WINCHESTER — The Winchester Star has obtained information that contradicts the city’s account of what led to Winchester Fire and Rescue Chief William A. Garrett unexpectedly being out of his office for several days in November.
Numerous sources with first-hand knowledge of Rouss City Hall’s handling of the situation spoke with The Star over the course of several weeks. Since many of them are current employees of the city, they would only speak on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisal.
The city’s official explanation for Garrett’s absence states he was out of the office for personal reasons, and he was never suspended or relieved of duty. However, The Star has learned that City Manager Eden Freeman told Garrett he was temporarily relieved of duty, and an interim chief was named to fill his position.
In an email on Tuesday, Freeman held firm to her previous statements regarding the situation, writing that “there has been a significant amount of misinformation, unfortunate rumors, and inaccurate statements that are circulating on social media and in the community.”
According to information obtained by The Star, a disciplinary action against Garrett was reportedly taken after he publicly questioned proposed changes to the city’s Personal Time Off (PTO) policy that had been developed over the course of several months. The chief told City Council on Nov. 12 the changes would not be equitable for Winchester’s career firefighters and paramedics, who work more hours per year than other city employees — 2,496 hours annually, compared to 2,080 for most city staff — but, under the revised PTO, would accrue the same amount of annual vacation and sick leave as everyone else.
After a council member asked Garrett for his opinion about the proposed PTO changes, Garrett recommended taking more time to flesh out the plan so it would be fair to all city employees.
“I need every man and woman of this department to be behind me, and this is one of those wages, benefits, salary issues that could be a game-changer for us,” Garrett told council.
City Council asked staff to return in two weeks with some alternative PTO suggestions that addressed the Fire and Rescue Department’s concerns.
The next day, Nov. 13, six of Winchester’s department heads — Garrett, Human Resources Director Paula Nofsinger, Police Chief John Piper, Public Services Director Perry Eisenach, Social Services Director Amber Dopkowski and Emergency Communications Director Erin Malloy — met in Rouss City Hall to discuss alternatives to the PTO proposal.
During that meeting, Garrett reportedly said the PTO revisions would hurt his ability to recruit and retain firefighters. Some of the other department heads criticized his opposition and said he had interfered with months of progress on the PTO proposal by sharing his concerns with City Council.
Freeman wrote on Tuesday, “The department heads did not view the firefighters’ comments as criticisms; rather, they were viewed as input which was incorporated into what was recommended to and ultimately adopted by council.”
Following the 30-minute meeting of department heads, which ended before any alternative PTO proposals were discussed, participants were reportedly asked to submit statements to Freeman describing their discussions during the session.
One week later, on Nov. 21, Freeman reportedly told Garrett to decide if he would rather be a city employee or submit his resignation. According to Winchester’s personnel policies, this form of disciplinary action is referred to as Decision Day.
Garrett did not report to his office for the next five days, during which time Assistant Fire Chief Eddie McClellan served as interim chief of the city’s Fire and Rescue Department.
In her email on Tuesday, Freeman maintained that Garrett was not relieved of duty, and one of the days he was absent, Nov. 26, was for a prearranged day off. She offered no explanation for him being out of the office on the two other business days, Friday, Nov. 22, and Monday, Nov. 25.
Freeman also denied appointing an interim chief during Garrett’s absence.
“It is the city’s longstanding practice to have the second in command of a department or other high ranking department member serve as the point of contact in the absence of the department head,” she wrote.
On Nov. 26, which Freeman said was a day off for Garrett, he again met with her to give her his decision. He refused to resign and was returned to active duty after signing a document agreeing to abide by the rules and regulations of his employer.
On Dec. 10, City Council approved the revised PTO plan but exempted the Fire and Rescue Department, meaning firefighters and paramedics would continue to follow Winchester’s former PTO policy.
Garrett is still under a nine-month probationary period as a new city employee, which began when he was sworn in as chief on June 3. His probation ends on March 3, at which time he can be terminated without cause.
This is not the first time that career personnel with Winchester’s Fire and Rescue Department have reportedly run afoul of City Hall for sharing their opinions at City Council meetings. Four people who are still employees of the department claim they were chastised for attending a council meeting in May 2017 to protest changes to the department’s performance incentives and holiday pay policy that they said would lead to firefighters and paramedics quitting their jobs.
All four said they were summoned to the Timbrook Public Safety Center the day after the council meeting to speak with Nofsinger, then-Fire and Rescue Chief Allen Baldwin and then-Assistant Chief Scott Kensinger. Each person was questioned about why they attended the council meeting, then told they had embarrassed the department.
Three of the career personnel shared their opinions during the public comment portion of City Council’s meeting. The fourth did not speak publicly, but said he or she was still reprimanded for attending the meeting and sitting with more than two dozen other firefighters and paramedics.
“It’s all an intimidation factor to stop us from exercising our First Amendment rights,” one of the four said Monday on condition of anonymity.
“No one has been reprimanded or disciplined for speaking at a council meeting. I have never advised any personnel to not attend or speak at City Council meetings,” Freeman wrote on Tuesday. “However, I have always advised that if anyone does choose to speak during public comment at a council meeting or in any public setting to ensure that the statements they are making are true, as spreading half truths or misinformation undermines their credibility and reflects poorly on the city as a whole.”
In the nearly three years since firefighters and paramedics opposed the incentive and holiday pay changes that were adopted by council, Winchester Professional Firefighters and Paramedics-IAFF Local 3401 has reported that at least 26 Fire and Rescue Department employees have resigned, representing a loss of more than a third of the department’s 63 personnel qualified to respond to fires and medical emergencies within the city.
As Garrett nears the end of his nine-month probationary period, career personnel and volunteers with the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department have rallied behind him, showing up en masse at City Council meetings to demand an investigation into Freeman’s conduct, and posting their complaints on social media.
“Chief Garrett has a very strong following of staff members who respect him for the man he is and the job he is trying to do,” volunteer Cheryl Anderson wrote in a Jan. 28 email to members of City Council. “He has the force of the firefighters union behind him as well as [the] citizens of Winchester.”
Garrett declined to comment for this report. He was a 30-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department before coming to Winchester and was sworn in six months after Baldwin left the city to become an assistant chief with the Stafford County Fire and Rescue Department.
Freeman is in her final weeks as city manager. She has accepted a job as deputy city manager for Greenville, South Carolina, and her last day in Winchester is expected to be on March 16.