Budget inconsistencies, lack of leadership, improper coverage, no guidelines around COVID-19, and fear and intimidation were some of the notes on emails from concerned firefighters that led to the resignation of John Roberts as Bluffdale’s fire chief in 2020.
Roberts 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 came to light.
Bluffdale’s City Council held a closed meeting Oct. 14 to discuss additional allegations that were brought up by the firefighters this year, after the initial complaints were revealed. These new accusations, if true, are “criminal in nature,” said Todd Sheeran, city attorney. Bluffdale is currently working with an outside agency to investigate them.
The initial three reports were filed to Mark Reid, Bluffdale’s city manager, and expressed concern that firefighters didn’t receive guidelines for managing exposure to COVID-19 and didn’t have the necessary personal protective equipment. Self-contained breathing masks were also not fitted every year, violating federal rules, they said in emails reviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune.
They also alleged the department often ran short-handed, even when the roster indicated there were four firefighters on duty on different shifts, especially on holidays. Employees would get paid double time by having their names in an empty slot on days they didn’t work, the firefighters said. Roberts also failed to bring up additional pay for holidays to budget discussions, the city manager’s notes state.
Roberts was rarely in the department, the complaints say. “Most people believe he is working plumbing most of the day when he should be on duty as our chief,” one of the emails read. The firefighters also said there were repairs that were not being addressed around stations, including plumbing backing up in the showers and a broken toilet.
A department run ‘on fear’
Roberts was also accused of nepotism, Reid wrote on his notes about the complaints, providing contracts to relatives’ businesses for maintenance. Unqualified employees would be placed in positions for which they were not trained, including driving fire apparatus, according to the complaints.
“He consistently makes unsafe and poor tactical decisions [in fire scenes],” reported an employee, “and our members hope that a Draper or Unified Fire [Authority] battalion chief arrives quickly to help him control the scene and make good decisions.”
The emails say if anyone “crossed” the chief, firefighters worried their shifts would be cut. “The department is r[un] on fear,” one said.
After the first two complaints, Roberts was placed on administrative leave. In an email to the City Council, Reid said he asked Roberts to take some days off after Roberts mentioned the complaints, which were supposed to be confidential. But Roberts had already heard about them. Without knowing the identities of the firefighters he insisted “that once his name was cleared, he wanted these two guys fired,” an email from Reid to the City Council said.
“There is no question in my mind that he would retaliate against these two guys if he knew who they were,” Reid wrote. “He was very forceful in denying all of the payroll issues.”
Roberts resigned from the Fire Department on April 8, 2020. In the separation agreement, Roberts was paid his full salary through the rest of the year. He was also eligible for rehire in a different position for the city.
“All this controversy has more to do with the election than anything else,” Roberts wrote in an email to The Tribune. “I have always put the safety of our residents first. That was my job. It is also what I love. That is what I promised to do when I became a firefighter.”
Roberts was in charge of 120 employees when he was fire chief and the department is staffed by part-time firefighters. “It makes things very different from a management perspective than if you had full-time employees,” he wrote. “Bluffdale was small. It ran differently than most others.” For instance, firefighters were in charge of doing the upkeep of the station.
The duties he had to fulfill in 2020 are now distributed among four employees, Roberts said.
“Bluffdale is a wonderful place where many staff members have family who work or have worked for the city,” Roberts added about the nepotism accusations. “I always stayed within budget. I ran my own business for many years as well. I have a great deal of experience with staying under budget. We always had the coverage we needed for the station, and I have always stood to protect the crews and the residents we serve in Bluffdale.”
If Roberts is elected mayor, he said, he plans to develop greater transparency, supporting city employees and safeguarding low taxes.
A key item in his agenda is updating Bluffdale’s infrastructure to keep up with the city’s growth. With projects such as the Olympia development coming to nearby Herriman, he said, it’s important to have better services and a plan to protect roads.
Roberts believes it’s essential to generate more retail growth to have the tax base to pay for better services and grow the city’s public safety departments.
Accusations about his opponent
Roberts’ opponent, Natalie Hall, the city’s emergency manager, was investigated by the city twice and cleared both times.
One of the complaints was about her compensation. Hall made $29.51 an hour in her position, which a complaint said was inconsistent with Connie Jones’ salary, the former emergency program manager. Jones made $14,400 a year and $20 an hour while training Hall.
The results of that investigation found the salary was appropriate.
“Natalie’s position was hard to compare, as she ‘wears many hats’ so to speak,” the investigation states. “While her title is Emergency Program Manager, she has also been assigned much of the city’s communication responsibilities, since she does hold a bachelor of science degree in marketing.”
Another complaint alleged that Hall campaigned while attending a conference in St. George as a city employee. Investigators found no evidence that Hall used her office or position for her political enhancement.
“I’m grateful that the city was thorough in the investigation regarding my salary and regarding campaigning,” Hall said. “I look forward to working and serving Bluffdale as the mayor.”
Hall has been in her emergency manager role for seven years, planning alongside residents, businesses, schools and churches for all kinds of emergencies.
As mayor, she said, she would try to keep the momentum of the city’s recent growth. She aims to work with planning departments, staff, council members, residents and landowners to recruit more businesses to Bluffdale.
Growth, transportation and economic development are all linked, she said, and as soon as projects for roads like Porter Rockwell Boulevard are completed, the city should look at other 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. But mostly, Hall said, “we really need the tax base to be increased to be able to afford our public safety through businesses.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.