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Attorney: Former fire chief plans to fight dismissal

Becky Vargo • Oct 5, 2017 at 10:00 AM

NUNICA — The Crockery Township fire chief put on administrative leave last month says he is fighting his dismissal from the rural Ottawa County fire department.

Gary Dreyer, 44, who has been running the department for 13 years, was offered a severance agreement, his attorney said Tuesday.

“I’ve advised him not to sign it and he’s not going to sign it,” said Katherine Smith Kennedy of Pinsky, Smith, Fayette & Kennedy LLP of Grand Rapids.

Kennedy said that Dreyer had no prior notice before being told that he was out of the part-time job. The attorney noted that he had been receiving good reviews and had recently received a pay raise.

Dreyer was not notified of a special meeting on Sept. 19 in which the Crockery Township Board went into a closed session to hear an opinion from an attorney. The board came back into open session and voted “to take the Fire Department in a different direction.”

Township Supervisor Leon Stille declined to elaborate on why the township was releasing Dreyer from his position, other than saying “we just decided to go separate ways.”

Kennedy accused the Township Board of violating the Open Meetings Act and said she notified the township late last week that Dreyer will be taking legal action against them in that regard. 

“We intend to enforce those rights in court,” the attorney said.

As of late Tuesday, Kennedy had not received a response from the township, she said.

Kennedy said that Dreyer should have been given the opportunity to choose whether or not issues about his employment should have been discussed in closed or open session.

“He was owed his due process rights,” she said. “He was owed a ton more by this township for the 13 years he gave of service to his community.”

The Crockery Township Fire Department Personnel Policies and Employee Handbook, showing an amended date of October 2012, says that the fire chief “shall provide a copy of a written disciplinary statement to an alleged violator.” It also notes that any disciplinary action may be appealed to the Township Board within 30 days of notification.

The policy book also notes that the board “can bring charges against any Fire Department personnel.”

“Disciplinary action initiated by the Township Board shall follow the above procedures, except that the responsibilities designated above to the fire chief shall be performed by the Township Board,” it further explains. 

“We believe those policies apply to him,” Kennedy said.

The Grand Haven Tribune submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Sept. 21, asking for any disciplinary actions by the township against Dreyer, copies of his annual evaluations for the past five years and a copy of his contract. A response regarding disciplinary actions was not received.

Township officials noted that their employees, including the fire chief, are all at-will employees and are not under contract.

Dreyer’s attorney confirmed with her client that there is no contract.

“He was told the township policies applied to him when he was hired and he was required to sign the policies,” Kennedy said.

Another partial denial of the FOIA included the annual evaluations, because they “were not given to the township by the (Fire Department Advisory Committee),” the township said in its response. That committee was dissolved earlier this year by the township, but minutes posted by the Crockery Township Board in November 2013 and January 2016 noted reports from the FDAC of Dreyer’s evaluation score being 4.175 out of 5 and 4 out of 5, respectively.

In a previous story, Stille complimented Dreyer on his ability to obtain grants for equipment and training. The township’s insurance rating for fire protection has also improved during Dreyer’s tenure.

But like any company or organization, Stille said there are always “some little hiccups and big hiccups” along the way. 

When asked about the township’s legal action concerning the Fire Department’s most recent tanker purchase, Stille said that was one of the big hiccups. Crockery Township sued the Grand Ledge company that was building the tanker, due to missed deadlines and the fact the work had to be finished by another contractor.

“It cost us a lot of money,” Stille said.

A settlement was reached and the original contractor is almost done making payments on that settlement. But the settlement was for far less money than what had to be paid out of the township’s General Fund, Stille said.

The township supervisor said the truck purchase was not thought out very well and some of the officers were against it.

But one officer was for it and went through with it, Stille said. Again, he declined to elaborate.

Stille has acknowledged receiving the notification from Dreyer’s attorney regarding the impending legal action. Because of that, he declined to comment any further on why the township wanted to go in a different direction with the Fire Department.

Stille said there are currently 19 people on the Fire Department’s roster.

“We generally authorize up to 23,” he said.

For now, Deputy Fire Chief John Kriger is leading the department.

“The Fire Department is the face of the township to the people,” Stille said. “We want to make sure we’re providing them with as much as we can afford.”

The Crockery Township Fire Department operates off a millage, as well as about $86,000 a year from the General Fund as budgeted by the township. The fire chief position is part time, although it averaged roughly 160 hours a month with no benefits, Dreyer said. He referred all other questions to his attorney.

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