Meriden's new fire chief, Kenneth Morgan, at the Engine 3 firehouse on Broad Street in Meriden, Friday, October 18, 2013. In the background are Lt. Matthew Miller, left, and James Moran, right. | Dave Zajac / Record-Journal
October 21, 2013 01:49PM
By Mary Ellen Godin
MERIDEN — When Chief Kenneth Morgan was hired to lead the city’s fire department this past summer, he knew what to expect.
An eight-year-old hostile workplace lawsuit hung over the department and had created deep divisions among personnel.
“I’m concerned with their morale and how they feel,” Morgan said during an interview last week. “I’m coming into an excellent department with good, dedicated workers.”
Morgan wanted to put the firefighters’ uncertainties about him aside. He found quick projects the officers could work together on as a team, finalizing the uniform policy and updating old operating procedures.
He also set goals to improve the department’s insurance ranking — well within reach, he said — to improve computer communication, as well as to secure training equipment and space. His most ambitious goal is getting the department accredited, something he doesn’t expect to happen for several years.
Morgan says he also maintains an open-door policy where any firefighter or officer can share what’s on his or her mind.
“I want them to know they can come in and sit down and talk to me,” he said. “We do a variety of training on workplace violence, sexual harassment, all are done annually. We have a zero tolerance for workplace harassment.”
The City Council’s Finance Committee last week approved a $300,000 settlement with a fire captain who had claimed in a lawsuit that two assistant chiefs threatened and harassed him creating a hostile work environment that the former chief and city allowed to persist.
Captain Roger Kindschi, who has been on medical leave since Oct. 2, filed the suit in September 2006 claiming he had been threatened, had phone calls illegally recorded, was defamed and the department and the city failed to stop it.
Kindschi declined to comment for this article.
The settlement agreement, which allows Kindschi to retire with payment for 77 unused sick days and an additional $300,000, was voted on unanimously Tuesday after Associate City Attorney John Gorman briefed Finance Committee members. The agreement now heads to the full City Council for consideration.
Finance Committee member Walter Shamock, who had supported sending the matter to arbitration before the briefing, voted to settle the suit after Gorman laid out the facts of the case.
Kindschi stated in his lawsuit that Assistant Chief Louis DiGennaro had a propensity toward violent threatening behavior that was well-known throughout the department. He accused DiGennaro of violating the chain of command by calling him about an unauthorized swap with another officer. Kindschi said DiGennaro, who was off-duty, was angry, hostile and had screamed while threatening “war.”
When then Fire Chief James Trainor called a meeting about the matter several days later, DiGennaro remained hostile in front of several fire officers, and union members, the lawsuit states.
At one point DiGennaro cut off Kindschi when he explained himself and said “Look at you sitting there like a (expletive) angel.”
Kindschi looked at Trainor and said “See how he behaves?” according to the suit.
DiGennaro replied, “You’re an (expletive).”
According to the lawsuit, Trainor failed to address the profanity and asked Kindschi if he knew the unauthorized shift swap was wrong.
Kindschi acknowledged his error, but explained shift swaps were a frequent occurrence. He attempted to point out that DiGennaro violated the chain of command by calling him while off duty and threatening him.
DiGennaro warned Kindschi that he better be careful about what he said during the meeting because he had tape recorded everything that Kindschi said during their phone call from the day before.
DiGennaro said to Trainor, “You know me, I tape everything.”
According to the lawsuit, Trainor nodded in response to this.
After some more alleged ranting by DiGennaro, union representative James Cosenza told Trainor: “We have a serious breach of the chain of command, with an off-duty assistant chief calling and threatening a captain. Is this department going to allow these things to happen?”
According to the suit, Trainor said Cosenza’s concern was a separate issue and would not be addressed at that time.
If it was addressed, there is no written record of it.
Trainor declined to comment on the lawsuit this week except to say “it’s over.”
DiGennaro did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
DiGennaro’s personnel file doesn’t make mention of any discipline or investigation into illegal telephone recording, breaking the chain of command or use of profanity during the meeting with Trainor.
DiGennaro, who joined the department in 1978, has won praise from his supervisors as a self-starter with strong leadership potential, according to records in his personnel file obtained through a Freedom of Information request. The praise continues as he moved through the department’s ranks where his departmental knowledge was viewed as a valuable asset.
The only mention of any violent tendency is in August 2002 when Assistant Chief Raymond Guest complained to acting chief Clinton Ross that DiGennaro had threatened to kill him.
In his complaint Guest outlined how he inquired if DiGennaro had a problem, then followed up with asking if he did something wrong. DiGennaro answered no in a louder tone and Guest told DiGennaro he “helped to drive one man batty with his attitude.” The screaming continued for another 10 minutes with Guest asking DiGennaro to calm down.
“He responded by asking me to go out back so he could kill me. I asked him to leave the room and as he did he continued to scream again and threatened to kill me.”
Guest ended his complaint by saying DiGennaro’s actions are a detriment to the department and should be addressed.
DiGennaro responded in a letter to Personnel Director Caroline Beitman that Guest was asking him to respond to queries that weren’t his business. He said Guest’s statement “you already made one person go batty you’re not going to do it again,” was antagonistic, defamatory, and knowingly intended to provoke a hostile response.
DiGennaro said in his letter Guest’s statement referred to the suicide of the late Chief William Dunn two months earlier.
Beitman met with DiGennaro and in a letter dated Sept. 5, 2002, she warned him he is to avoid statements that may be misconstrued as threatening and to walk away from arguments if they become heated. She also advised him to contact the Employee Assistance Program for assistance dealing with negative feelings.
Beitman concluded: “This situation was treated in a different manner due to my knowledge of the recent events and how the issue personally affected you,” she wrote. “Any future problems of this nature will be dealt with in a stricter manner and discipline will ensue as outlined in the violence control policy.”
The fire department has never fully healed from Dunn’s death, said Assistant Chief Robert Burdick who backed Kindschi against DiGennaro, yet continues to work with him in the department.
The lawsuit also alleges that now retired Assistant Chief Joseph Kaminski was also threatening and defamed Kindschi by spreading rumors he was a womanizer and was having an extramarital affair. Attempts to reach Kaminski for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
Like DiGennaro’s, Kaminski’s personnel record is also exemplary and contains praise for his on-the-job knowledge and attention to the public during emergencies. His file includes about a dozen letters of praise from members of the public for his handling of fire scenes. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
Despite concerns by union representative Cosenza and union President Greg Polanski, the union’s executive board, of which DiGennaro was a member, failed to file a grievance on Kindschi’s behalf. Polanski did, however, send a letter to Trainor asking him to address the allegations of illegal recordings.
In February 2006, Kindschi hired attorney Eugene Axelrod, who wrote a letter to Beitman summarizing Kindschi’s complaints.
According to the lawsuit, shortly after the city received the letter, DiGennaro addressed an on-duty crew during a training session and mentioned it, telling members that it contained lies and called Kindschi a liar. He also insinuated that Kindschi would be coming after others with more false allegations.
Beitman called Kindschi in for a meeting in February 2006 that Axelrod was unable to attend but two union representatives accompanied Kindschi. She told him it was inappropriate for him to hire counsel because everything that could have been done, had been done.
Beitman told Kindschi she would not address past issues with DiGennaro only recent occurrences, the suit states.
According to the lawsuit, she refused to let him speak about the hostile phone call or the meeting with Trainor, stating the issue had been resolved. Kindschi pressed to know how but was rebuffed.
According to the lawsuit, Beitman said the chief had taken care of the matter.
Cosenza informed Beitman that there was a clear documented pattern over many years that DiGennaro routinely threatened others in the department and asked when is enough going to be enough. Cosenza also asked about the workplace violence policy and why it was not being followed.
Beitman allegedly told Cosenza she was not familiar with the workplace violence policy. But lawyers for Kindschi said the policy was created by her department, presumably under her supervision, as she was the listed contact person for workers who felt the policy had been violated or who had a question about it.
Beitman would not comment on specifics mentioned in the lawsuit.
Kindschi told her about the training incident and Beitman promised to look into it, the suit states. She interviewed 31 firefighters in attendance, according to the lawsuit.
Kindschi, Polanski and Cosenza said Beitman’s questionnaire was deliberately narrow so no pattern of hostility would be detected. Firefighters were asked whether DiGennaro had exhibited any problematic threats or violent behavior from November 2005 to February 2006. Beitman found there was no evidence of violations of the violence control policy.
“The City and Department failed entirely to reasonably or thoroughly investigate DiGennaro’s history and propensity for threatening and violent behavior,” the lawsuit states.
Beitman said the city didn’t have a violence control policy in place until she was hired. It is similar to those in other municipalities and likely stemmed from the shootings at the Connecticut Lottery in the late 1990s.
Beitman and human rights attorney Deborah Moore conduct harassment and workplace violence workshops routinely in all departments and department heads are sent to seminars on a variety of human resource topics.
“All employees especially those in high level slots are expected to be professional with each other,” Beitman stated in an email. “We cannot make people like each other but we should assure they do their jobs and treat co-workers professionally.”
The lawsuit or any of the issues it raised were not considered when hiring Trainor’s replacement, Beitman said.
Morgan is optimistic about the department’s future. He describes his management style as participatory. He wants to create ownership opportunities for firefighters to buy into the entire operation. Despite budget challenges, he’s advocating for new equipment and training space while moving forward on ambitious goals aimed at improving fire safety.
“We’re a forward thinking organization and looking for opportunities,” Morgan said.
Burdick said he’s confident the new chief is on the right track toward uniting and healing the department.
“He has a good handle on where the fire department is, and where it needs to go and how to bring it there,” Burdick said. “We were operating at a high level, but morale was low because of things like the lawsuit. I see us moving from that.”