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BLUFFDALE — More than a year after receiving three whistleblower complaints, Bluffdale officials said they plan to investigate possible "criminal" allegations against current mayoral candidate and former Fire Chief John Roberts just weeks ahead of the election.
In late March through early April 2020, three firefighters submitted whistleblower complaints to the city "mostly related to issues with safety (both personal and equipment), but they also included issues regarding staffing and payroll, availability and leadership, and retaliation," Bluffdale officials said in a statement.
At that time, the city was trying to replace its attorney, who had accepted a different position, and was dealing with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Utah, according to the statement.
Roberts ultimately signed a "separation" agreement ending his 40 years with the department — the first 32 years or so as a volunteer and the last eight as the department's first full-time chief — and no additional investigation took place.
Roberts denied wrongdoing Thursday and expressed concern to KSL.com about the timing of the investigation, contending that it comes down to politics.
Roberts is running against Natalie Hall, the city's current emergency program manager, in the mayoral election on Nov. 2.
In the spring of last year, the city manager and attorney interviewed the firefighters who had complained, and City Manager Mark Reid reported his initial findings during a closed Bluffdale City Council meeting. Neither audio nor a transcript from that meeting has been released.
Among the more serious complaints from the three firefighters who emailed the city manager were allegations that Roberts offered crew members double pay to sign up to work holidays but did not actually require them to work.
"It is common knowledge among department members that when he does this, he does so by putting their name in an empty slot and paying them on a day that they did not work. ... He also will put employees' names down on holidays to make it look like the station was fully staffed when really we were running short-handed, and again paying employees that were not there," according to one email released to KSL.com through a public records request.
The firefighter claimed not to know if those employees "are aware of their names being placed on the roster or if it is a backdoor deal to pay them double time for something else."
When asked whether the allegations of payroll fraud are true, Roberts said they are not and emphasized difficulties in staffing the stations during holidays. The city manager had "attempted to make a requirement of a maximum of two firefighters staffed in a fire station at any given time," according to Roberts.
"I informed him that this was completely inappropriate and goes against the firefighting standards we are required to follow. In order to enter into any house fire, we require a minimum of four firefighters. As a result, staffing two firefighters in a station at a time effectively rendered the firefighters unable to do their jobs. So I ensured that our fire stations were adequately staffed to the best of our ability," Roberts said, adding that he also attended every fire call.
Firefighters who work for Bluffdale are employed part-time, Roberts noted, and many work full-time for other cities in the area. Bluffdale did not pay double time for holidays, he said, while other cities do.
"(Bluffdale) specifically refused to pay firefighters double time on the holidays. As a result, none of the firefighters were willing to work holidays even if they were scheduled. They were not significantly concerned about their employment with Bluffdale as they were employed full-time elsewhere," Roberts said.
He said many of those firefighters would choose to spend their holidays with their families or working for other cities rather than working in Bluffdale at their regular rate.
"That left Bluffdale with a severe staffing shortage on holidays in the fire stations, to the extent that we would not have been able to respond to any emergencies that arose in our city during the holidays. I took steps to ensure that the fire stations were appropriately staffed on each holiday. Every firefighter that was paid for working on a holiday did work on that holiday," Roberts said.
Many cities have minimum staffing requirements for first responders, and if those requirements aren't met, the station in question needs to be shut down until it can meet minimum staffing levels. The whistleblower emails did not specify whether at least minimum staffing requirements were met over holidays.
The three anonymous firefighters also complained of what they described as a lack of guidance in how to handle COVID-19 in the community, equipment and facility maintenance issues at the stations, personal criticisms against Roberts' leadership in general, and other safety concerns such as crew members driving fire engines without training. They also said they feared retaliation for speaking out.
"Employees that have no experience are regularly placed in an engineer driver position with no training or mentorship to help them in that position and are expected to perform engineering duties if the call arises," one complainant said.
Roberts said the city did not require engineers to hold an apparatus driver certification as most of the firefighters through the department's history were volunteers. The city began requiring the certification after Roberts' departure.
One email noted that "Roberts is a good man who has helped a lot of people throughout the years. Chief Roberts has given jobs to men and women alike that would not be able to get a job elsewhere, we have employees who have started at Bluffdale that are some of the best firefighters, paramedics, engineers, captains and battalion chiefs in the state of Utah." But that emailer said they felt they needed to speak out due to "unsafe" conditions at the department.
In a recent memo to city officials and firefighters, Fire Chief Warren James — who was hired after Roberts' departure — outlined the department's efforts to improve safety measures, including removing expired equipment and ordering new equipment. Scheduling also moved to an online tool that alerts employees to time limits being reached, and time cards are being verified at "multiple points" by supervisors, James said.
"As any good department should, we continue to identify shortfalls in the department that can be improved, and are implementing a strategic planning team that will be meeting later this month to help us identify our best route to move forward," the chief added.
Separation agreement signed
Reid, the city manager, said in the statement that last year he was prepared to hire a human resources attorney to perform a full investigation. But Reid also suggested that a separation agreement "would be appropriate so the city could focus on all the issues the city was dealing with, including firefighter safety, hiring a new attorney, and responding to the pandemic."
The City Council negotiated the final terms of the separation agreement in a closed session, and Roberts signed the agreement 19 days after the city received the first whistleblower complaint, Reid said.
Roberts said the city "threatened to pursue those firefighters that had taken time away from their families to work the holidays" during his discussions with leaders, prompting him to sign the agreement.
"Rather than subject myself or my fellow firefighters to the stress of having to deal with a city whose management had already demonstrated an ineptitude in the emergency response department, I resigned. I was close to retirement and the city offered a severance package, so with the threats made against my fellow firefighters who were not in the same employment situation I was, it made sense to resign," Roberts said.
The agreement outlined the city's and Roberts' "desire to settle fully and finally all outstanding matters between them." The agreement noted that Roberts "has not been disciplined with cause or terminated" by the city. As part of the separation agreement, Roberts was able to keep his work phone and phone number.
He was also paid through the rest of the year and received a vacation time payout, according to the agreement released to KSL.com, and remained eligible for rehire by the city in another position.
Roberts contends the city had said it would keep the terms of his resignation confidential.
"It was not until I decided to run for mayor against a city employee — someone regularly shown preferential treatment from the city manager — that the circumstances surrounding my resignation were provided to the general public, in breach of the confidentiality agreements previously made to me by the city manager and city attorney," he said.
But in a joint statement to KSL.com, Reid and city attorney Todd Sheeran said that after receiving and denying a Government Records Access and Management Act request from a resident for the documents, that resident filed an appeal. The city then had an outside attorney look into the matter, and that attorney determined the documents should be reclassified from private to public because Roberts "decided to run for mayor and there was a public interest in knowing their potential mayor, his background, skills, talents, including agreements with the city."
The city announced it was launching an investigation into Roberts after the whistleblower complaints were posted on social media.
"After certain documents were recently made public regarding John Roberts, the city has received additional information from firefighters. The allegations, if true, are criminal in nature and the city will have allegations investigated by an outside agency," Reid said in an earlier statement, without providing any more information about the new allegations.
"The City Council unanimously agreed that the additional information and allegations warranted the city to have an outside agency to investigate the allegations," Reid and Sheeran said Friday.
Roberts questions the timing of that announcement.
"The city had a year and a half to conduct an investigation, to engage in disciplinary actions, or do anything else they deemed appropriate, but it did not. The city was satisfied with the resolution, as was I, and it was not until I initiated the campaign against a city employee that the information was improperly and unlawfully disclosed to a member of the public, who then sought to circumvent the confidentiality agreement through a GRAMA request," Roberts said.
Roberts contends the firefighters who worked holidays "are concerned that the city or other entities may pursue them for issues already resolved in relation to the separation agreement."
"Again, despite having over a year and a half to take any steps it deemed appropriate and necessary, the city did nothing regarding these issues. It was only when the candidacy of their employee was affected that they chose to improperly disclose the information, issue press releases, hold closed-door meetings, and other items," Roberts said.
When reached for comment Friday, Hall — Roberts' opponent — emphasized that she had no involvement in the city's investigation or discussions regarding Roberts, as she is not involved with the fire department in her role. She also took a leave of absence for the duration of the campaign.
"I was totally unaware that he had been asked to leave until he had been asked to leave. ... That's a private HR issue, so other employees would not be privy to that," Hall said.
She declined to comment further on the issue, explaining that she wants to focus on a positive campaign.