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09/01/2020 12:00 AM

Westbrook Fire Chief Resigns Following Social Media Controversy

Westbrook’s fire chief, Mike Jenkins, is now its former fire chief.

In a brief telephone conversation on Aug. 27, Jenkins told Harbor News he had emailed his resignation on Aug. 25 to the Board of Fire Commissioners (BFC). He declined further comment, citing the advice of legal counsel.

A special BFC meeting scheduled for the afternoon of Aug. 27 was canceled that morning without explanation.

The resignation came in the aftermath of an outcry from residents about a meme Jenkins posted on Facebook that mocked Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. The meme referred to Biden as a “retard” and to Harris as a “whore.”

One or more people who saw Jenkins’s post on a Facebook page called “Saybrook Scoop (Uncensored)” copied and shared it to other Facebook pages.

Suspension from DPW

By Aug. 24, First Selectman Noel Bishop’s office had received roughly 100 emails and around 20 phone calls regarding the post. In addition to the post about Biden and Harris, residents called out posts in which Jenkins questioned the need for the public to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That afternoon, the Westbrook Board of Selectmen (BOS), meeting in executive session, voted to suspend Jenkins with pay from his job in the town’s Department of Public Works (DPW). Jenkins and the town’s labor attorney, Gabe Jiran, were in attendance. Jenkins has been working for the DPW since 2002.

Bishop had communicated information about the time and location of the BOS meeting to the people who emailed or called his office, he said.

In advance of the meeting, Bishop estimated that the executive session of the meeting would take half an hour; it ended up lasting nearly two hours. The discussion, Bishop explained later, lasted longer than he’d expected.

Public Q & A

Bishop and selectmen John Hall and Hiram Fuchs began and adjourned the meeting in Town Hall’s Multi-Purpose Room and took questions from the public afterward. Fifteen to 20 people turned up, several of whom identified themselves as firefighters, and nearly all waited the two hours for the selectmen to return.

After the meeting was adjourned at 6:30 p.m., Bishop explained to those waiting in the Multi-Purpose Room that the BOS oversees and makes decisions about Jenkins’s employment for the DPW only. The BFC makes disciplinary and other decisions about members of the fire department.

“We have not yet set a timeline, but it’s not going to be for weeks” that the DPW matter is resolved, Bishop said. “There’s a number of issues that have to be further discussed.”

“Paid administrative leave is often used and our labor counsel is there when there is a situation in which there needs to be further information, further review, and that gives all the parties chances to do that,” he said.

Asked about his personal response to the post about Biden and Harris, Bishop said, “I absolutely do not condone—in fact, I condemn the statement that was made on social media that referred to a presidential candidate or anybody as a retarded person.

“I have a brother-in-law who’s severely mentally challenged; he’s in SARAH,” he continued. “Fifty-five years ago, when I met my wife...[her family] were the individuals, because of my brother-in-law, that started SARAH. So I fully understand the strong feelings that people have about using the R-word and I think we’ve come a long way to getting the public understanding.

“I condemn that statement, use of the R-word, and I hope I never see it again,” Bishop said, growing emotional. “And I will say the same thing about anybody in public who does that.”

Asked if he similarly condemned the epithet directed at Harris, he said he did.

“I find that highly inappropriate and I condemn that language also,” Bishop said.

After prodding by several residents, the BOS agreed that the emails and phone call transcripts would be forwarded to the BFC for its review.

Three of those emails were from Vista Life Innovations “and two families who expressed great concern about this,” Bishop said.

Vista provides services to young adults with neurological disabilities. Two of its residences are located in Westbrook, one less than 500 feet from the firehouse on South Main Street.

Westbrook Democratic Town Committee Chair Kate Sullivan asked Hall, as a state representative candidate for the 35th District, how he personally felt about the post.

“I have a daughter who is handicapped and educationally challenged,” Hall said. “She has a lot of learning disabilities and grew up in this town [and] through the school system needed a lot of special education. So I concur with Noel in how I feel about it, the matter, personally.

“However, as a selectman, I have to do due diligence,” he continued. “Employees need to be afforded the courtesy of proper channels and I’m also cognizant of the town’s potential to probably be in a lawsuit over this. So we have to go through every the right order under the advice of legal counsel.”

Previous Posts Alleged

Sullivan stated in the meeting that this was not the first time that Jenkins’s social media posts were brought to the attention of town officials.

“I think a lot of us felt that this is an issue that should have been dealt with by the BOS and the BFC a long time ago,” she said. “We want to make sure that there’s transparency in our government.”

“I would say that it hasn’t come to the BOS’s attention officially before,” Hall responded. “It has come to the BFC. They have had some discussion about it...Now it’s fully in front of us. We’re doing what we can.”

The BFC’s page on the town’s website is missing many meeting minutes, with nothing posted for the entirety of 2019. A call to the town clerk to determine whether meeting minutes were filed with that office was not immediately returned.

“I have a friend who also works in the fire department who stated that these things have been going on” for years on the part of Jenkins, Sullivan said.

The friend told her he was uncomfortable coming forward, afraid that he wouldn’t be offered shifts, or that he would be chastised.

Harbor News was shown a purported email, dated April 15, 2018, sent to Bishop, BFC Chair Bob Hagermeister, and BFC members Kimberly Bennett and Sid Holbrook. The email complained about sexist, graphic Facebook posts by Jenkins. The sender’s email address is anonymous and the recipients are masked.

Sullivan said she’s heard about the April 2018 email.

“There was a rumor that there was somebody [who] contacted Noel back in 2018,” she said. “If we had not seen any changes or any action taken from the BOS or the BFC, we were going to put in a [Freedom of Information Act] request” for the email or any other communications to the town complaining about Jenkins’s past posts.

Minutes from the BFC meeting held on April 19, 2018, at which an April 15, 2018 email might be discussed, are missing from its webpage.

Fire Department Response

“I’m in the fire department and I do not represent the fire department in any way,” one man said. (Firefighters in Westbrook’s fully volunteer fire department who attended the question and answer session declined to provide their names.) “But I want to know why a press release didn’t go out so the public understands that we don’t condone it. Nothing has been put out yet and so far as I understand it, we were told to wait.”

Bishop said he spoke by phone with Deputy Fire Chief Bill Cusson on Aug. 21. Cusson, who said that the firefighters would be meeting two days later, talked to Bishop about the department sending out a press release. According to Bishop, he recommended to Cusson that the department wait until after the BOS meeting to see what transpired.

Cusson was called into the question and answer session to clarify, but said he wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the fire department.

Resident Concerns

One resident’s request for “a public forum so that townspeople can come and air their grievances about this” led to an outburst by the one person in the Multi-Purpose Room who appeared to be there in defense of Jenkins.

“This is just a post, a rude post,” said the man, who refused to provide his name to Harbor News. “Let him get punished...Why is this turning into a circus?

“What are you guys after?” he continued. “You want his—everything? Burn his life down, burn his house down, what are you looking for?

“He looks like an idiot with that post,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?...He’s a damn fool to make a post like that. It reflects badly on him. But you want more. I’m disgusted.”

After making an incoherent remark about Biden and saying the group should grow up, he stormed out of the room.

Speaking to Harbor News, Sullivan pointed to the town’s social media policy as part of its Human Resources Policy Manual. The manual warns that “online content...that adversely affects citizens, vendors, elected officials or people who work on behalf of the Town of Westbrook may result in disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”

It also states that employees should ensure that their posts are consistent with the town’s Statement of Ethics and Information Policy.

“Inappropriate postings that may include discriminatory remarks, harassment, and threats of violence or similar inappropriate or unlawful conduct will not be tolerated and may subject you to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal,” it states.

While the primary focus of residents’ concerns and outrage was the meme about Biden and Harris, Jenkins “also made [online] statements against wearing masks,” Sullivan said.

One such post provided to and reviewed by the Harbor News had a picture of a box of masks. The text questioned why people are wearing masks as “even the box is saying it doesn’t protect against COVID-19 or other viruses.” “This is someone who takes care of our public safety,” Sullivan said.

A number of the people who turned up at Town Hall on Aug. 24 were members of the Democratic Town Committee, according to Sullivan.

“We believe in due process,” she said, “but this should have been addressed years ago.”

Westbrook resident Mary Tomassetti said she was particularly concerned about the feelings of those living in the Vista residences close to the fire station.

“[P]eople are welcome to air their opinion about political matters,” she said. “But when you’re in a publicly held position you do have some restrictions and responsibilities, or at least you should.

“To make such an insulting and ignorant statement...when your community is made up of people who would be hurt by that statement seems to be really out of touch and ignorant,” Tomassetti continued. “[I]n this time when we’re being called to higher standards of basic decency, if we’re going to see a more just town and a more just world and more just space, then we have to start by holding people accountable who are inappropriate in this way.”

Fire Department Procedures

The fire chief, who is paid an annual stipend of $10,000, is elected each November, apparently by the members of the fire department. A vacancy is filled by holding a special election at the department’s next regular meeting.

Multiple requests for comment made to BFC Chair Bob Hagermeister as well as to BFC member Lynn Spencer were not returned.