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.”

— Contact Evan Goodenow at

egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(25) comments

delaurel66

Unofficial sources tell us the Chief is BACK. More details to follow. Now to get City Council to remove Eden Freeman as City Manager and start cleaning house on the retaliating against city employees and any other problems that may be found. The important thing is CHIEF GARRETT IS BACK!!!!!

delaurel66

Winchester City Manager Allegedly Under Investigation November 2017

Do you remember this story during elections?

delaurel66

I do believe if the City Manager fires Chief Garrett, City Council can go over her head and rehire him. I hope the City Manager comes to her senses and does not fire or discipline Garrett in any manner. Suck it up, say you are sorry and maybe you will get to leave Winchester with your head held high, instead of in disgrace. Nobody respects Eden Freeman anymore, and how can you be an affective City Manager with no respect?

Openureyes

You all should wait to get the allegations first. This is not Garrett's first mis-step where he has been relieved of duty. Ask some FX guys. The city manager clearly said it was not in regards to his support of the leave issue. Why would she wait so long after the comments to remove him?

delaurel66

Well we will ask the FX guys as there are plenty that are coming tomorrow to support Chief Garrett. You can't work for 30 years with one department and not have someone decide you did something wrong. No one is perfect. That is what makes Chief Garrett the perfect person to run the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department. He's been there, done that.

Openureyes

I agree with you 100%, having had an equally long career. But there is a huge difference between making mistakes (verbal, written reprimand) and getting LWOP, in both departments. There are some disturbing character flaws and maybe Winchester just isn't willing to tolerate them as Fairfax did.

coachmilburn

Video of Regular City Council Nov. 12th meeting ...

http://mediahttp.iqm2.com/WinchesterVA/1386_480.mp4

coachmilburn

City Council meetings, Calendar view:

http://winchesterva.iqm2.com/Citizens/Calendar.aspx?View=Calendar

URA SNOWFLAKE

Just a few quick questions. Do any of you know what happened?? Are you all just speculating? The paper printed a second hand comment other than the Chiefs or the City Manager. "Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see"

DFunk73

You don't believe the high turnover speaks for itself?

URA SNOWFLAKE

No, I don't. There will always be turnover in all industries in the area. With 1/3 of the area population working over the mountain because the pay is better and most don't care about driving it. What about how the city/county invests in the training for local personnel and then they take off for a few more dollars. This area is not meant to compete against NOVA salaries and a few think that we can.

chiefbobr

Don't know much about the fire service do you genius ? If you did, you would know that turnover in the vast majority of fire departments is generally less than 5 % annually, which includes retirements. High turnover rates are indicators of low morale and /or issues within either the department or the municipality, which is obviously the case here. That's what happens when a city hires a department head and then doesn't let he or she run the organization or - God forbid - when the Chief has the intestinal fortitude to speak out on behalf of his personnel and the department. Sounds like these folks need a new city administrator.

pappys

Ihave met with her before,she is VERY disrespectful[thumbdown]

jwbbud

Time to send her packing

ShackMaster

As a native of New York State, I have always found the council-manager system in Virginia's towns and cities to be curious. A close relative of mine is the Director of Public Services for a small village in Upstate New York. He reports directly to the mayor, as do the Police and Fire Chiefs. There is no "village manager" to intervene. Other than custom, why are we Virginians saddled with this extra layer of bureaucracy, particularly in the person of Evita Freeman?

ShackMaster

We also need to keep in mind that Ms. Freeman serves at the pleasure of the City Council, five of whose members will be up for re-election next year. Unseating these people may be necessary to achieve the dismissal of Ms. Freeman.

CTJINVA

I've got to ask what the heck is going on here? The City Council needs to make sure we're doing the right thing by our people. This smells really fishy.

firechiefowens

This is a very troubling development and too much of a coincidence to not be related to the current leave benefits issue that is before City Council. If this disciplinary action was taken in an effort to suppress the Fire Chief’s voice in this matter, I hope the Mayor and City Council members are equally disturbed by this action.

The Mayor and City Council have a right to be fully informed of ALL relevant information regarding this issue, both pro and con. If the Fire Chief is being restricted from clearing explaining the unintended consequences this change in leave benefits will have on the City Fire Department, then a blind spot is being created for the Mayor & Council. This is completely contrary to sound decision-making and not how good government should be operated.

I would certainly hope that the Mayor & Council recognize that Chief Garrett is the subject matter expert regarding fire and EMS services. The Fire Chief clearly understands that the current change in leave benefits being proposed will be damaging to his current workforce and his ability to recruit and retain future Winchester Fire Department employees will suffer. Moreover, turnover in the current workforce is likely to increase by this action.

Virtually every jurisdiction within striking distance of Winchester is expanding its career fire – EMS workforce because of the rapid decline in operational volunteers. These jurisdictions are all adjusting their current salary and benefit packages to make them MORE attractive to applicants. While it is very difficult for small jurisdictions to compete head-to-head with salaries, having the most attractive benefit package and employee friendly working conditions can help keep the playing field close to level. Chief Garrett understands this and is advocating for both his current employees and the future of the City Fire Department. It is critical that the Fire Chief be free to provide the Mayor & Council with his professional assessment of this proposal. That is his duty and I hope that is why he was hired.

I also believe the Mayor & City Council should look deeper into this disciplinary action to determine if this was some type of retaliation for him maintaining a position on this issue that is clearly contrary to the City Manager. If he truly was “relieved of duty with pay and was not given an explanation why”, this fish stinks and requires a City Council inquiry.

URA SNOWFLAKE

The idiots run rampant on this page. Get all of the info first before you all make rash decisions.

DFunk73

You're assuming people aren't informed. Dumas

URA SNOWFLAKE

Do tell us what you know. I guess you are the one who is so informed. Do you have inside info? I'm going to guess you don't but your full of opinions.

emtparrothead

I posted on the recent article gushing over the city managers tenure, and how she has single handedly ruined a once well respected department. As a career firefighter/paramedic in a neighboring jurisdiction, I can attest to the previous outstanding state of WCFR in it's comparison to its current disastrous state. Pay cuts, benefit cuts, dangerously understaffed apparatus, and morale that is lower than whale feces, my heart breaks for the responders, citizens and visitors of Winchester City. These arrogant antics by the city manager have reached a crisis level under her direction, and anything less than an immediate dismissal of her would be the only prayer for the city. Unfortunately the damage that she has inflicted will have long lasting effects. Want further proof? I have yet to find one person, professionally or personally, that has a negative opinion of our City Chief. I also have yet to find one that has anything positive to say about the horrific city manager. Her arrogance hasn't tarnished the reputation of a good man, but rather kicked a hornet's nest she isnt able to unkick. 8f she has any respect for the city she serves, and the responders she has kicked in the teeth, she would resign today.

BeTheChange

I’m writing in support of the fire chief. He was hired for his strong leadership and management skills as well as for meeting all other job criteria. He should not be penalized for supporting his workforce.

duffyhome

She expects a group of employees who work approximately 400 more hours a year to accrue PTO at the same rate as employees who work 400 more hours less?! This policy would be completely unacceptable to this tax payer! Good for the fire chief standing up for his employees! Now let him get back to work!

DFunk73

Micro managing is a huge red flag of an unqualified manager. I've seen city managers put lights and sirens on their city owned vehicles because they thought they were that important. When you have that much turnover, it's time for a new city manager.

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