Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Council committee holds hearing on complaint on firefighter firing

 

April 13, 2018

Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

D.J. Olson listens to various people talk during a public hearing held Thursday in Havre City Hall on a complaint filed against the Havre Fire Department. The hearing was held because Olson, along with Havre's local firefighter union, is fighting his termination from the Havre Fire Department.

The Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee heard from the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 601, an attorney for the city and Fire Chief Mel Paulson Thursday during a public hearing on a complaint about the termination of a Havre Fire Department engineer.

Dustin "D.J." Olson filed a grievance in January against the department for his termination.

The grievance report form says the termination was not for good cause and was the result of an incomplete investigation with no specific evidence supporting the termination. Olson, the grievance report form said, was also not given a required hearing before his termination or the chance to respond to the reasons for his termination.

Cody McLain, Local 601 vice president and grievance committee chair, spoke for Olson and Local 601 at the meeting.

"The termination is without just cause, there is absolutely no supporting specific evidence to even consider termination or any sort of discipline for that matter," McLain said.

He said the termination was a witch hunt prompted by a personal vendetta that Paulson and Havre Mayor Tim Solomon have against Olson, driven in part by Olson's active participation in Local 601.

Betsy Griffing, the attorney representing the fire department at the hearing, said Olson was not fired for being an active union member but for misbehavior. She said several investigations were brought against Olson for insubordination toward a supervisor, bullying and harassing a co-worker, falsifying recertification papers for a National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians license and not preparing an engine to respond to emergencies by the end of his shift.

The grievance is the third filed by Olson against the fire department. McLain said the first grievance was filled in May 2016 because of a reprimand of Olson by then-Assistant Fire Chief Paulson that resulted from a misunderstanding, McLain said. The Labor Relations Committee denied the grievance on a 2 to 1 vote, but the city attorney recommended the department remove the reprimand after six months and it has done so.

McLain said the second grievance was filed in 2016 after the department changed promotional policy that prevented Olson from retaking a test he did not pass. The council voted 2 to 1 against the grievance. An arbiter ruled that the city should appoint Olson to the engineer position with seniority and pay grade purposes as of the date of the departments's March retest.

McLain said that Solomon and Paulson say the details about Olson's firing are in Olson's termination letter. McLain said the letter just suggests several investigations were brought against Olson and that there is substantial evidence, and that was enough to lead to his termination. No specifics were offered he said.

The termination letter says that an internal investigation was underway about an allegation that Olson was insubordinate and disrespectful toward assistant chief Kelly Jones, McLain said.

McLain said the incident stemmed from Dec 22, 2017, when Olson handed Jones a bag of Chex mix as a Christmas present.

When he was handed the bag Jones thanked Olson, McLain said. He added that Olson then said "you're welcome, that is the least I can do after all you did for me."

McLain said that does not violate fire department policy and does not warrant termination.

He said that the only witness to the the incident was Captain Jack Trethewey who said in a later interview done as part of the investigation that Olson was not disrespectful or insubordinate.

Griffing asked Jones what Olson had said.

Jones said that Olson said "that is the least I can (expletive) do after all you do for me."

Jones said he had never been addressed like that by a subordinate.

Griffing said that when a subordinate says something like that to a supervisor they will suffer repercussions.

She said it shows that Olson did not think there would be consequences for his actions.

Griffing said that Olson was not a team player and that he bullied and harassed a co-worker to the point that the co-worker resigned from the department.

"He basically said I can't deal with this anymore," she said. "Well, Chief Paulson said enough is enough."

McLain said the termination letter says that Assistant Police Chief Jason Barkus interviewed Olson about the bullying accusation, and Olson was given a chance to present his position, but no further evidence was provided.

McLain said that all that Olson said is that he had a conversation with the co-workers, a department captain, Dec. 22 that resulted with Olson writing a compliant that the captain expressed threatening behavior to him.

Griffing said the bullying went the other way and involved recertification papers with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians, which the termination letter said Olson falsified.

She said the co-worker actually said, "'I will not lie for you, D.J. Olson.' That shows the kind of pressure co-workers felt from Mr. Olson."

Griffing asked Paulson how firefighters were recertified.

Paulson said during questioning by Griffing that for recertification, firefighters sign up and receive a password and they can log on to enter what they have done in the way of recertification and then forward it to a training officer.

The system serves as a check and balance on people's training, he said, adding that a firefighter cannot file their own recertification and has to go through the training officer.

Paulson said he investigated the matter and that then-Chief Hedges said he "absolutely did not verify anyone's skills on a Sunday evening and did not log on."

McLain said that Olson called the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians and the organization said that there was not any problem with the recertifications and that they were not under investigation.

McLain said that the policy that Olson was said to have violated did not exist until September 2017.

He said that two other firefighters accused of the same violation were given a written reprimand. One of those employees has since resigned, the other has filed a grievance.

McLain said a fourth incident on the termination later said that Olson was under an internal investigation for not getting a truck ready to respond to emergencies by the end of his shift.

McLain said that the incident happened Dec 25 after firefighters were out fighting the fire at Big Equipment on U.S. Highway 87.

The truck was covered in inches of ice, McLain said. He added that Olson had done his best to thaw out the truck. All doors were open and all equipment cleaned.

Olson was, however, unsure what was frozen on the inside of the water pump and erred on the side of caution to make sure the truck was properly thawed out, McLain said.

McLain said that putting a pump in service before it is properly thawed can be catastrophic, and Olson chose to let the truck thaw.

Paulson said that is not what happened.

"He did not make any attempt and that was kind of the issue and it was actually brought up by Captain Beau Paulson," Mel Paulson said.

Paulson said that when Olson blamed Beau Paulson that he did not do what he told him to do with regards to the truck.

Mel Paulson said Beau Paulson then asked Olson if he even attempted to thaw the truck, and Paulson said he and Assistant Chief Jones were standing there when Olson looked at Beau Paulson and said "No, I guess I didn't."

"That is quite a bit different from what you heard today," Griffing said.

McLain also said that Mel Paulson did not hand over a recording of an interview involving one of the allegations against Olson, despite a promise to do so.

McLain said that despite repeated requests to Paulson and the city attorneys, they still have not received a copy of the recording of the interview.

Griffing said that material was not provided to the union. She said that early on in the process she had received an email asking for investigative notes. The notes, she said, contain highly sensitive and private information about witnesses who fear retaliation from Olson.

"They are afraid of him, that he will retaliate, and I was reluctant to give that to them," she said.

Committee Chair Karen Swenson said after the meeting that in the next five days, she and fellow committee members Andrew Brekke and Caleb Hutchins must each write up a statement. The statements will then be collected by Swenson and a recommendation will be written up about whether to uphold or deny the mayor's decision to uphold the termination of Olson.

If the committee then decides to uphold the firing and deny the grievance the city and Local 601 would then be able to go to arbitration, she said.

 

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