comments made in the report were like “a punch to my gut.” He said many of the comments didn’t make sense to him but that after spending the past 22 years as a fire chief, “I’ve learned that there’s no way on this planet that I’m ever going to make everybody happy.”

Major decisions and the direction of the department should be made with “the best interest of the people that we serve,” Giver said. “Doing that, you sometimes take the more difficult route and that’s the one that can also put you at odds with the union, such as in this case.”

Giver was referring to allegations by the union that a double standard exists between disciplinary action for fire department officers and employees. An investigation into those allegations was part of the Riesling report, which concluded that such a double standard didn’t exist.

“I’ve been on like eight different fire departments in all different capacities and I don’t see anything different about the Verona Fire Department than I’ve seen in any other of the fire departments that I have been involved with,” Giver said. “Every fire department has problems and issues. I’m certainly not a perfect fire chief by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nothing to the level that the union is claiming.”

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.