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Demotion of Harvard Fire Protection District trustee comes in midst of multiple harassment complaints

Trustee demotion comes in midst of multiple harassment complaints

Days before Trustee Joe Clarke resigned from his secretarial duties with the Harvard Fire Protection District, the board president sent him a letter requesting that he step down and detailing a year of harassment allegations against a district employee.

Clarke’s conduct toward Jeri Loiselle, administrative assistant to the fire protection district, has included threats to reduce Loiselle’s salary, out-of-line comments about members of the public, refusal to sign a loan agreement for a new pumper truck and interference with district business that has cost thousands in legal expenses, according to the letter obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“All of these interferences by [Clarke], which cost the district money, placing the district at risk of a workplace harassment suit by Jeri and refusing to perform your statutory ministerial duties as board secretary, form the basis of my request that [Clarke] immediately resign from the board of trustees,” board President Tom Condon wrote in the letter dated Feb. 27.

Clarke denied any wrongdoing and told the Northwest Herald the claims outlined in the letter were “argumentative, subjective and inaccurate.”

Beginning of harassment

The catalyst of the harassment was when Loiselle raised concerns over former Carpentersville Fire Chief John Schuldt, whom Harvard trustees hired in January 2018, according to a statement from Loiselle outlining interactions with Clarke and Schuldt.

Schuldt was accused in 2013 of putting his hands around the throat of a female village employee and shaking her, according to emails from the victim and witnesses to former Carpentersville Police Chief Alan Popp. This complaint led to Schuldt being placed on administrative leave, according to an email from former Carpentersville Village Manager Mark Rooney.

When Loiselle discovered the allegations against Schuldt, she alerted Condon, according to the statement from Loiselle.

“I brought the information to [their] attention because I didn’t think that HFPD would want to be associated with this controversy and out of consideration and safety of all of the employees,” Loiselle wrote in the statement. “The consequence of doing what I thought was the right thing has been harassment and intimidation.”

According Condon’s letter, at the conclusion of an investigation into Schuldt, the district’s attorneys explained to Clarke that any retaliatory conduct toward Loiselle after raising concerns about Schuldt may violate the district’s harassment policy as well as state and federal law.

In December 2018, Loiselle had received information indicating that Schuldt was threatening to file a defamation suit against the district.

The district’s insurance carrier was notified and conducted interviews with Clarke and others. After his interview, Clarke allegedly met one-on-one with Loiselle and threatened to reduce her salary and explained the situation with Schuldt from his perspective, according to Condon’s letter.

Loiselle reported this to the district’s former legal counsel – Zukowski, Rogers, Flood and McArdle – and indicated that she was “scared to confront [Clarke] about this.”

Subsequent behavior

On Jan. 2, Clarke wrote a letter indicating that former Harvard firefighter Don Carlson – who voiced serious concerns over the conduct of Clarke during multiple board meetings – posed a risk of “going postal” at future board meetings because of Carlson’s tone and because of his belief that Carlson carries a concealed firearm. Therefore, he requested a police presence at future board meetings.

The Harvard Police Department declined this request, and Condon called Clarke’s comments out of line in his letter.

On Jan. 16, Clarke wrote a letter to Loiselle as a “warning” that she should submit all draft public notices for his approval although he did not have the authority to approve or disapprove such notices.

At a meeting in January, the board approved an ordinance authorizing the purchase of a pumper at a point when one of the district’s engines was decommissioned and another had been damaged responding to a fire. Condon said in the letter that the loan and the district would be at risk by Clarke not signing the loan agreement.

“You know how important that piece of equipment is to the district and your actions are unacceptable,” Condon said.

Stepping down

In an email to Condon dated Feb. 20, Clarke said he became aware after speaking with his attorney that Condon and Treasurer Jim Carbonetti intended to demand his resignation during a special board meeting Feb. 25.

Carbonetti said in a follow-up email that he never made that statement and only wanted Clarke to stop his ongoing battle with Loiselle.

Clarke stepped down as board secretary effective immediately during the board’s March 12 meeting but stated he intended to serve for the remainder of his term in office as a trustee, which ends in May 2020. The board accepted the resignation without opposition.

Loiselle did not respond to a request for comment on the harassment allegations. Trustees Josh Kelnhofer and Carbonetti did not respond to requests for comment about the situation.

Retaliation

Although Clarke’s conduct was characterized as retaliatory behavior against Loiselle, Clarke said the board’s efforts to remove him from it also are a retaliatory tactic.

Clarke said he had stepped down as board secretary because he refused to sign the loan agreement unless the board addressed concerns over how to pay back the pumper truck loan.
He said his refusal to do so was why Condon tried to introduce a resolution to remove him from his secretary position.

“Condon has been on a mission to get me removed from the board for quite some time because he is not in favor me me questioning his independent actions with the fire district,” Clarke said. “He will stop at nothing to try to get me removed from the board and quite frankly, is wasting a lot of taxpayer money to do it.”

Condon did not respond to questions related to Clarke’s claims or the letter calling for his resignation.

Legal expenses

Throughout 2018, the Harvard Fire Protection District was incurring about $2,043 in legal fees a month – based on a rate of $185 an hour – to Zukowski, Rogers, Flood and McArdle.

But in January and February, where most of the documented instances of harassment were noted in Condon’s letter, the district accumulated more than $5,000 in expenses each month, according to billing statements obtained by the Northwest Herald.

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