On July 5, 2023

It’s time to stand up to town leaders that bully volunteers

 

Dear Editor,

In March of this year, the KSAR volunteer group, which served this town for over 10 years, wrote a letter to the town manager, explaining that the chief that the town hired for fire, ems and search and rescue, created a toxic work environment through bullying and misogyny. They requested that they be allowed to form independently, not under the control of , but as a separate entity under the town. 

When this letter was personally handed to town manager Chet Hagenbarth, he said something to the effect of “yeah, I heard all about it,” and then set the letter aside. 

At no time ever was the group told that their concerns were taken seriously, and would be looked into. As a result of this, they had the letter published in the Mountain Times to make the public aware. Since that time, Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth and Selectman Jim Haff, instead of supporting long-serving community volunteers, chose to only believe the word of LaHart. They supported him as he disparaged the team, claiming they had no records, and were a liability to the town. 

This was patently false, the records were there. They were in files in a box given to Chief LaHart. The records in those files were run sheets (records of call outs and local training) and certificates of training completion at outside sponsored events (run by other SAR teams, state police, etc). LaHart declared these records unsatisfactory because he didn’t like the organization of them.

Then LaHart declared all of the  team’s equipment unfit after requiring they be evaluated by NFPA standards. The problem being NFPA standards refer only to fire and urban rescue not wilderness search and rescue.

Even after LaHart, Hagenbarth and Haff all heard from the state head of all SAR, Drew Clymer, that the KSAR team, their equipment and training was up to standard, and that he had a high degree of confidence in the team due to their training and experience, the aforementioned “leaders” did not support their own volunteer team.

In the following days, the team, who wished to continue to provide SAR services to the area, looked into setting up independently. Fortunately, Rescue Inc. based out of Brattleboro, covering southern and central Vermont, welcomed them to join their nonprofit, as a volunteer team that would remain their own team, and would cover the same area. Rescue Inc. helped provide insurance as well as other support, including more training opportunities. What they could not provide was the equipment. The team requested the town return the equipment since LaHart deemed it did not meet standards and vowed he wouldn’t use it.

Hagenbarth said that in order to do that he would need receipts of what was purchased by the SFC through fundraising and donations, and which could be reasonably returned. They would not, however, return anything purchased with town funds.

Receipts were provided. 

It’s has been over two months. First it was “up to LaHart,” then it was “up to the lawyers“ now it is “we’ve turned it over to the police department,” who will take over SAR.

In early June, the town Rec Director Emily Hudson, requested the use of the SFC tents for the Fourth of July. The SFC president replied that the town should return the SAR equipment before asking for these volunteers to donate their equipment. Hagenbarth and Haff took great offense at this calling it hostage taking, without realizing how ironic and insulting it was for the town to even ask for the use of SFC property in the first place, when they in turn refused to consider returning any KSAR equipment, AND disregarded all the serious concerns of bullying and sexism brought by former KSAR and FD members. 

It is important to note that this is now 25 disaffected volunteers in total, almost 2/3rds (25 out of 40) of the previous active member roster under Chief Gary Roth.

LaHart is finally gone, and we have great hopes for the incoming chief Paul Ginther. But to this point, our town leadership has done nothing to heal the rift left by LaHart’s wake. Instead, they have doubled down: They have not acknowledged the volunteers who left over the concerns.  They have not addressed how moving forward they will not let this happen again.  They have not acknowledged there was even a problem at all. 

Those volunteers, who have dedicated some 300 years of service collectively, are basically Personna non-Grata in the town’s eyes.

The town’s only concern seems to be presenting an “approved” roster for the new fired dept. so that they looked like they have everything in control. The problem is the list of 29 (22 active, 7 probationary) was only actually 18 active as they miss counted, plus the new chief has not yet arrived and one person on the list is administrative only. On top of that, two “active” members listed as SAR and SAR K9, have never actually joined and can’t possibly have paperwork finished. This is pretty ironic considering the original complaint about KSAR is that they didn’t have the proper paperwork! This leads me to wonder about how much else the active roster is “padded.”

Please don’t get me wrong, I do not blame them for what Lahart did. He was obviously a charming enough person to those he had no power over, and perhaps a few that he did. But when 25 out of a group of 40 volunteers resign over being mistreated or are fired for questionable reasons (like insubordination), you have to ask yourself why on earth would the town leadership ignore and then exacerbate the problem? It’s time to stand up to bullies who don’t take responsibility for their own actions.

Respectfully submitted,

Patty McGrath

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