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Verona assistant fire chief resigns in wake of department investigation citing poor leadership, 'toxic' work environment

Wisconsin State Journal - 12/23/2018

Dec. 23--The assistant fire chief of the Verona Fire Department has resigned after an investigation of the department found poor leadership and a "toxic, hostile work environment."

In his resignation letter, posted online by WKOW, Donald Catenacci said he is leaving because he and Fire Chief Joseph Giver have received little support in the wake of the investigation. Catenacci's resignation was effective Monday.

The city of Verona hired The Riseling Group to investigate the department after the union, Fire Fighters Local 311, raised complaints about the work environment. The investigation report cited poor leadership and a lack of professionalism within the department. It also found that leadership was not open to employee input.

The union called for the resignations of Giver and Catenacci after the investigation report was released last month. A lawyer for the union is drafting a complaint to file with the city's Police and Fire Commission to remove Giver from his position, in part for failing to reprimand Catenacci for bad behavior, said Fire Fighters Local 311 secretary-treasurer Ted Higgins.

Giver and Catenacci could not be reached for comment.

Catenacci wrote in his resignation letter that neither the mayor nor the city administrator nor any City Council member contacted him to discuss the report. He said other firefighters have identified root causes for some of the problems addressed in the investigation report but have not received support from the city either.

He also wrote that Higgins was running an "unending character assassination campaign" that the city did not address.

Higgins told the Wisconsin State Journal that the union supports the resignation. But he said Catenacci's letter misrepresents the situation and "takes no responsibility for his egregious behavior."

The investigation of the department was sparked by complaints from Local 311 following the department's decision to suspend a union member without pay for a week after the employee yelled at an intern, according to Higgins. He said members of the department said they felt there was a double standard because Catenacci was not reprimanded for what Higgins described as rough treatment of members over the years.

In one incident, which was reported to the Oregon Police Department for investigation, Catenacci put another firefighter into a headlock, making him unable to breathe, Higgins said.

In September, before the investigation report came out, Catenacci also took a position as fire chief for the Wind Lake Volunteer Fire Company, which is a part-time position, the Racine Journal Times reported.

According to the Riseling report, allegations against Catenacci included making fun of a Fitch-Rona paramedic for being gay, taunting a lieutenant who underwent a vasectomy, slapping a firefighter across the face and engaging in unwanted physical contact such as rubbing the bald heads of firefighters, the Journal Times reported. In some instances, investigators found no offense was taken.

Catenacci told the Journal Times last month the allegations are false and they don't apply to his job in Wind Lake.

"As far as what's going on here in Wind Lake, it (the accusation) has no effect. I'm still doing my job here," Catenacci said. "There have been no problems or incidents or complaints against me here."

Catenacci was head of training for the Verona department, and the investigation report characterized training as inadequate. The report said the department's policy and procedure manual was "outdated and never followed and not trained on. Most members have not seen it since the day they were hired and do not know where to find it. The Code of Conduct is for the most part overly vague."

In his resignation letter, Catenacci said he believes he is leaving the department better-trained than when he took the position.

The city of Verona created a plan to address concerns within the department shortly after the release of the investigation report, though Local 311 criticized the city for not including the union in the plan's creation. Mayor Luke Diaz said Giver supports the plan.

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(c)2018 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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