Living across the street from Georgia Fire Chief Keith Baker, Jordan Valyou learned about the fire service just from proximity.
When he was old enough to join the department, he did just that.
Years later, Valyou was positioned across from Baker again, but this time, three attorneys sat between them.
Over the last two months, Valyou and five other firefighters testified before the selectboard to appeal their March 8 dismissals from the department, issued by Baker and town administrator Michael McCarthy after the six failed to sign a confidentiality agreement adopted last fall at the behest of GFD leadership.
Monday, May 16 was the last of the hearings, which began March 29. Over seven weeks, five separate hearings ran for five to six hours each and saw testimony from 17 witnesses, including town and fire department officials.
Attorneys Joe McLean and Dina Atwood of Stitzel, Page & Fletcher represented Baker and McCarthy throughout the process, while the selectboard sought separate representation by retaining attorney Rob Halpert from Montpelier firm Zalinger, Cameron & Lambek to guide the proceedings. The town also hired a court stenographer through that firm to keep an accurate record.
Altogether, the matter has cost the town about $20,000 in legal fees to date, with more bills forthcoming, town treasurer Amber Baker reported.
Selectboard vice-chairman Matt Crawford affirmed the board’s fiscal responsibility to taxpayers, but noted legal advice has been imperative to this process.
“The fact that we’ve spent so much on legal fees reflects the reality of conducting municipal business in the 21st century,” he said. “Making the town responsible for additional legal fees isn’t something we’re cavalier about – quite the contrary.”
Legal fees will continue to rise as the town defends itself against an unfair labor practice charge the dismissed firefighters filed with the Vermont Labor Relations Board on April 27.
The complaint alleged many of the same grievances the former firefighters detailed in their testimony – namely the confidentiality agreement and their subsequent dismissals violated their rights to free speech and to engage in concerted activity.
Through their attorney, Ted Hobson, they alleged their terminations were retaliatory for raising complaints, including safety issues, and for challenging leadership.
The town rebutted those claims in its May 19 response, in which it maintained the six firefighters were terminated for insubordination, as they all failed to sign the agreement, which Baker ordered by Oct. 1, 2015; only those that didn’t sign were dismissed.
The town rebutted that other firefighters that engaged in “concerted activities” were not terminated.
“They complied with the chief’s directive regarding the confidentiality agreement,” Atwood wrote in the town’s response to the labor complaint.
But the six argued the confidentiality agreement was never properly adopted, citing GFD policy that calls for sub-committee review and a vote by membership to implement new rules.
The town contends that is but one adoption method; GFD policies are subject to selectboard review and amendment at any time, town attorneys said, and town policy supersedes any department policy.
The former firefighters’ argument also hinged on their interpretation of the department’s Oct. 1 business meeting, the end of which served as the deadline Baker set for members to sign the agreement.
Baker, a full-time career firefighter in Williston, was absent for the meeting; then-2nd Asst. Chief Scott Richards chaired it in his stead. When several members presented letters detailing their discontent with leadership, policy changes and the confidentiality agreement, Richards was unprepared to address their concerns, he testified earlier.
So he tabled the matter – or so some members say. All six dismissed firefighters testified Richards tabled the discussion and Baker’s order to sign the agreement, thereby relieving them of their duty to follow the chief’s command.
But Malcolm Baker, GFD safety officer and Baker’s father, testified at the last hearing that he understood the order still stood.
Further, Malcolm Baker said, October meeting minutes were approved by membership with no mention of Richards tabling anything.
During cross-examination in the hearings, McLean asked all six former firefighters why they waited months to raise Richards’ tabling the order in their defense – none brought it up during their initial disciplinary hearings before a panel of GFD officers, including Baker, in January.
Some said they didn’t think it would matter back then; others said they didn’t think they needed to explain it at all, as Richards and Baker spoke directly after the meeting.
Richards and fellow assistant chief Russ Hardy both stepped down from their officer roles several months ago. During a break in the final hearing, both men resigned, presenting Baker with a box of their uniforms. Longtime firefighter Brian Bechard preceded them with his resignation on March 11. All three originally signed the confidentiality agreement but have cited concerns with department leadership.
Seventeen Georgia Fire & Rescue Association auxiliary members also resigned during the final hearing.
Barre City Director of Public Safety Tim Bombardier served as one of Hobson’s final witnesses. As police and fire chief, Bombardier has drafted a social media policy that was largely based on wording from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Bombardier’s crews are prohibited from posting department-related confidential information and are informed they should have no expectation of privacy on department equipment, he said.
Though Bombardier conceded he wouldn’t word a policy like GFD’s, he agreed its intent was comparable to Barre City’s. The biggest dissimilarity between the two documents, he said, is Georgia’s is an agreement and Barre’s is a standard operating guideline.
Bombardier testified about the “obey now, grieve later” concept McLean raised at an earlier hearing. He said lawful orders should be followed immediately, especially in a public safety environment, and questioned later.
Dismissed firefighter Chris Gonyeau thought otherwise. In his experience as a longtime respiratory therapist, he testified, questionable orders must be examined before they are executed – otherwise, any consequences of carrying out that order “are on you,” he said.
With two weeks from the hearing’s conclusion to issue its decision, the selectboard is down two members for its ongoing deliberations: Ric Nye, also a firefighter, has been uninvolved from the start, and chairman Chris Letourneau recused himself this week after Hobson questioned his impartiality.
Armed with printed screenshots, Hobson showed the board an online conversation in the Georgia community Facebook group in which Letourneau “liked” two comments critical of the dismissed firefighters.
“We’ve taken extraordinary steps to stay impartial in these proceedings, and when this concern was rightfully raised by Hobson, we took it very seriously,” Crawford said. “Chris has taken the appropriate steps to maintain that distance.”
Crawford said the board expects to render a decision by May 31; deliberations were scheduled to continue in executive session on Tuesday night with Halpert.