Standing before members of the public on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 4, Dan Machotka and Matthew Arnold each made the case for why they should be the next head of Verona’s fire department.
Made to a room largely filled with the blue uniforms of firefighters, the presentations came after a tumultuous year-and-a-half in the Verona Fire Department led to the installation of Machotka as acting chief.
A previous search for a new fire chief came up empty in November after the retirement of former chief Joe Giver, who had been asked to resign a year earlier by Verona’s firefighter’s union amid complaints about work culture.
The two candidates emphasized the value of relationships in their presentations, with both the community and with employees and paid-on-call members of the department.
That combination of career and volunteer positions, known as a combo department, is a management challenge department leaders have faced for the past two decades.
Arnold, who came armed with a PowerPoint presentation, cited several examples from his time in Pennsylvania managing people in both paid and volunteer roles, and his experience working with and in unions.
“I find regardless of whether they’re paid, part-time, volunteer, paid on-call, whatever it is, if people understand their value to their organization and the role they play...that’s how you motivate them,” Arnold said.
Machotka, who did not apply during the previous search round, put emphasis on his institutional knowledge from a decade with the department, first as a training officer, then five years as a lieutenant.
“I’ve never forgotten where I came from, I’ve never forgotten the challenges that we’ve had as firefighters or lieutenants or whatever we may have been, and understand that sometimes you have to check yourself as a leader,” Machotka said.
Machotka has been the officer in charge and acting chief since Giver began using accrued time off Sept. 27 and retired Jan. 2. The union’s complaints about assistant chief Don Catenacci in June 2018 led to a third-party investigation by the city that turned up a variety of concerns about leadership. That led to more allegations from the union, including inappropriate behavior, harassment and a hostile work environment.
Catenacci resigned during a second investigation over his behavior.
Giver told the investigator in 2018 he didn’t like dealing with personnel matters, and he reiterated that in an interview for the Press in September, saying, “I want everybody to get along, and I can’t understand why people can’t get along.”
After the community presentations by Machotka and Arnold, the Police and Fire Commission held separate panel interviews with each candidate. The PFC has not yet chosen a date to decide whether to hire either one.
From Pennsylvania to Wisconsin
Arnold, a battalion chief at the York Area United Fire and Rescue in York, Pennsylvania, traveled to Verona for the interview.
He told the Press he understood the department had a “checkered past” and needed to work on its relationship with the community, and equally, Arnold said the department needed to “build up its own people from within.”
One audience member asked whether he had experience dealing with unions. Arnold affirmed that he did and said he had belonged to a firefighters union before he was promoted.
Arnold said he wanted to focus on community outreach and told the Press he wanted to create programs here similar to ones he had worked on at his department in Pennsylvania. He cited examples such as firefighter volunteer days at local schools and a citizen’s fire academy for members of the public to learn more about what the fire department does.
Arnold also suggested an “after the fire” program to help people affected by catastrophic fires deal with the problems they face in the aftermath. He said fire departments are good at helping people when someone calls 911, but traditionally have left people on their own afterward.
When asked why he wanted to move so far from home, Arnold said he wanted to be a fire chief in a smaller community “where I know everybody and where everybody knows me.”
He related an experience he and his wife had in Verona, in which a coffee shop employee named Tara asked them where they were from and what brought them to town.
“We went back there today,” Arnold said. “Tara remembered who we were, what state I was from and why I was here. That’s why I want to come here. I want that hometown feel.”
A familiar crowd
For acting fire chief Dan Machotka, the room was full of familiar faces. Machotka has been with Verona’s fire department since 2015 and grew up nearby in Fitchburg.
“Make sure you get the mustache” someone called out as a TV reporter set up to ask him a few questions after his presentation. Machotka sports a thick mustache of the kind often worn by firefighters.
Machotka said he wasn’t interested in applying for the position of chief during the first search, but his time as acting chief helped change his mind.
The greatest challenge Machotka said he would face in the role was, in a word, “relationships.”
Like Arnold, Machotka said he would prioritize improving community relations, as well as the environment within the department.
“You can’t just come in and say this is how we’re going to do it because this is how we did it where I came from,” said Machotka.
Because of his experience coming up through the ranks since he joined Verona’s fire department five years ago, Machotka said there would be no question an employee could bring to his desk that he didn’t already know about.
Machotka said the leader of the department is ultimately responsible for managing problems within the institution.
“We need to put our best foot forward,” he said.