On August 9, 2023

Town needs process for handling employee issues

 

Dear Editor,

Let me start by saying that the only “facts” I have on the recent issues with Killington Fire & Rescue are from what I’ve read in the Mountain Times, so what has been reported is all that I “know.”

From what I’ve read, a number of department members, most if not all of whom made up Search and Rescue, had significant issues with the previous chief, Chris LaHart, charging that by bullying, misogynistic comments and more, he created a toxic work environment. Those members were reported to have brought the issue to our town manager who allegedly quickly dismissed the complaint with an off-hand comment about having “heard about it.” 

As a result of this seemingly dismissive comment, those members then wrote a letter to the Mountain Times, making their issues public and requesting consideration of an alternative organizational structure.

Our Select Board and Town Manager, first meeting in executive session, decided to support the recently hired chief and, as had occurred once already, seemingly dismissed the complaint with another off-handed comment “I hope you can work it out.” 

This led to a new series of letters to the paper, including one from LaHart, essentially calling those departed members liars, and one from the Select Board defending their actions. 

With positions clearly set in stone, Search & Rescue members worked out an arrangement with another organization and the town set about finding new volunteers. 

Things quieted down until late June when the Mountain Times published a new article about Killington Fire & Rescue, reporting that many additional members had quit the Department over the past several months as a result of LaHart’s actions. 

LaHart then submitted his resignation to the Town Manager. The resignation was accepted by the Town, and a new chief, Paul Ginther, was immediately brought on board.

Now, one would think that having experienced six months of upheaval, the town would welcome back those who quit and quickly rebuild the department.

Unfortunately, what we now see is the Select Board and Town Manager (who will not be Manager much longer) rejecting that obvious conclusion, stating that “Anyone who signed the letter (published in the Mountain Times, Rutland Herald and social media) or bad-mouthed the fire department through social media is not currently allowed to be accepted as volunteers” (Jim Haff) and “I like the direction we’re going right now and I don’t want any more letters to the editors. I don’t want to read about us in the paper anymore” (Chris Karr). 

Ginther, under direction from the Select Board and Town Manager, has advised the many former members who have contacted him that, “for the time being they are not going to be allowed back.”

My question is, why? Those who quit are experienced volunteers, both search & rescue as well as fire fighters. They quit for a cause, for justifiable reasons, and now that the cause (LaHart) has departed, they want to volunteer once again to help the town.

Does town leadership think that, by allowing them back, they will somehow be disruptive to the department when they never have been in the past? Does leadership think that by allowing them back leadership will, in effect, be acknowledging what most residents believe already:  that hiring LaHart was the wrong decision, albeit one made in good faith by the town? 

Frankly, directing that they not be brought back seems almost vindictive, blaming the “victims” rather than LaHart.

The Select Board should have learned at least one thing from this unhappy episode: it needs a formal process to deal with workplace complaints such as those that were brought to light with LaHart. Complaints about a toxic work environment, whether through misogynistic, bullying or other behaviors, cannot be dismissed or shrugged off. And those that alert leaders to such issues should not be punished for doing so.

As Killington grows and creates more full-time and part-time paid positions, there must be a process in place to manage employee issues. That’s a discussion the Select Board should be having with public input. 

In the meantime, they need to do the right thing and immediately allow those fire fighters and search & rescue personnel, who want to again serve the community they love, to return to duty.

Art Malatzky,

Killington

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