City of Warden settles dispute with police chief

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WARDEN — The city of Warden has settled a dispute with Police Chief Rick Martin, agreeing to pay the chief back wages as well as roughly $15,400 in attorney’s fees.

The dispute arose in May 2018, when Mayor Tony Massa suspended Martin for five days without pay for “insubordination” and “misconduct” in running the Warden Police Department.

“Your repeated and continued insubordination have caused me to lose confidence and trust in your ability to provide effective leadership and performance as my Police Chief, and demonstrates an overall lack of leadership and supervision,” Massa wrote to Martin in a letter dated May 17, 2018.

The mayor stated that Martin encouraged dissension and unprofessionalism in the six-member Warden Police Department by allowing officers to view any police body cam video “at any time, for any reason,” using a nearby rock quarry as a practice shooting range, and continuing to investigate the hiring of Sgt. Mike Martin despite orders from Massa to stop.

Massa wrote that the continued use of the gravel pit as an ad hoc shooting range despite being told not to put the city at tremendous risk, since the city’s insurance carrier “would not provide coverage for activities at an unofficial shooting range” and showed “gross and inexcusable insubordination, extremely poor judgment, and exposed the City to significant and unnecessary risk.”

Martin then appealed to the Warden Civil Service Commission, which in August found in favor of the chief, noting that some of the allegations — creating a hostile work environment or failure to lead — were “not supported by the record.”

In two instances, however, the commission did not dispute the substance of Massa’s allegations, just the mayor’s conclusions. Commissioners found that while Martin admitted that the continued use of the gravel pit for firearms training and qualification was wrong, “the violation did not rise to the level of gross insubordination.”

And allowing the viewing of body cam video footage did not damage department morale, the commission concluded.

“The officers within the Department had expectations that the recordings would be used for these trainings (sic) purposes,” commission findings said.

“If there are concerns about the Chief’s performance in terms of leadership and supervision of his Department in general and not based on the record before use (sic) alone, those should be addressed through regular performance evaluations,” the commission concluded.

“This record is devoid of any such performance violations,” the commission report said.

The commission concluded Martin’s five-day suspension without pay was “not an appropriate form of discipline,” stating instead a “Letter of Reprimand” should be placed in Martin’s file for failing to follow the mayor’s guidance on the use of the firing range.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com

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