A Fenton Township man, who has been with the Fenton Township Fire Department for 17 years and a captain for eight years, resigned as captain Monday, June 24.
Had Kirk Stephens not resigned his officer position, he would have been fired. He is now a firefighter. This came after a tense Monday, June 3 Fenton Township Board of Trustees meeting when Fire Chief Ryan Volz recommended to the board that the employment of
Stephens and another firefighter be terminated because they hadn’t responded to enough calls. After discussion, the board told Volz to better document warnings he gives to his firefighters.
Firefighters must respond to at least 20 percent of calls a month, per their contract. For officers, which includes captains, that percentage is 30 percent. If these employees fail to meet this requirement, they first receive a verbal written warning from Volz. If they don’t meet these numbers for a second time, they receive another written warning. The third time, they’re fired.
A Freedom of Information Act request shows that Stephens did not respond to more than 30 percent of calls for any month in 2019, but in two months, he responded to more than 20 percent. The documents also show a number of other firefighters who did not make their percentages for a few months, but they were marked with “leave of absence” or “medical leave.”
Stephens said he misses calls because he often gets them when he’s at work. He also agreed it’s a hostile work environment.
At the June 17 meeting, instead of termination, Treasurer John Tucker asked the board if Stephens could have the option of resigning his officer post and be a firefighter because he met 20 percent. If he did not resign his officer position in seven days, he would be fired.
The board voted 6-1 on this, with Clerk Robert Krug dissenting.
‘Hostile work environment’ claim
Kristy Polidan, a plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit against Volz, spoke during the June 17 meeting. She spoke in favor of Stephens and alleged that Volz wanted to fire Stephens because he supported Polidan in a lawsuit against Volz.
Polidan, who works at Station 1, said, “Station 2 is here to support the chief in firing a captain who’s given 17 years of his life. Yeah, he hasn’t made his percentage. You want to know why he hasn’t made his percentage? Because he supported me. It is a hostile work environment. I have let you guys (the board) know that. You have been told that and you don’t care about it.”
Stephens and Polidan are plaintiffs in a sexual harassment lawsuit that was brought against Volz in July 2018. The Fenton Township Fire Department has two fire stations. Stephens works at Station 1 on Bowles off North Long Lake Road.
Julie Gafkay of Gafkay Law, PLC represents Stephens and Polidan in the case, which alleges that Volz failed to stop the sexual harassment of Polidan and participating in a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment. Volz was accused of retaliating against Stephens for supporting Polidan by altering his hours, assigning a lower ranking lieutenant to use his office and failing to allow him to be in charge during Volz’s absence.
When asked about the case Tuesday, Gafkay declined to comment but confirmed the case was dismissed.
The township conducted its own investigation. In mid August 2018, the board decided to suspend Volz without pay until Oct. 1 and included other stipulations, such as attending diversity training.
“Through this whole process, our crew has gotten tighter. We’ve gotten more family oriented,” Volz said. “You have these problems all over the U.S., it’s not just here. We’re just ready to move forward and do what we do, protecting the township.”
Volz said the standard operating procedures (SOPs) are simple, and it’s not fair to the residents when people don’t show up.
“It’s just a nightmare I hope can soon be over. It’s cost my family and department a whole lot of heartache,” he said.
Township Supervisor Bonnie Mathis, Volz’s mother-in-law, did not abstain from voting. No one asked her to abstain from the discussion or vote. She directed the firefighters in attendance of the June 17 meeting to direct any complaints to Thomas Broecker, operations manager/deputy clerk.
A handful of firefighters were in attendance at the June 17 meeting. One firefighter who works at Station 1 claimed they are constantly cancelled on calls, making it harder for them to make their required amount.
A few firefighters spoke in favor of Volz.
Mike Cross, who’s been with the department for 16 years, said, “I’ve known Ryan since he was captain. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. We’re all adults in this department.”
He said everyone in the department is aware of the rules.
“In spite of everything that’s going on, these people, these men and women on this department I’ve served with, have done it honorably, under intense pressure. They’ve never wavered. That’s a reflection of the chief,” he said.
At the time, Clerk Robert Krug suggested that deputies with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office accompany the fire department on calls for security purposes. He expressed concern that the township will be sued, which was his reason for voting no. He said Volz has suggested they realign the supervisory positions.
Trustee Vince Lorraine said what he saw at the meeting was “seriously disturbing. If our fire department, which protects constituents in Fenton Township and there is that much turmoil within, we’ve got a problem.”
Mathis said the township will get through this and that the board did the right thing.
On June 17, Treasurer John Tucker said, “The probability of a lawsuit is 150 percent,” but since learning that Stephens resigned his officer position, Tucker said he believes any lawsuit has been averted for the time being.