The Southington Board of Fire Commissioners has decided to uphold an administrative decision that led to the 42-day suspension of volunteer firefighter Steven Bull and expressed hope that the hearing was the last in a series of actions following a confrontation between Bull and Fire Chief Harold “Buddy” Clark.
It was a disappointing decision, Bull said, and left him to be held accountable for the time it took to complete an investigation. But does it mean the end for an ongoing controversy that began in June?
“This is not really something I want to accept right now, I felt there were a lot of questions unanswered,” Bull said following a hearing at on Wednesday night. “I need to figure out if there is a next action or not.”
Bull, a volunteer firefighter with , appeared before the board on Wednesday for a hearing into his suspension, which was levied on June 11 after an apparent confrontation between the him and Clark at the scene of a Darling Street fire. It took over an hour of discussions and deliberations, but in the end the board was unanimous in their decision to keep the suspension.
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Clark and Assistant Fire Chief T. Russell Wisner were present during a brief executive session following the hearing, which Bull requested be open to the public, but left the room during executive session deliberations regarding the matter.
Commission Chairman Robert Sherman said that, as filed in Bull’s personnel report, he was suspended for violating department policy in areas of accountability and insubordination.
Insubordination is defined, under department policy, as “any unbecoming behavior of a firefighter, or behaving in any manner that is prejudicial of the department.” Sherman said after hearing from Bull, Clark and Southington Town Attorney Mark Sciota, they felt there was not enough evidence to deny a confrontation happened.
“The length of the suspension seems long, but it was an unusual circumstance due to the lengthy police investigation,” Sherman said. “We had no control over the timing and made a decision as soon as we had all the facts. The chief had the authority to make the decision he did and we agreed with it. It brings an end to it.”
The ongoing controversy began on June 11 when Bull filed a complaint with the stating he’d been assaulted and his right wrist injured in an incident between himself and Clark. , commissioners said.
Despite the accusations, a report from Lt. Michael Shanley included as a PDF above said officers found no witnesses and could not gather evidence to substantiate the claim. .
Bull said he “raised his voice in response” during the confrontation, but said he felt there was no insubordination and that he did not feel he had been unaccountable. He said he returned the tools from the response – he is part of the department’s Rapid Intervention Team, or RIT – and was discussing ventilation with another firefighter.
“I felt we were doing what we were supposed to do. We have always been encouraged to talk and learn from each other. I was talking procedures. It’s not like we were tossing a football around,” Bull said.
Following the police investigation, in order to allow Sciota to conduct a town investigation, separate from the police findings. He said the investigation was completed and Bull was allowed to return immediately.
“All of the interviews were oral. There were no written statements taken,”Sciota said when asked through a Freedom of Information request for documents related to the town’s investigation. “My report in executive session to the fire commission was also oral.”
Southington Patch also requested documents related to a cover letter provided from Shanley with the police department, but the request was denied citing Connecticut General Statue 1-210(10).
“When I receive a memo to me as the town attorney from a department head or in this case, the department of investigative services, I consider that information to be part of the attorney-client relationship and I do not release that information,” Sciota said in the response.
Commissioner Mary Baker said the board agreed with the police and town’s findings, but said the board must also now work to better educate staff regarding appeals policies given confusion surrounding the suspension length.
Baker and Commissioner Ann Dandrow said they are hopeful that with Wednesday’s hearing, the department has tied all loose ends and the department and board can each turn their focus back to their mission: continuing to provide quality fire and response services to the people of Southington.
Clark said it’s time to put the incident behind.
“Steven Bull and I fundamentally disagree with each other’s story. We have shaken hands and put this behind us and we are going to focus on doing our jobs for the Southington Fire Department,” Clark said.
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