Opinion| Sault Fire Chief: Taking the Long Way Home

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During discussion of the proposed purchase of four new vehicles for the Sault Ste. Marie Fire Service at council on March 20, Ward 3 Coun. Matthew Shoemaker, apologizing in advance for what he perceived as bluntness, broached the following question to Fire Chief Mike Figliola:

“There has been some suggestion that you use fire department vehicles to go back and forth to your residence out of town.”

Figliola replied that he does use a city vehicle, picking a lesser one from what is available. He said a vehicle was not dedicated to him.

I didn’t consider Shoemaker’s question to be blunt at all. I don’t think it could have been considered blunt even if he had pointed out, in asking the question, that the chief’s out-of-town residence is at Bright Lake, about 100 kilometres east of the city on Highway 17.

That would have put the cost of the chief’s use of a vehicle more in context.

Actually, I had put the question to the chief myself back in December 2015, about six months after he had come over to the Sault Fire Service from North Bay.

“Rumour has it,” I said in the column, “that Chief Mike Figliola has chosen to live near Thessalon and has the use of a department vehicle to get to and from work. Gas, maintenance and insurance are paid by the city.

“I put the allegations contained in the rumour to Figliola.

“Without hesitation he answered in the affirmative to all.”

I asked him how he came to choose Thessalon as a place to live.

“I’m originally from Hamilton so I still had some stuff to deal with there,” he said. “I needed a quick place to land until I got everything cleaned up in the south and a friend offered me a place to stay until I get squared away.”

Figliola said that when he got some personal things he is dealing with straightened away he would be moving into the city.

He told me the use of the fire service vehicle is work-related entirely and comes with the job but some taxable benefit is attached. He said travelling to and from the office is considered personal, but if he has a meeting along the way it is considered to be business.

He said he was not alone in the fire service in having a vehicle provided. Three deputy fire chiefs and the head of Emergency Medical Services also are provided vehicles, which allows them quick access to sites of emergency and to travel on roads closed to the public.

As well, at the instigation of Mayor Christian Provenzano, I also got a further explanation in an email from Al Horsman, the city’s then new chief administrative officer.

In an email to me Horsman said:

“When I first arrived at the city, the mayor suggested that in light of questions being raised in the community I look into the employment contract terms for the (fire) chief executed with the previous administration and satisfy myself that the conditions in this agreement are consistent with employment statutes and are being properly adhered to.

“I have conducted this review and am satisfied that all terms negotiated in the chief’s contract meet current employment requirements and are being followed correctly.

“Regarding specific clauses in the contract that seem from social media and other outlets to have gained some misinterpretations, I can confirm:

“The contract does not require relocation to Sault Ste. Marie as a condition of employment and there is no statute that could enforce otherwise.

“The chief nonetheless has made a verbal commitment to relocate to SSM within six months and has already been looking at potential residences to this end.

“Although not explicitly included in the contract, during its negotiation the chief’s vacation entitlement was reduced by two weeks (from six) in part as recognition that he was living outside of SSM.

“The Chief is provided stand-by pay and use of a vehicle for work-related activities only. Administration regularly monitors and reviews these terms and remains satisfied they are properly being met.”

I think the term contract may be a misnomer here. My understanding is that the only contract concerning senior staff is the four-year contract between the Corporation of the City of Sault Ste. Marie and the CAO.

Council approved by a 7-6 vote the addition of four new vehicles to the fire services’ fleet but there was a fair amount of concern about the additional cost to the city at a pretty trying time.

Considering that, I was surprised the chief’s use of a vehicle didn’t prompt a broader range of questions other than the one posed by Shoemaker.

After all, driving to Bright Lake is not like driving to Desbarats or Goulais. It is about a 100-kilometre jaunt each way each working day.

That works out to at least 1,000 kilometres a week for a yearly total of 48,000-plus, taking into account that the chief has four weeks holiday a year. That is a lot of kilometres.

Whether the chief intends to change residences, to move into the city, I do not know. He has not replied to two queries I have put forward in that regard.

Anyway, it seems something has come out of what transpired during council.

Reporter Elaine Della-Mattia said in a story in The Sault Star on Tuesday that, in launching a review that may standardize contractual agreements among senior city staff, Horsman will examine who is using city vehicles to travel to and from their places of residences and why they are permitted to do so.

Horsman confirmed to Della-Mattia that provision of a vehicle is part of Figliola’s condition of employment. He said Figliola currently has an SUV assigned to him for his on-duty work and he also uses it to travel to and from work. Horsman said he pays for his own gasoline, although I gather there is some dispute about that and Figliola is already on record as having told me his gas came courtesy of the city.

I have also heard the claim from some in the fire service that the four new vehicles are not needed, that the only time some of those presently in service  are used is when they are taking officers, such as deputy chiefs and the head of fire prevention, to and from work.

Under the Human Resources Policies and Procedures, Policy No. 4-17, the fire chief’s car should be fully equipped with emergency equipment and radio equipment. For usage, it says “Emergency on call 24/day. Personal usage permitted in town; restricted out of town to when on call or travelling on city business.

Make of that what you will. The part about out-of-town use being restricted is interesting.

Coun. Steve Butland, while complaining about council micro-managing when the proposal for four new vehicles was before council, hit on a good point while doing so.

He suggested councillors spend some time on site to get a first-hand look at what goes on in the fire service.

One other point came up that I thought warranted exploration.

Cost analyses completed by financing and purchasing apparently are not provided to council routinely in matters such as the purchase of the new vehicles.

I would suggest they should be. They would give councillors a better idea of the subject and save the asking of a lot of questions during council meetings.

Doug Millroy can be reached at dmillroy@gmail.com.

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