SOUTHINGTON — Texts and emails show friction among members of the Board of Fire Commissioners and former Fire Chief Richard Butler before the chief’s departure late last year.
Some fire board leaders blame John Moise, a commission member, for hastening Butler’s retirement with frequent questions about operations and requests for documentation. Moise said the board’s role is one of oversight and that questioning fire department leaders is part of the job. He said his questions were at times met with resistance.
Butler, hired from a Maryland fire department in 2018, retired in October after just over two years. Fire board leaders said the departure surprised them since Butler had told them he planned to stay for about five years.
Fire board members all said Butler left to return to family in Maryland. Travel restrictions due to the pandemic made visiting his son out of state difficult.
But electronic messages and emails obtained by the Record-Journal through a Freedom of Information request show mutual frustration between Moise and Butler, as well as disagreements over whether the board was micromanaging the fire chief.
‘Then fire me’
In 2019, the department was working to remove water damage and mold at a fire station kitchen. Moise exchanged emails with Butler and requested documentation on whether or not there was black mold. The chief responded he was told there was mold and that cabinets would have to be removed to find the extent of the problem.
Moise wrote in an email that the department would lose trust with other town boards if it turned out there was no mold.
“We need to be on top of this to not lose credibility,” Moise wrote in the last line of his email
Butler’s three-word reply came back 10 minutes later.
“Then fire me.”
Moise forwarded the email to other fire commission members, saying it was “unacceptable.”
“It appears during the last few months he does not want to be here by his statements,” Moise wrote “At the (upcoming) special meeting I would like to discuss the Chief's future in Southington and how to move forward with or without Chief Butler.”
Moise, a Democrat, formerly served on the Board of Finance.
‘Let the chief do his job’
Nathan Wilson, fire board chairman and a Democrat, agreed with Moise that the chief shouldn’t have responded that way to an email. But Wilson said he was pleased with Butler’s overall job as chief during his time in Southington. Last year, the commission gave Butler a job rating of exceptional, earning 90 out of a possible 100 points.
"Yes we’re oversight, but John would tap too much into it and ask too many questions. Let the chief do their job."
After Butler announced his retirement, Wilson asked him if Moise was a factor in the chief’s decision to leave. Wilson said Butler described Moise’s questions as “extreme oversight” and frustrating.
“I definitely know that was a big frustration for the chief,” Wilson said. “Does he have to deal with that? No he doesn’t.”
Wilson said Moise would “tap too much into the operational functions” of the fire department.
“Yes we’re oversight, but John would tap too much into it and ask too many questions. Let the chief do their job,” Wilson said. “We rely heavily on the chief and the administration to provide us the facts and the expertise.”
Butler did not return calls for comment on his departure.
Moise said he had a lot of good things to say about Butler. He credited the former chief with reining in overtime spending, which has dropped by hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past few years. Changes that reduced overtime weren’t popular with career or volunteer firefighters, Moise said, but were needed to make the department run more efficiently.
"They didn’t like when I questioned things. It was my right to question things. I think the chief’s problem was that I could not be controlled."
“He did a very good job with the things that needed to be done. The department was a mess and it needed to be fixed,” he said. “We had to get somebody in here from the outside to do that.”
Butler was hired after the departure of chief Harold “Buddy” Clark.
Moise was disappointed with Butler’s work with volunteers, saying he wasn’t making as much progress toward unifying the department as he could have. Moise said his questions on financial and operational matters were about accountability for taxpayer dollars and had nothing to do with trust.
Those questions angered the chief, Moise said, along with former board chairman and Republican Mike Bunko.
“They didn’t like when I questioned things. It was my right to question things,” Moise said. “I think the chief’s problem was that I could not be controlled.”
Wilson said he did “coach” fire board members on relations with the chief.
“I can’t silence somebody. They have every right to ask the questions and ask for all the reports they want,” Wilson said. “We tried to do the best to manage but unfortunately (Butler) left.”
Bunko led the fire board in 2018 when it hired Butler. While he understood the former chief was homesick, he was disappointed that he left Southington.
“The chief did a nice job. I wish he was able to stay for another three years,” Bunko said. “The last thing you want to do is keep replacing people every couple of years.”
Bunko credited Moise with helping Butler reduce overtime but said there was “friction” on the board and with the chief.
“There was some micromanaging by commissioners, but I also think (Butler) was very, very homesick,” Bunko said.
Documents obtained in the Freedom of Information request included text messages between Moise and Christine Shanley-Buck, the board vice chairwoman.
Both shared their frustration with conflict on the board and rumors concerning Butler’s departure, with Shanley-Buck describing the drama as a “high school.”
"One of the issues that we continue to have is that people that do not have the right to do things are overstepping their boundaries. This is a huge reason why this crap keeps happening."
In one text last year, she urged Moise to let Wilson have a conversation with the chief.
“One of the issues that we continue to have is that people that do not have the right to do things are overstepping their boundaries. This is a huge reason why this crap keeps happening,” Shanley-Buck wrote.
Shanley-Buck said she felt Butler had done a good job of informing the board and wasn’t left with many questions. When there were questions, she said the former chief answered them to her satisfaction.
“I had every bit of trust in the chief and in the information he provided to us,” Shanley-Buck said. “I never felt it was lacking.”
Butler brought a lot of experience and expertise to Southington, she said.
“At a certain point, you let the person with the experience do the job they were brought in to do,” Shanley-Buck said.
New chief search
The board voted to hire Municipal Resources Inc, a consulting company that helped the town hire Butler several years ago. The company is still gathering candidates doing initial screening, Wilson said.
Once there are some finalists, potential fire chiefs will meet with the board.
James Paul, Assistant Fire Chief and Fire Marshal, is running the department as interim chief. Commission members were unanimous in their praise for Paul’s performance in leading the department.