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Wis. fire chief resigns after not being included in reorganization plan

Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann said plans to split fire, EMS into separate organizations was done without his input


Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann/LinkedIn

Editor’s Note:
In an update to this news story, a complaint has been filed alleging that Village Board members violated the state open meetings law when restructuring the fire department.

By Scott Williams
The Journal Times

WATERFORD, Wis. — Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann has resigned following a nearly two-year tenure that was punctuated by budget cuts and firehouse manpower shortages.

Hafemann’s resignation Monday comes less than a week after Village Board members approved a fire department restructuring plan that the chief said was done without his input.

While he would not discuss his reasons for stepping down, Hafemann on Tuesday emphasized he was leaving the job voluntarily. He extended best wishes to his former colleagues in the fire department.

“I was absolutely humbled to have had the opportunity to serve the brave men and women of the Waterford Fire Department as the chief and to serve the wonderful people of the village,” he said.

At a Village Board meeting Monday, members of the community objected to the board’s restructuring of the fire department, questioning both the rationale and the manner in which it was approved.

The restructuring aims to divide the fire department into two departments — one for fire protection and another for ambulance service. Village officials said the move makes sense because ambulance calls constitute 80% of the department’s calls for service.

Janice Piper, who resigned last month as chairwoman of the village Fire Commission, alleged the board voted to restructure the fire department during a special meeting on May 7 without disclosing publicly that the topic was under consideration or that a vote was planned.

“It is distressing to me that the village administrator and board appear to be making decisions for public safety mostly in closed sessions without public input and awareness,” she told the Village Board during its Monday night meeting.

She said she planned to file a complaint with the Racine County district attorney accusing Village Board members of violating the state’s open meetings law.

Village President Don Houston defended the restructuring Monday, saying he and his colleagues are trying to improve public service.

Houston said the idea of dividing the fire department into two departments has been mentioned in previous budget presentations, and he said the Village Board did not discuss it in any closed-door sessions, including one that took place May 7.

Minutes of the May 7 special meeting indicate that board members met behind closed doors for nearly two hours to discuss “personnel problems,” then emerged and voted to implement the fire department restructuring.

“We just made it official,” Houston said.

Village Trustee Troy McReynolds said Monday that he did not attend the May 7 meeting because he was not notified of it.

Hafemann was not in attendance Monday night, and nothing was said publicly about his resignation during the meeting. Houston, along with Village Attorney Todd Terry, disclosed the chief’s resignation later.

Hafemann submitted his resignation Monday, effective immediately, after less than two years on the job.

A former Milwaukee Fire Department deputy chief, Hafemann was named Waterford fire chief in October 2022.

During his tenure, financial constraints forced the fire department to cut back on day-to-day staffing. Hafemann announced that firefighters in 2023 would not march in the village’s Fourth of July parade because that would risk leaving the firehouse understaffed.

Public backlash was directed largely at village trustees, who agreed to consider more funding for firefighters. The village then conducted a public survey on whether residents would support holding a voter referendum for the fire department; the survey results have not yet been released.

Piper, who served 10 years on the Fire Commission, joined others in criticizing the village administration. In her resignation last month, Piper said she was stepping down because she was disappointed that the fire department was being “gutted.”

Village officials denied cutting funding for the fire department, although budgets showed that Hafemann and his staff had fewer dollars to work with. In 2024, fire and emergency medical service operations combined were reduced from $1,279,308 to $1,176,297.

The department handles about 1,000 calls a year for either fire protection or emergency medical service, or both.

In August 2023, Village Board members balked at a plan to control costs by relying more on volunteer firefighters, after Village Administrator Zeke Jackson presented the plan without consulting the fire chief.

Jackson last week announced the newly approved restructuring, again saying the department would utilize volunteer firefighters and that it would function as a “volunteer department.”

Hafemann again said he was not consulted about the restructuring of his department. He also indicated that he was a participant in the May 7 closed-door meeting with Village Board members.

Jackson said the village would reallocate resources and add an extra $275,000 for a new emergency medical services department. The village administrator did not say how much would be allocated altogether for fire protection or how much for ambulance service.

Jackson did not attend Monday’s board meeting.

Liz Gamble, another community member who addressed the Village Board on Monday, said she runs a community Facebook site, and that many members are questioning how the restructuring was decided.

Gamble said the May 7 agenda seemed to describe closed-door consideration of an employee facing disciplinary action, but then the board voted to reorganize the fire department. The community is seeking more transparency on how the decision was made, she said.

“It doesn’t have to come from any one person, but the village as a whole,” she said.

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