As the dust settled on months of infighting throughout the Harvard Fire Protection District, Harvard Fire Chief Steve Harter and Deputy Fire Chief Don Davidson were slapped with suspensions.
The punishment stemmed from a letter sent in June that called the recent conduct of trustee and board secretary Joe Clarke “unprofessional” and “hostile.”
After talking in closed session at the Harvard Fire Protection District Board’s regularly scheduled November meeting, trustees voted without opposition to suspend Harter and Davidson for 36 hours, with the suspensions to be served in December at times approved by the board. Trustee Josh Kelnhofer did not attend the meeting.
Harter’s stipend of $2,000 a year was also reduced by $375.
“I strongly disagree with the decision,” Davidson told the Northwest Herald on Friday.
In a letter sent June 19 to board President Thomas Condon – which was obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request – Harter and Davidson said it has become apparent that Clarke has “waged a vendetta” against the chief and other officers at the part-time fire district.
“The actions within the last few months have been very unprofessional and have no place in an open meeting,” the letter read. “The belligerent, threatening and overbearing treatment has been escalating to hostile levels of attack.”
On July 21, Clarke said in an email to the other trustees that the letter demonstrated a significant level of insubordination from Harter and Davidson. He also called into question a number of insufficiencies within the district.
“Being queried on failure to conduct preventative maintenance on apparatus, missing fire incident reports, improperly handling an investigation into a vehicle accident involving EMS apparatus and the subsequent employee discipline, missing security box keys, secretive promotional process, insufficient response to request for job descriptions and policy changes, etc.,” Clarke wrote. “These are all difficult questions to respond to when the answers identify a potential shortcoming of administrative skills.”
In response, Clarke said the chiefs should be held accountable and disciplined accordingly, and he would support any decision reached by the other four trustees.
At the fire protection district board’s June 12 meeting, Clarke called into question Harter’s credentials, such as whether he was a certified fire officer and what education in fire service management or fire science technology he has, during a discussion over promoting firefighters to lieutenant.
“I am a board member representing the public, and I’m trying to determine the people that you [Harter] are advocating that is going to select future officers of this department, whether they are qualified for it or not,” Clarke said at the meeting. “I understand and I recognize that there has been a past practice and past method of the way things have been done around here, but I am not necessarily endorsing those ideas.”
In response, Harter said he didn’t feel it was appropriate being attacked. When pressed by the board, Clarke questioned the promotion process, which he would later call “unethical” during the board’s next meeting.
In August, the board hired Ottosen, Britz, Kelly, Cooper, Gilbert and DiNolfo – a Naperville-based firm that represents more fire protection districts than any other firm in the state – to conduct an investigation into employee misconduct, which Clarke said was because of the chief’s letter.
Between Aug. 14 and Nov. 28, the district paid the firm $3,240 for its services, according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
A FOIA request for documentation showing any findings or rulings from the Ottosen, Britz, Kelly, Cooper, Gilbert and DiNolfo investigation was denied on the grounds that attorney Karl Ottosen’s correspondence was intended for the purpose of assisting the board on how to discipline district employees.
Multiple attempts to reach Ottosen for comment on the investigation were not returned.
Harter said his suspension would be in effect Sunday and Dec. 15. He declined to comment further. Davidson said suspension days have not been set for him.
Davidson also said that he stands by the letter, which was meant to better the relationships of the district.
“We have always been able to solve issues together in a professional manner,” Harter and Davidson wrote in the June 19 letter. “This has recently changed and it is our sincere hope that we can rebuild this relationship without pursuing outside help.”