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Wis. officials face state law violation after fire chief resigns over restructuring plan

Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann resigned after a meeting that the former fire commission chair said violates state law


Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann/LinkedIn

By Scott Williams
The Journal Times

WATERFORD, Wis. — A former chairwoman of the Waterford Fire Commission has filed a complaint alleging that Village Board members violated the state open meetings law when restructuring the fire department.

[EARLIER: Wis. fire chief resigns after not being included in reorganization plan]

Janice Piper, who resigned from the commission last month, says the Village Board took action without giving the public adequate notice that fire department restructuring was under consideration.

Board members approved the restructuring during a special meeting on May 7 after posting an agenda that made no specific mention of fire department changes.

“There should be public notice that you’re breaking apart the fire department,” Piper said.

Racine County District Attorney Patricia Hanson said in an email that she has received Piper’s complaint but has not decided whether to forward it to a police agency.

Any member of a government body found to have violated the open meetings law is subject to non-criminal fines of up to $300 per violation.

Village records indicate that Trustees Andy Ewert and Troy McReynolds were absent on May 7. McReynolds has said he was not notified of the special meeting.

Other board members could not be reached for comment about the open meetings complaint.

Village Attorney Todd Terry and Village Administrator Zeke Jackson also have been unavailable in recent days to answer questions about how the fire department restructuring was decided.

Village President Don Houston has defended the board’s actions, saying that fire department restructuring had been mentioned in past village budget presentations and that the board on May 7 “just made it official.”

The plan calls for splitting the Waterford Fire Department into two departments — one for fire protection and one for emergency medical services.

Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann resigned Monday after saying that the restructuring was decided without his input.

The posted agenda for May 7 said the board would hold an executive session — which Houston has said was unrelated to fire department reorganizing — and then hold a public discussion about “amendments to various ordinances.”

Minutes of the meeting show that board members met in executive session for nearly two hours, then emerged and voted within five minutes to implement the fire department restructuring.

Two related measures were approved, one of which was a new ordinance and not an amendment to an existing ordinance.

The state’s open meetings law says, “The public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding governmental affairs as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business.”

An advocate for open government said Piper is correct that the Village Board failed to notify the public that fire department restructuring was up for discussion.

Tom Kamenick, president of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, said merely telling the public that “various ordinances” will be considered is not sufficient to comply with the open meetings law.

Kamenick said the village has ordinances covering hundreds, if not thousands, of topics. The May 7 agenda, he said, “contained no indication the board would take such drastic action as restructuring the fire department.”

Village Board members last summer considered a plan for fire department changes. That plan was put on hold, however, after board members discovered that the fire chief had not been consulted.

Piper, who resigned from the fire commission to protest budget cuts to the fire department, said she is troubled that a reorganization seems to have been pushed through without public notification.

“It is so horrific to me,” she said. “How do you do this to your community?”

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