This article has been corrected to clarify the time frame of Councilor Les Veach’s motion.
WINCHESTER — More than 100 firefighters from as far away as Loudoun County packed Rouss City Hall on Tuesday night during a City Council meeting to protest City Manager Eden Freeman’s handling of a personnel situation involving Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William Garrett.
Council responded by setting the stage for a possible investigation of City Hall’s personnel policies and practices, which Winchester career firefighters and paramedics blame for major staff losses and recruiting difficulties for the city’s Fire and Rescue Department.
The dustup began Oct. 22 when Winchester Human Resources Director Paula Nofsinger proposed modifications to the city’s Comprehensive Employee Management System that would, among other things, adjust the way paid time off (PTO) is calculated for city employees.
Members of the Winchester Professional Firefighters and Paramedics-IAFF Local 3401 union objected, claiming the proposed PTO changes are unfair because career firefighters and paramedics work more hours per year than other city employees — 2,496 hours annually, compared to 2,080 for most city staff — but would accrue the same amount of annual vacation and sick time as everyone else.
At City Council’s meeting Nov. 12, Garrett said the PTO changes “could be a game changer for us” because the proposed accrual policy may make it more difficult for his department to recruit and retain staff, who could earn more money and time off in other jurisdictions. He recommended council take more time to develop a plan fair to everyone, and councilors unanimously agreed to table the matter until Dec. 10 so Nofsinger could seek PTO alternatives.
Less than two weeks after that meeting, rumors began circulating that Garrett had been suspended. A Facebook page titled “Support Chief Garrett, Winchester Fire and Rescue Department” was created on Nov. 23. No official reason for the suspension was provided, but people posting to the page accused Freeman of retaliating against Garrett because of his statements to council.
On Sunday, Freeman issued a statement saying Garrett’s absence from the office was due to a “personnel matter” and, as such, would not be further discussed.
On Tuesday, the city released another statement, this time saying Garrett had never been suspended or relieved of duty, and would return to the office on Wednesday. This statement said one of the days Garrett was out of the office was due to a previously scheduled vacation day, but no explanation was offered for the other two days he was absent.
“We demand to know the truth, whatever it may be,” Winchester resident Roya Millotte told council Tuesday night.
“I think our city is in terrible turmoil at this point,” added former Winchester police officer Cheryl Anderson, who called on council to meet privately with Garrett and find out the real reason why he was out of the office.
Millottee and Anderson were among seven people who stood at the podium and criticized Freeman, who was seated next to the lectern. Each speaker signed up in advance to address council, and after they had finished speaking, Mayor David Smith closed off public comments. This was unusual because Smith traditionally asks the audience if there is anyone who wishes to speak who didn’t sign up.
Councilor Les Veach, a Republican, then made a motion calling for City Council to investigate City Hall’s personnel policies from 2017 through today so the city’s hiring and firing practices are transparent for its citizens.
However, Veach’s motion was deemed too broad and caused confusion among councilors. At one point, council members mistakenly thought Veach was calling for an investigation specifically into the Garrett incident, and all five Democrats on the nine-person council raised their hands to indicate they would not support the measure.
Republican Councilor Corey Sullivan said it would be prudent to first find out “what our parameters are in terms of conducting an investigation.” His motion directing City Attorney Melisa G. Michelsen to determine council’s options and report back was approved on a 7-2 vote. Smith and Vice Mayor John Hill, both Democrats, opposed the measure.
Garrett, who did not attend Tuesday’s council meeting, did not return a call seeking comment.
Attending Tuesday night’s City Council meeting and work session in Rouss City Hall were Mayor and council President David Smith, Vice Mayor John Hill, Vice President Evan Clark and councilors Kim Herbstritt, John Willingham, Bill Wiley, Corey Sullivan, Judy McKiernan and Les Veach.