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Letters to the Editor

February 12, 2015
Westfield Republican

Dear Editor,

It has been over a year since my suspension and subsequent removal from the Fire Department of Westfield and it's about time that I share my side of the story that continues to plague the papers with half-truths, innuendos and misstatements. I would like to start off by saying that I had served the Village in the Fire Department for over fifteen (15) years before any of this had happened. During that time, I had served six (6) years as Captain, four (4) years as an Asst. Chief, and one and half (1 ) years as Fire Chief. Along with my involvement in the Fire Department, I was an active member of the Chautauqua County's Technical Rescue Team serving as one of the team's Lt's. I also had served as Vice President and then President of the Southwestern Association of Volunteer Fireman. It wasn't until the birth of my daughter that I had scaled back all that I had been involved with so that I could do more for my family.

A few weeks ago there was a commentary from Chief William H. Bills and Past Chief William F. Bills claiming that the Board of Fire Commissioners (BOFC) was formed as a result of the NYS Comptroller's financial audit of the Fire Department. However, this is inaccurate. The Board of Fire Commissioners (BOFC) was formed in 2011, prior to the release of the NYS Comptrollers audit of 2012. The BOFC was formed as a result of on-going actions and tensions with many members of the Fire Department disrespecting the Asst. Chiefs and many of the Capt.'s and Lt's. It was a collaborated effort of these officers that we had meetings with then Mayor Carr and the Village Trustees to come up with a plan to assist the younger officers regain some assemblence of a chain of command structure. However, now looking back, the formation of the BOFC created more hostilities within the Fire Department and was a total mistake!!

In April of 2012, I was elected (not appointed as reported in the Bills' commentary) by the membership as Fire Chief of the department. My first action as Fire Chief was to work with the NYS Comptroller's Office and begin correcting the issues indicated within the audit. The daunting task was to get the members of the Fire Department on board with the necessary corrections needed to comply with the corrective action plan that would be satisfactory with the findings of the NYS Comptroller. This was a difficult start to my term as Fire Chief because the department had operated for many, many years of not following their own by-laws pertaining to a treasurer along with distribution and reporting of the funds. It was because of this, many older members of the Fire Department resented me. As a result of the audit, one of the issues that had not been followed from the department's by-laws was that one (1) treasurer was to handle all of the department's funds. So at that time, I had appointed James Pacanowski, yes he is my father! I had done this because he was one of a few members that had the knowledge of all of the different aspects and accounts within the Fire Department along with his previous experience of being a treasurer for another organization. However, many members of the department did not like this action and took their dissatisfaction to the BOFC meeting. As a result, an election was to take place for the position of treasurer. This election took place and another member of the department took over as treasurer. In October of 2012, for reasons unknown at that time, that person resigned from the position. Subsequently, another election took place and in December of 2012, James Pacanowski was elected to the position of treasurer.

On November 5th, 2013, we (James and I) received an email from the BOFC Chairman that we were to be suspended until further notice. At that time, no reasoning was afforded to us as to the reason for the suspensions. The first we had heard anything of our suspensions came on Channel 2 News when a commissioner, who also happens to be a Village Trustee, reported that there were some inaccuracies to some financial reports that they had discovered. Prior to the Channel 2 news story, there had been no communication between us, the BOFC, or the Village officials as to what questions they had regarding some of the treasurer's report. It wasn't until December 18th, (43) days later that we were afforded the reasons of our suspensions. Then, it wasn't until January 8th before we were able to defend ourselves. As of result of the hearing, I was subsequently removed as Fire Chief and as a member of the Fire Department; James was removed for all positions within the department, including his position as a Safety Officer, but was allowed to remain a member of the department.

Below is the reasoning for my removal as Fire Chief and subsequent removal from the Fire Department:

Refused an order by the BOFC because I failed to finalize a list of surplus equipment-which was true because it was a time consuming, on-going project at the time of my suspension. Also, because I failed to comply with a direct request from a BOFC member to produce a list of business familiarization checks completed during the year-which was inaccurate because I did produce the paperwork as requested to them at their Nov meeting (subsequently that meeting I was suspended).

Failed to carry out the duties of the Office of Chief because I missed some meetings and calls. Last I knew this was still a volunteer Fire Department. I realize that as Fire Chief, you need to access yourself to more of this, however at that time, with working (2) jobs and caring for my daughter while my wife was working took precedence over a volunteer organization. They (the hearing panel) used the by-laws to which states that a Fire Chief "preside at all meetings""be present at all fires and emergencies" Now, I do not know of any person who can meet these requirements being present at ALL fire, emergencies, and meetings. Also, I failed the portion of the by-law where it states to "exercise general supervision" "see that each subordinate officer does his duty" because of the irregularities of the treasurer and making sure he and other subordinate officers do his duty. The treasurer was in fact doing his duty because he had been working with the in-house auditing committee, headed by Al Holbrook which was one part of the Corrective Action Plan indicated as needed as part of the Comptroller's audit, giving the department detailed reports at every meeting while following the guidelines of the NYS Comptrollers audit. At no time did any member of the Fire Department or the auditing committee question or bring up any irregularities within a department meeting, nor did any member of the BOFC question me or the treasurer in any meeting.

Finally, I had acted in a manner that brings disgrace upon the Fire Department and conduct unbecoming a member of the Fire Department because I had not reasonably safeguard Village property because I had left my truck unlocked one overnight. The week prior to my suspension, someone had entered my vehicle and stole two (2) portable radios. Along with that, I exhibited unprofessional conduct and conduct unbecoming a member of the Fire Department because in September 2012, I had read a prepared statement, that had been requested by the membership, against Mayor Carr's continued harassment against the Fire Department and its Exempt Fireman's Association. It was felt that he needed an apology from me and I refused to do so for the members of both organizations.

Since the time of my removal from the Fire Department, there has been negative commentary that has been posted in the papers that have included accusations, innuendos, and misstatements pertaining to possible criminal mishandling of funds and even theft. At the time of our suspensions, it was requested that James turn over all records from the treasurer, upon doing so, he had requested an audit be conducted. However, the Village officials did not wish to do one at that time citing the cost along with no local accountant wanted to get into the middle of the current situation. Then in May of 2014, the Village Board had voted to abolish the BOFC. Since that time, we have asked the Mayor, along with different members of the Village Board to speak with us pertaining to these accusations, but continue to get no answers or the run around as to what and where these accusations are about. In October of 2014, when the Past Chief Association of the Fire Department requested clarification of what the actual situation was pertaining to myself and James.

At this meeting, it was again asked that these accusations cease and another request to have an audit of the financial records be conducted. And once again, the Village officials denied this citing the cost to have an audit done. However, in the recent commentary by the Bills', it was reported that in 2013 the Village and BOFC had conducted an audit and found that some problems identified in the Comptroller's audit was continuing and this was the reason for our suspensions. How can an audit be conducted if, prior to our suspensions, the Village and the BOFC only had the treasurer's reports that were filed with them to question anything, which they never did! Again, here is yet another example of how mistruths get reported in the papers to make us out to be criminals. Well, it's about time that the Village either puts up or shuts up. We have done nothing wrong and have defended ourselves to this day. However, the Village does not wish to sit down with us to discuss if there is still any outstanding issues, instead certain people keeping the "fire burning" in the papers claiming criminal mishandling and/or theft. Also, the issues within the Fire Department had been there prior to me joining the Department in 1998 and subsequently becoming the Fire Chief and will continue into the future, so stop blaming us for the ill wills of the department!

I have done nothing wrong but try to do the best that I could with all the tensions created because the formation of the BOFC, the audit by the NYS Comptroller's Office, on-going issues between members of the Fire Department and the subsequent resignations of my 2nd Asst. and 1st Asst. back in August and September of 2013. The only thing that I am guilty of is not being a good Fire Chief. This is because I had missed some meetings and calls. As the leader of the department, I know that I should have been there for more, but family and work takes precedence as I stated above. With everything that went on during 2012 and 2013, I had done the best that I could, with the help of my Asst. Chief's prior to their resignations, that all duties were being performed by the subordinate officers. So again I will reiterate that at no time did we do anything against the corrective action plan stated to the NYS Comptroller's Office that we are being wrongly accused of. Finally, how does having you vehicle entered bring disgrace upon the Fire Department? Does speaking out against the Mayor at a Village board meeting for the members of the Fire Department constitute conduct unbecoming a member of the Fire Department?

Stephen Pacanowski

5 Wood Street

Westfield, NY 14787

(716) 753-0197

 
 
 

 

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