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Rumors Create Ugly Scars
By Kathy Hare

          Rumors spread faster in Falcon than a grassfire fueled by a 70 mph wind. Unfortunately, the scars inflicted on individuals and organizations by rumors take a heck of a lot longer to heal than a field of burnt grass.

          The Falcon Fire Protection District has always been the "jewel" of this community. Since its inception in 1975, the FFPD has done far more for the public than putting out fires and providing emergency medical care; it has given Falcon residents a sense of community. As the town grew, the department evolved from an all-volunteer force to an organization made up of paid, volunteer, and reserve firefighters. Tributes to the department's success include: Ray O'Sullivan's request to have the FFPD cover the Santa Fe Springs Development, the number of trained Falcon volunteers who were later employed by the Colorado Springs Fire Department, and the intergovernmental agreements between the FFPD and surrounding fire departments. So it seems a shame to allow that reputation to be tarnished. But we live in a time where disagreements between people are no longer settled by sitting down and talking to one another. Lawsuits, or even the hint of a suit, create a hostile environment that sends each side scurrying for lawyers but does little for conflict resolution.

          My past tenure on the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Ground Water Management District Board taught me something about rumors. First, there's normally at least a grain of truth behind them. Second, if left to fester, rumors twist and turn in the wind until separating truth from fantasy becomes a Herculean task.

          It all started back in July when a vacancy opened up for a volunteer lieutenant position. As part of the selection process, volunteers were asked to take the Falcon Physical Assessment Test, administrated by Deputy Chief Jeff Petersma. The big stickler was not the physical component of the test, but the document firefighters had to sign beforehand. It stated that unless firefighters could complete the test in five minutes, they would be deemed unfit to serve as line firefighters. John Scorsine, Dave Nadeau, Alex Donnell and Tom Resha, all experienced firefighters over age 50, took the exam. Scorsine managed to complete it in five minutes and 15 seconds, the rest took longer. Afterwards, the men began asking questions about the test. How was it developed? Who imposed the five-minute completion time? Not liking the answers they received resulted in their filing an age-discrimination complaint with the FFPD Board.

          On July 15, Richard Martin, president of the FFPD Board, invited Scorsine to address the board about the age-discrimination allegations. Scorsine has been a volunteer firefighter since 2004, and also uses his skills as an attorney to write grant requests for the department. He gave me a recorded copy of that meeting. In his opening remarks, Scorsine said the four volunteers could have taken their complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or even the Department of Homeland Security, because of the FEMA grants the department receives. However, their aim was not to cause strife within the department, but to improve communication between the board, administration, and firefighters. Chief Trent Harwig said this was the first time he saw the document with the "five minute time limit." Adding, "No firefighter has ever been fired for not completing the FPAT."

          Scorsine said members of the department have subsequently been "shunning" the four volunteers, and also described a "negative phone call" he received from Cory Galicia, captain of the volunteers.  Dino Ross, counsel to the board, immediately stopped Scorsine, warning board members that Scorsine was raising what is known as "a claim of retaliation" under EEOC laws. Ross advised the board to appoint two board members to do a fact-finding investigation, while cautioning that neither member should have a conflict of interest. Board member Dena Bramhall is married to Scorsine, and board member Kerry Smith is a volunteer firefighter. Therefore, the board nominated Martin and Kevin Ray for the job. Ray has since resigned from the board.

          Well if there's anything that makes members of any board want to run for hills, it's an EEOC complaint!

          On September 30, the FFPD Board placed Petersma on paid administrative leave and Cory Galicia, captain of the volunteers, on administrative leave. (See Oct. 4 NFH) Word on the street is that the disciplinary action was directly related to an age-discrimination lawsuit. But Martin said, "That is false." He added, "I do have issues with the assessment test, but that has nothing to do with the disciplinary action taken against these individuals, and no lawsuits have been filed." The reason for suspending Petersma and Galicia stems from one complaint against the men, he said. What that complaint is, Martin can't say, because the counsel has advised all parties involved that speaking about the case "would be a violation of district policy."

          The FFPD Board faced an angry crowd of residents during the September meeting, and again on October 15, when Petersma's and Galicia's suspensions were extended.

          No wonder!

          The Petersma family has been involved in the FFPD since its formation. Jeff Petersma literally grew up at the fire department, and became one of its first paid employees. Galicia, who has been on the force since 1997, was voted "Volunteer of the Year" in 2007. And the agenda for the October meeting made it look like Chief Harwig's head was on the chopping block too.

          In all fairness to the Board, facing an angry crowd after being told you can't speak about a case is always a no-win situation. However, there are communication problems within the district. For example, more detailed agendas might allow the public to know what the board is doing. Referring to the response from angry residents, Martin said, "I have a fiduciary duty to this department, and must do what is right for the community." When asked, "Can the complaint be resolved without firing Petersma?" Martin responded, "I certainly hope so." Bramhall said, "Harwig was never on the chopping block, and neither is Galicia." Responding to "conflict of interest" charges, Brumhall said, "I have not even been allowed to sit in on any of the fact-finding hearings, and have never voted on issues that directly involve my husband."

          Bramhall is not the first board member of the FFPD to have a relative in the department. In fact, that's the nature of boards throughout Colorado. There's nothing illegal about it, and often occurs because few citizens run for local boards. But it does make it difficult to resolve disputes when the public perception is that one party has an unfair advantage because their relative is on a board.

          Both Petersma and Galicia declined to speak because of the ongoing case. While neither man was fired by the board, at an October 22 meeting the board imposed disciplinary measures that were unacceptable to the vast majority of attendees. Chants of "RECALL, RECALL!" were shouted by the audience.

          Rumors and discord aside, the Falcon Fire Department is still the finest organization in this community.

          Pssst! Pass it on.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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