Nine months after accepting a performance improvement plan and eight months after the firefighters union called for his immediate resignation, fire chief Joe Giver has set a retirement date.
The Verona Common Council agreed Monday by unanimous vote to accept a retirement agreement that will make his last day Sept. 27. He’ll continue in the city’s employ until Jan. 2, using accrued leave.
Mayor Luke Diaz told the Press he hopes to get a new leader in place “as soon as possible,” though he noted that process, by state law, is up to the Police and Fire Commission. He added that he planned to meet with PFC chair Delora Newton this week.
Part of the retirement agreement calls for a mutually crafted press release, which was included as an addendum. In it, Giver said he planned to “help make the transition to the next fire chief as seamless as possible.”
Giver, who became the department’s first full-time chief in 2011, had his leadership called into question in an August 2018 report commissioned by the city after a union dispute led to an investigation of assistant chief Don Catenacci last summer. Catenacci left the department in December amid a second investigation into his actions, but Giver’s regular check-ins with the city administrator continued, and the council received periodic updates.
Giver told the Press on Tuesday he had been planning to retire in January 2019 before the union called for his resignation in November.
“I had gone and gotten an estimate from the retirement system, and I have the paperwork to prove it,” he said. “Then the union allegations hit, and I decided I wasn’t going to leave in the middle of it, as that would make it look like I was guilty of something. Instead, I stayed and we worked to complete the performance improvement plan.”
Giver’s exit will make him at least the third department head to stop working for the city in 2019, following senior center director Mary Hanson and administrator Jeff Mikorski, both of whom were asked to resign. But Giver left on his own terms, Diaz told the Press.
“This is different,” Diaz said. “If he had failed the PIP, we would have put charges before the PFC.”
Diaz also confirmed through interim city administrator Adam Sayre that Giver had met most of what was in the performance improvement plan – which focused on improving communication, collaboration and training and updating policies.
Giver said the department’s systems are much improved from last year, and he pointed to two key changes in particular – the installation of a policy and procedure management software, Lexipol, and a training, certification and professional development online tool called Target Solutions, at a combined first-year cost of about $10,000. He said he’d been hoping to install Lexipol for a year or two prior but hadn’t found a place in the budget for it.
The report last summer from consultant Dale Burke featured a compilation of complaints from firefighters at all levels that the culture and morale within the department was poor, and some of it pointed directly at Giver’s leadership. Giver himself admitted in the report he hated dealing with personnel issues.
Since then, Giver said, the atmosphere in the department has been cordial.
“People have been professional about the whole thing,” he said.
Giver’s improvement plan was designed to go six months, and Sayre took over handling it when he took the temporary promotion in February. At no point, Diaz agreed, was the council told the plan was completed, but the last update given to the council was Feb. 11.
The mutual press release notes Giver’s 41 years of fire service and cites accomplishments that include leading the transition to a city department in 2012-13, directing the construction of the $10 million fire station that opened in 2015, improving response times and insurance ratings and starting an internship program.
Giver said his successor will need to be a person of integrity who cares deeply about the department and its employees but cares more about the department’s mission.
“The only question that needs to be asked when you’re making important decisions in the fire department is what’s the most important thing for the people we serve,” he said.
Diaz expressed gratitude during Monday’s council meeting for how the agreement allows the city to plan, particularly with the search for a new administrator stretching into its sixth month.
“That’s going out the right way,” Diaz later told the Press.