Granby fire chief suspended over reckless behavior, online comments

Granby fire chief suspended over reckless behavior, online comments
By: MICHAEL CONNORS | Daily Hampshire Gazette

GRANBY — Fire Chief John Mitchell, who has been suspended without pay for the month of June due to accusations of speeding and recklessness while driving town cars, will continue his suspension into July after coming under fire for questionable Facebook comments.

Mitchell was placed on unpaid leave after allegations surfaced that the fire chief sped during poor road conditions and misused emergency lights to pass other cars during an April 30 trip to Walpole with three other members of the town’s fire department, according to minutes from a May 27 executive session of the town’s Select Board. There was also one other instance of speeding reported.

Mitchell’s use of town vehicles was revoked until he completes a driver safety course; the Select Board decided at a June 1 meeting not to renew Mitchell’s contract, which now officially ends June 30, 2021.

At a June 10 Select Board meeting, Town Administrator Christopher Martin relayed that the town had received a complaint from a person who was concerned that Facebook comments made by Mitchell in the “Granby Town Meeting” Facebook group earlier this month violated the state’s Open Meeting Law. Martin placed Mitchell under paid administrative leave from July 1 to July 6, and Martin has scheduled an executive session of the town’s Select Board for July 6 to discuss the chief’s behavior. Mitchell has been asked to sign a nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreement, Martin said at the meeting.

Screenshots of Mitchell’s Facebook comments sent to the Gazette show that the fire chief said he was suspended over a “driving issue” and that town officials were “making more of it than they should be.” According to his captured comments, Mitchell then said an unnamed member of an elected town board was under investigation, and that he was initially part of the inquiry. Martin declined to comment on any investigation.

“As a result of the investigation, which has nothing to do with my position of Fire Chief, they are pushing me out and not renewing my contract,” Mitchell said in the captured comments. “I cannot disclose the investigation details but if you ask our transparent and forthcoming elected leaders, you may just find out.”

Since the suspension, Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Carpenter has been acting fire chief, according to Martin, who added that Mitchell is paid $90,000 a year for his position.

Reached on Facebook Wednesday, Mitchell declined to comment, though his attorney Andrew Gambaccini said during the May 27 meeting he would be appealing disciplinary action taken against Mitchell. Gambaccini said in an email to the Gazette that he also has filed a demand for arbitration with the American Arbitration Association.

“An arbitrator will be selected in due course and there will be a hearing before that arbitrator in the future,” Gambaccini wrote. “I expect that Chief Mitchell will prevail in the arbitration, that the suspension will be stricken from the Chief’s personnel record and that the Town will be required to pay the Chief for the period of his suspension, along with interest and any other lost benefits.”

Mitchell, who became Granby’s fire chief in 2017, is no stranger to turmoil. In 2018, 20 out of 30 members of the town’s fire department signed a vote of no confidence in him; a subsequent investigation into this vote by special labor consultant John M. Collins cleared Mitchell and allowed him to return to work after months of paid leave.

“The chief’s lapses in judgment, communication or leadership, nor his angry outbursts, excessively fast driving, or alleged ‘my way or the highway’ attitude do not provide sufficient basis for termination,” Collins wrote at the time.

But in a letter from May 21 of this year, Martin informed Mitchell of disciplinary action for his continued speeding while driving town cars. Martin wrote that he was told in April that Mitchell was observed driving 65 mph in a 30 mph zone on Route 116 going over the Notch; he recalled in the letter that he had spoken to Mitchell about this incident and the fire chief had told him it wouldn’t be a source of future concern.

Martin also wrote that he was told of an April 30 incident when Mitchell drove himself and three other fire department employees to Walpole to inspect new fire equipment. Letters from the three passengers who went on the trip with Mitchell were included with minutes from the May 27 executive session and accuse the fire chief of driving around 85 mph, tailgating cars in front of him and using emergency lights to get cars to move over, all while in rainy conditions.

“I told him what had transpired and stated that I was worried if this did not get corrected it is just a matter of time before someone gets injured or killed,” wrote Granby Fire Lt. William Bragiel about a conversation he had with Martin following the trip he took with Mitchell. “I told Mr. Martin I would normally have confronted the individual but chief Mitchel [sic] would never listen to me and that would not have been effective.”

Martin, in his disciplinary letter to Mitchell, wrote that this conduct was “clearly unbecoming a Fire Chief.”

“You are expected to set an example, and you have been doing just the opposite. Despite many warnings, you persist in your reckless behavior,” Martin wrote. “I trust you will take this as a final warning that any more conduct of this nature will result in a recommendation by me to the Select Board that you be terminated.”

In the minutes from the May 27 executive session, Mitchell admitted to excessive speeding, and that he used his high beams and not overhead or red emergency lights because he didn’t have any, but that he did use wig-wag lights, which flash headlights at a preset rate and are most commonly found on emergency vehicles. Mitchell told the board that he did not feel unsafe driving, and that if anyone in the car did feel unsafe, they should have brought it up and he would have slowed down.

The board unanimously voted to uphold the disciplinary actions made by Martin in his letter.

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