WINCHESTER — Less than six months after being hired, Fire Chief William A. Garrett has been relieved of command of the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department, at least temporarily.
In an email to The Winchester Star on Sunday, City Manager Eden Freeman said Garrett’s absence on Friday and today is over a “personnel matter.” In an automatic reply to an email on Sunday, Garrett said he would be out of the office until Tuesday and that questions regarding the fire department should be directed to Assistant Fire Chief Eddie McClellan, who Garrett said was the “interim fire chief.”
Freeman didn’t disclose the nature of the personnel matter, but she said in her email that it was unrelated to Garrett’s remarks at a Nov. 12 City Council meeting. Garrett said he supported a month delay in approving proposed changes to the city’s sick leave and vacation policies. Council members approved the delay after his comments.
Under the change, sick leave and vacation days would be part of a new Paid Time Off program. The firefighters union, Winchester Professional Firefighters and Paramedics-International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3401, says the proposal is 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.
Garrett expressed concern that the change could potentially hurt his department’s recruitment and retention. He said more feedback was needed from firefighters before it was implemented and that firefighters need to know city officials have listened to their concerns.
“If we could come to the table to get more of that feedback on some of the issues and get some of the pros and cons addressed, I would be more comfortable leading the men and women to get behind the PTO program,” Garrett told City Council. “I need every man and woman of this department to be behind me and this is one of those wages, benefits, salaries issues that could be a game-changer for us.”
Freeman said in her email that she appreciated Garrett’s candor.
“We pride ourselves on having a collaborative, open and respectful internal and external dialogue. Anything less than that will not be tolerated from Winchester employees,” she wrote. “We are considering all options as we work to bring a revised PTO proposal back for Council’s consideration on Dec. 10 that addresses the needs of all city employees and not just one department.”
Garrett, 51, was a 30-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department before coming to Winchester. He was sworn in as Winchester’s fire chief on June 3 following a five-month search. Garrett, who earns $110,000 annually, replaced Allen W. Baldwin, who served as chief from 2013 through December, when he took a job as an assistant chief with the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department.
Garrett didn’t return a call on Sunday, but a source familiar with the matter said he was called into a meeting with Freeman and Human Resources Director Paula Nofsinger on Friday morning. Garrett was told he was being relieved of duty with pay and was not given an explanation why. The source said Garrett has violated no department policies or procedures and has tried to do what’s best for the department and Winchester residents.
Over the weekend, Garrett’s supporters created a Facebook page in support of him. It urged residents to speak on his behalf at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Although the reason for Garrett’s absence hasn’t been made clear, it has triggered criticism of Freeman’s management style.
“It seems that every time someone does not do as Ms. Freeman wants, she either fires them or makes their life so miserable [that] they leave,” Cheryl L. Anderson, a Board of Zoning Appeals member and administrative volunteer at the South End Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, wrote in an email to council members on Saturday. “So far, we have lost a police chief, a fire chief, several department heads and now she wants to get rid of another fire chief.”
Freeman was hired in 2014 and earns $175,760 annually. She received a $25,000 bonus in July for staying at least five years.
Anderson said if Garrett leaves, it will cause a mass departure of firefighters due to low morale in the already short-staffed department.
“[Freeman] needs to let her department heads run their departments as they see fit with little or no input from her,” Anderson wrote. “Otherwise, City Council needs to let Ms. Freeman go in hopes of saving talented people the city has invested hours of training in, only to have them go to another department.”
One firefighter who quit last year to join another department said his departure was due to a lack of benefits and competitive pay and the way firefighters are treated by city officials. Matthew Baer, who served from 2015-18, said he keeps in touch with about 30 to 40 Winchester firefighters.
He said about 28% of the approximately 70-member department has departed over the past few years. Baer said morale is low due to “a staffing crisis,” a lawsuit by paramedics over compensation, the proposed PTO and a belief that they will be punished for speaking out.
Baer said at least two firefighters encouraged by former chief Baldwin to speak at a council meeting a few years ago about changes to employee leave and holiday pay were warned by Nofsinger afterward that they could be fired for doing so.
City spokeswoman Amy Simmons said on Sunday night that she was unaware of Nofsinger warning firefighters. She said it would be out of character for Nofsinger to do that.
Baer said he plans to speak in support of Garrett at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“In the few short months he has been here [he] has given hope to the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department staff. They finally have a chief who looks after them first,” the page said. “Chief Garrett is not a puppet man and has gained the respect of the WFRD staff for looking out for them first.”