The union representing fire investigators has filed a complaint against the fire marshal's office, alleging leadership failed to address grievances and retaliated against union members.
Michael Sauschuck, Maine's public safety commissioner, is pictured in this 2019 file photo. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Fire investigators in the Office of the State Fire Marshal claim their supervisors repeatedly violated their union contract last year and then retaliated against them for reporting it, according to a complaint filed with Maine’s labor board.

The complaint, originally filed in July and amended in December, outlines a series of instances where investigators believe their division chief and the former fire marshal violated their labor rights over the first half of 2022, including by failing to respond to grievances and attempting to intimidate them for complaining.

The allegations shed greater light on a reportedly problematic workplace inside the fire marshal’s office at a time when the agency has just appointed a new leader.

The Maine Senate confirmed Rich McCarthy, an agency veteran who formerly oversaw the inspections division, as the state’s new fire marshal on Thursday. During his confirmation hearing earlier last week, he pledged he would improve communication and other working conditions following a Bangor Daily News report about how investigators had voiced concerns about the agency’s leadership for years.

The state denied the allegations in the labor complaint in a response last month.

Maine Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said he hired a new lieutenant to address issues raised by fire investigators, but the union complaint describes how that supervisor became a source of conflict.

Kevin Anderson, executive director of the Maine Law Enforcement Association, the union that represents the fire investigators, said he is scheduled to meet with McCarthy this week. McCarthy seems genuine in his desire to work through issues affecting the union members, Anderson said.

Asked about the concerns he heard from staff when he first took office in 2019, Sauschuck said he met with the agency’s 12 fire investigators and three sergeants at that time. During those conversations, he heard a common theme: a desire for “consistent leadership and accountability,” he said in an email on Friday.

“The number one priority for the group was the return of a Lieutenant’s position within the Investigation Division to help provide daily guidance and professionalism,” the commissioner wrote. He sought funding for and then brought on Lt. Troy Gardner  in late 2020. Gardner previously oversaw major criminal investigations at the Maine State Police.

Investigators, however, have clashed with Gardner several times over the last year when the investigators were operating under a pilot union agreement with the agency, according to the labor complaint.

The complaint lists six examples of instances where the lieutenant or former Fire Marshal Joe Thomas allegedly violated state labor laws by failing to make a good faith effort to ensure its success of the pilot contract, interfered with members’ ability to exercise their union rights, discouraged membership in the union and retaliated against union members for exercising their rights.

Gardner did not respond to an email seeking comment. The BDN was unable to reach Thomas by phone or email. He did not respond to a Facebook message.

For instance, investigators asked the lieutenant if he’d be willing to try a new policy for how investigators would be called out to fire scenes, but he repeatedly refused, even though their proposal was listed as an option in the pilot agreement, the complaint states.

Gardner also denied investigators the ability to trade times when they would be on call, breaking with past practice and despite it being allowed in the contract, according to the complaint. In response, investigators filed a grievance in May. When they did not receive a response, they filed another in June. They filed a third in August and, as of December, had still not received a response, according to the complaint.

The complaint also cites several conflicts over changes in how investigators would be compensated for their on-duty activities, as well as an issue where a sergeant disciplined an investigator for lying about the date of a COVID test without conducting a proper investigation.

“On multiple occasions, through the grievance procedure, MSLEA has asked to engage Chief Thomas and/or Lt. Gardner in discussions to work on fair and equitable solutions to the issue at hand and to ensure the Pilot Program is successful,” the complaint alleges. “Yet each time a request to discuss items of concern was made, SLEA received no response or was denied an opportunity to meet and discuss solutions to perceived problems or concerns.”

In July, the union decided to file a complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board, which enforces the state’s labor laws pertaining to public sector union agreements.

A few days later, on July 12, Gardner called a group of investigators who all worked under the same sergeant to a meeting and told them “they were the only Fire Marshal employees who seemed to have a problem and wanted to fight,” according to the complaint.

Investigators saw the meeting as an unlawful “show of force” intended to intimidate them for exercising their union rights.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.