Bluffdale investigates mayoral candidate over complaints from his time as fire chief
Budget inconsistencies, a lack of leadership, inappropriate coverage, no guidance regarding COVID-19, and fear and intimidation were some of the notes on emails from affected firefighters that led to John Roberts resigning as as the Bluffdale Fire Chief in 2020.
Roberts has served the department since 1973 and became Bluffdale’s first full-time fire chief in 2012. When he announced he was running for mayor of Bluffdale earlier this year, residents investigated the candidate. and complaints filed by three firefighters in March 2020 have come to light.
Bluffdale City Council held a closed-door meeting on October 14 to discuss additional allegations that were raised by firefighters this year, after the initial complaints came to light. These new charges, if true, are “criminal in nature,” said Todd Sheeran, city attorney. Bluffdale is currently working with an outside agency to investigate them.
The first three reports were filed with Mark Reid, City Manager of Bluffdale, and expressed concern that firefighters were not given direction to manage exposure to COVID-19 and did not have the equipment for personal protection required. Self-contained breathing masks were also not installed every year, in violation of federal rules, they said in emails reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune.
They also alleged that the service was often under-staffed, even when the list indicated that there were four firefighters on duty on different shifts, especially on holidays. Employees would be paid twice as much by having their names in a blank space on days they were not working, firefighters said. Roberts also did not bring extra pay for the holidays to budget discussions, the city manager’s notes say.
Roberts was rarely in the department, the complaints say. âMost people think he works the plumbing most of the day when he should be on duty as a chef,â one of the emails read. Firefighters also said there were untreated repairs around stations, including backing up plumbing in showers and broken toilets.
A department managed “by fear”
Roberts was also accused of nepotism, Reid wrote in his complaints notes, providing maintenance contracts to the businesses of his relatives. Unqualified employees would be placed in positions they were not trained for, including operating fire apparatus, according to the complaints.
“He constantly makes dangerous and mediocre tactical decisions [in fire scenes]”, reported an employee,” and our members are hoping that a Draper or Unified Fire [Authority] The battalion commander arrives quickly to help him control the scene and make the right decisions.
The emails say that if someone “ran into” the chief, firefighters feared their shifts would be cut. “The department is r[un] on fear, âsaid one of them.
After the first two complaints, Roberts was put on administrative leave. In an email to city council, Reid said he asked Roberts to take a few days off after Roberts mentioned the complaints, which were supposed to be confidential. But Roberts had heard of it before. Without knowing the identity of the firefighters, he insisted “after his name was cleared, he wanted these two guys to be fired,” an email from Reid told city council.
“There’s no question in my mind that he would retaliate against these two guys if he knew who they were,” Reid wrote. âHe was very forceful in denying all the payroll issues. “
Roberts resigned from the fire department on April 8, 2020. In the separation agreement, Roberts received his full salary until the end of the year. He was also eligible for rehiring in a different position for the city.
“All of this controversy has more to do with the election than anything else,” Roberts wrote in an email to The Tribune. âI have always put the safety of our residents first. It was my job. This is also what I like. That’s what I promised to do when I became a firefighter.
Roberts was responsible for 120 employees when he was fire chief and the department is made up of part-time firefighters. âIt makes it very different from a management point of view than if you had full-time employees,â he wrote. âBluffdale was small. It turned out differently from most of the others. For example, firefighters were responsible for maintaining the station.
The tasks he was scheduled to complete in 2020 are now split between four employees, Roberts said.
“Bluffdale is a wonderful place where many of the staff have family who work or have worked for the city,” Roberts added of the nepotism accusations. âI have always stayed within the budget. I also ran my own business for many years. I have a lot of experience in keeping the budget. We have always had the coverage we needed for the station, and I have always stood up for the teams and residents we serve in Bluffdale.
If Roberts is elected mayor, he said, he plans to develop greater transparency, support city employees and keep taxes low.
A key part of its program is updating Bluffdale’s infrastructure to keep up with the city’s growth. With projects such as the development of Olympia near Herriman, he said, it is important to have better services and a road protection plan.
Roberts believes generating more growth in the retail business is essential to having the tax base to pay for better services and expand the city’s public safety services.
Charges against his opponent
Roberts’ adversary, Natalie Hall, the city’s emergency manager, has been investigated by the city twice and has been cleared each time.
One of the complaints concerned his compensation. Hall was making $ 29.51 an hour in his position, which one complaint claimed was inconsistent with the salary of Connie Jones, the former head of the emergency program. Jones was making $ 14,400 per year and $ 20 per hour while training at Hall.
The results of this investigation revealed that the salary was appropriate.
“Natalie’s position was difficult to compare, as she ‘wears several hats’ so to speak,” the investigation said. âWhile her title is Emergency Program Manager, she has also been given a lot of the city’s communications responsibilities, as she holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing. “
Another complaint alleged that Hall had campaigned while attending a conference in St. George as a town employee. Investigators found no evidence that Hall used his office or post for his political betterment.
“I am grateful that the city has been thorough in the investigation into my salary and the campaign,” Hall said. “I look forward to working and serving Bluffdale as Mayor.”
Hall has served as an emergency manager for the past seven years, planning alongside residents, businesses, schools and churches for all kinds of emergencies.
As mayor, she said, she would try to keep up the momentum of the city’s recent growth. She aims to work with planning departments, staff, council members, residents and property owners to recruit more businesses in Bluffdale.
Growth, transportation and economic development are all linked, she said, and as soon as road projects like Porter Rockwell Boulevard are completed, the city should consider further road improvements. She also believes the city needs to mitigate the impact of the growth of neighboring cities like Herriman in terms of water consumption. Most importantly, said Hall, “we really need the tax base to be increased so that we can provide our public safety through business.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America body member and writes on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her continue to write stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.