May 20 • 11:56 AM

What happens in the fire hall...

Almont Twp. Board votes 6-1 to terminate two firefighters

Attorney Richard Nash outlines case for firefighters Scott Garner and Theresa Lince. photo by Tom Wearing.

February 01, 2017
ALMONT TWP. — The Almont Township Board on Wednesday, Jan. 25, voted 6-1 to terminate firefighters Scott Garner and Theresa Lince, effective immediately.

The pair had become involved in a personal relationship that drew complaints from other members of the department and the public. Garner said he was in the process of a divorce from wife Melissa, who also serves on the Almont department as a Medical First Responder, when he and Lince became involved.

The matter came before the board when a recommendation from the department's Board of Trustees calling for Garner's demotion and temporary suspension and Lince's dismissal was rejected by the pair.

The decision to terminate both Garner and Lince took place during an open session and before a full house at the Almont Municipal Building. Board member Gary Groesbeck cast the lone dissenting vote during the special meeting/public hearing.

Board member Roberta Kudsin, who made the motion to terminate, said she believed the two firefighters' relationship had led to incident(s) of "misfeasance," or the "willful inappropriate action or intentional incorrect action or advice."

The Board's roll call vote followed more than two hours of courtroom-style testimony, most of it from individuals in favor of Garner and Lince's reinstatement.

The pair was challenging the fire department's Board of Trustees recommendation on Nov. 28, 2016, that they be relieved of their duties.

The Fire Board's position was that the couple's relationship adversely affected morale and had divided the department into two separate camps.

Public testimony

Richard Nash, Garner and Lince's attorney, alluded numerous times to Garner's 18 years of service to the department, his professionalism at fire scenes, and his overall outstanding performance.

Nash noted that the Almont Township Fire Department's book of "Rules, Policies, Practices and Guidelines" does not contain language prohibiting romantic relationships between firefighters.

Nash also alleged that Fire Chief Don Smith was establishing his own policies in dealing with the Garner/Lince situation, which he described as "a dangerous precedent."

Along with written statements from Garner and Lince, Nash presented four witnesses who supported the firefighters' reinstatement; including retired Almont Police Officer and current Medical First Responder Bob Parsell; veteran firefighters Rick Ziehm and Joel Bristol; and Katie Lowran, who served on the department from 2007-2011.

Parsell, Ziehm and Bristol acknowledged Garner's contributions to the fire department, while supporting his reinstatement.

After sharing that he believed Garner was an outstanding firefighter, and that he trusted he "would always have his back," Parsell expressed frustration that the matter had grown to such proportion.

"There are no winners in this—only losers," said Parsell. "This is creating a lot of animosity in the department. I don't think the situation should have gotten this far."

In her read-aloud statement, Lowran alleged that sexual discrimination had existed within the fire department during her tenure as the "only female" firefighter four years ago.

Lince, too, claimed she had been a victim of sexual discrimination, adding that she resented being referred to by the Chief and others as "the girl."

Garner's lengthy statement was rife with accusations and allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of his fellow firefighters, singling out a couple of them publically.

And a response

In response to the litany of testimony offered on behalf of Garner and Lince, Almont Township Attorney Bob Seibert offered comments supporting Chief Smith and the process used prior to the Fire Board's recommendation to terminate the firefighters.

"The fire chief followed the required protocol every step of the way," said Seibert. "He did everything he was supposed to do."

Having received complaints regarding Garner and Lince's behavior, Seibert said Smith established a three-member committee to investigate and render an opinion.

The matter was then forwarded to the fire department's Board of Trustees (consisting of three fire officers), which recommended dismissal of the two firefighters.

The final step in the process, that being the decision to either terminate or reinstate; was left to the Almont Township Board.

Seibert reiterated that the fire chief had followed the rules set forth in the fire department's manual throughout the process.

"It's notable that the other attorney (Nash) never took issue with the protocol the chief followed," said Seibert. "He could never challenge the process or procedures, because they were followed to a T."

Twp. Board opines

Before casting their votes, each Township Board member had the opportunity to offer his/her brief comments.

Gary Groesbeck, the lone dissenter, questioned whether Garner or Lince had actually violated any specific rule included in the fire department's manual of conduct.

"What did they violate that is in the book?" he asked. "I'm not going to support these dismissals." However, he added a caveat.

"This should have been handled in-house," Groesbeck said. "It never should have come to this board. This is uncomfortable enough without airing these issues in a public forum."

Almont Township Supervisor Paul Bowman pointed out that all township firefighters are "at-will" employees.

"We have the right to terminate these individuals," said Bowman. "This board has the responsibility for all firefighters, and I feel the trust has been damaged."

Bowman further noted that the matter could have been dealt with in "closed session," but that Garner and Lince chose the open forum.

Clay Stroup expressed great surprise to some of the testimony presented.

"I'm shocked by what I've heard tonight," said Stroup. "There's so much tension. I think changes need to be made."

Kim Streeter was also dismayed by the personal nature of the testimony.

"This is not a proud moment for us to have to deal with," said Streeter. "I don't know how these firefighters can go back to having long-term relationships with one another again. It's all about having a trust."

Scott Stroup said "I feel the fire department has done its work and made its recommendation."

Roberta Kudsin reiterated that the township board has the ultimate authority to hire and fire employees.

"We know that Scott (Garner) has done a good job," said Kudsin, "but when one's behaviors reflect on what happens in the workplace it becomes a problem.

"It's a shame it has come to this," she continued. "I think our board needs to have a meeting with our fire department to address some of these issues that have come up.

"We can't allow things to slide," Kudsin said. "This is ultimately a matter of the public safety."

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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