A former Boyle County firefighter who claims she was retaliated against for raising questions about finances addressed the fire board Tuesday night, but members said the allegations could never be substantiated.
Rebecca Earls told the board she was not satisfied with the lack of action against Fire Chief Donnie Sexton after she filed a grievance against Sexton last year. Earls resigned from the department in 2011 after six years. In an interview prior to the meeting, Earls said Sexton regularly belittled her, undermined her to her fellow firefighters and didn’t send her to training she ultimately had to register for and pay for on her own. Earls believes there has been a pattern of retaliation against firefighters that includes demotions for questioning Sexton. She said those who were in Sexton’s good graces were lavished with new equipment and choice roles in the department, while members like her who asked questions about his leadership suffered.
According to an April 21, 2011, letter from Earls to the board, Sexton was hostile toward her from the time she began working for the department, and his actions included “verbal abuse, disrespect, solicitation to inflict physical harm, retaliation, creating a hostile working environment and sexual discrimination.”
Earls asked the board to suspend Sexton without pay.
Although she did not address the accusation specifically in her written grievance, Earls claims the tipping point was when other firefighters informed her Sexton told one of them to “get her burned” during a training exercise.
Earls said board members were not responsive to her initial charge, alleging one of them insinuated during a private meeting she was having a sexual relationship with one of the department’s assistant chiefs. She also claims the investigator appointed by the board to look into the accusation was a relative of Nate Wesley, one of the firefighters whose spending she scrutinized.
Sexton, who didn’t respond to Earls’ comments during Tuesday’s board meeting, said he would never endanger a firefighter and he denied treating Earls unfairly.
“The board investigated (the allegations) and found nothing,” Sexton said. “She has made a lot of allegations. To my knowledge, I have never gotten a firefighter hurt in 35 years in fire service, and the idea of doing something like that is unconscionable.”
The incident was investigated both internally and by Kentucky State Police, but no action was taken. Board members who were around at the time the grievance was filed said there was no evidence to back up Earls’ charges.
Treasurer Rusty Cox spoke with Earls prior to when she filed the complaint and urged her to take action through official channels. “If people believe they have been retaliated against or discriminated against, it is something I take very seriously, and I encourage them to stand up and make the charges,” Cox said. “I told (Earls) that. There wasn’t any corroboration from anyone else that what she was saying happened took place.”
Earls believes she drew Sexton’s ire when she spoke out about concerns she had over the department’s spending. She was tasked with looking into the department’s books after voicing her worries to Cox and others.
The department’s nearly $1 million budget apparently did come under closer scrutiny and tighter financial controls since earlier this year when newly-appointed board members began asking questions.
Many of the changes apparently were initiated by new board member Jeff Shields, one of two representatives chosen from among the department’s ranks and also a member of the Lexington Fire Department. In late January, Shields presented the board a list of concerns and recommendations related to overall fiscal management and budgeting, as well as some specific practices he found troubling. Among the items Shields addressed was a nearly $300,000 insurance payment for the tanker truck that overturned on Ky. 52 in April of last year, money that remained in the general fund as late as January. Shields told board members the money was at risk of being spent for other purposes.
That money subsequently was moved into a separate interest-bearing account.
Shields also found that credit cards — as many as four were in circulation — were being charged frequently at restaurants and big box stores for reasons that couldn’t always be verified. He also highlighted items that were comparative luxuries that were cumulatively causing too large a burden on the budget.
Overall, Shields said spending in the department sometimes exceeded $70,000 a month in 2011. Expenditures — including salaries for paid personnel, capital expenditures and other miscellaneous costs — have been limited to $30,000 per month.
Another concern was contract labor being awarded to fire department members.
Shields said the board had been responsive to all the issues he brought forward and has adopted each of his recommendations. He believes the measures have been working.
“I think it’s a much different fire department from a financial standpoint than it was back in January,” Shields said.
Cox, who has been a member of the body for six years, agreed with Shields’ assessment. He acknowledged there had been issues with tracking expenditures, not just in the recent past, but in the close to 60 years of the fire department’s existence.
“I’m tickled to death with the way we’ve got this department operating right now,” Cox said. “Jeff and Philip Nichols (another new board appointee) have made a difference. With the way the budget is done now, everything is transparent. There is no way to hide anything.”
Cox said the board also has adopted new policies and procedures that will make it easier to hold people accountable.
Sexton maintains the expenditures — from credit card statements to major capital outlays — during his tenure have been approved. Noting that the volunteer firefighters are barely compensated more than the $15 they get for a response run, Sexton said the department regularly paid for things such as refreshments and meals when firefighters went to training.
“I don’t call it a problem with finances. The board decided to change some things.” Sexton said. “In the six years I have been (chief), every single penny spent has been on the table for them to look at. Every phone bill. The board has never failed to approve those. They got every credit card bill, every month.”
The chief said the fire truck has not been purchased in large part because the department had to complete the switch over from analog to digital radios, which cost about $70,000. There is no definite timetable for replacing the tanker, but Sexton said the process has started.
Sexton also defended the decision to move the tanker previously at Station 6, which covers the Forkland area, to take the place of the wrecked truck. He said the apparatus was needed in the area where there was higher call volume, pointing out Station 6 still had an engine and utility truck and that Stations 3 and 5 would respond with a tanker immediately if needed.
Earls said it does appear the work of Shields and others has helped, but she isn’t satisfied with what she believes is a lack of accountability for the poor financial management and shoddy treatment by Sexton doesn’t intend to stop.
She plans to file more grievances, including another one regarding her alleged treatment by Sexton.
“I love the department,” Earls said. “I’ve never asked for payment, so it’s not about money. I haven’t hired an attorney, so it’s not about a lawsuit. I want it so we can have a department that’s going to last where all my fellow firefighters can think about doing their job and not worry about getting retaliated against. I think Chief Sexton needs to go.”