Arbitrator: Suspension of former Granby fire chief unfair 

  • Granby Fire Chief John Mitchell in his office in July 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

GRANBY — An arbitrator has found that town officials did not have just cause to suspend former Fire Chief John Mitchell for 30 days without pay while he was still on the job earlier this year.

Mary Ellen Shea, an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association, wrote in a Nov. 4 decision that while Mitchell was guilty of speeding in a town-owned car earlier in the year, the town did not have justification to suspend him as he had already been disciplined for the misconduct in an email from Town Administrator Christopher Martin.

“The Town is hereby ordered to immediately rescind the suspension, remove all references to the suspension from the Chief’s file, and make him whole for all wages and benefits lost as a result of the suspension, less any interim income he would not have received but for the suspension,” Shea’s decision reads.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Martin declined to comment. Worcester lawyer Andrew J. Gambaccini, who represented Mitchell during the arbitration, did not respond to a request for comment.

Mitchell’s 30-day unpaid suspension came after a Granby firefighter alerted Martin to an April 30 incident during which Mitchell drove a handful of firefighters in a town-owned car to Walpole on the Massachusetts Turnpike in the rain, according to the arbitration decision provided to the Gazette by Gambaccini.

The firefighter told Martin that Mitchell drove over the speed limit in the high-speed lane, tailgated the cars ahead and flashed lights to get them to move over.

Since this was the second time in a month that Martin had heard complaints about Mitchell’s speeding, on May 5, Martin decided to send Mitchell a letter about speeding in the fire chief’s car.

“Please be advised that if this type of behavior continues, further action will be taken,” Martin wrote.

That month, Martin received written complaints about Mitchell’s driving from some of the firefighters who were in the car. These written complaints led Martin to pursue further disciplinary action, according to the decision.

On May 21, Martin sent Mitchell a notice that suspended him without pay for the month of June due in part to the April 30 driving incident. After Mitchell appealed this suspension, the town’s Select Board voted to uphold this suspension.

‘Just cause’

According to the arbitration decision, the town, which was represented by attorney John M. Collins, argued that there was just cause to suspend Mitchell based on his “persistent habit of speeding and driving dangerously.” In addition to these incidents of speeding, a vote of no confidence in Mitchell by town firefighters in 2018 listed complaints against the former fire chief, including concerns about his driving.

The town argued that Mitchell had admitted to speeding, and that it had “satisfied the elements of fairness and due process” as Mitchell had been on notice about speeding as early as August 2018.

In addition, the town argued that the May 5 letter sent to Mitchell did not constitute disciplinary action and that it did not preclude the town from disciplining Mitchell at a later time. The town also noted that the May 5 letter did not mention the April 30 incident specifically.

For his part, Mitchell argued that witness testimony about the incident was conflicting and that the town had reprimanded him for the April 30 incident via Martin’s letter.

In her decision, Shea wrote that while Mitchell is “guilty of misconduct that warranted discipline,” the town did not have justification to suspend Mitchell for speeding because the May 5 letter from Martin constituted discipline. She said Mitchell’s employment contract did not specify or limit the range of disciplinary penalties the town may impose. She said the 30-day suspension against Mitchell “violates principles of fairness and due process.”

“The Town urges the arbitrator not to allow the Chief to “get off on a technicality,” but the parties have not asked me to decide which penalty is more appropriate: a 30-day suspension or the disciplinary email,” Shea wrote. “The question before me is whether the Town had just cause to issue the 30-day suspension. Having found the Town did not have just cause to suspend Chief Mitchell, rescinding the suspension is the only appropriate remedy.”

Mitchell was on paid administrative leave until July 23, when the Select Board voted to dismiss him. He was placed on leave after being accused of violating the state’s Open Meeting Law for comments he made on Facebook regarding an investigation into an unnamed member of an elected town board.

Robert Czerwinski started Tuesday as the interim fire chief for the town of Granby, making $90,000 a year. Martin on Tuesday said the town will begin its search for a permanent fire chief soon.

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.