Cohanzie fire chief dismissed for sexual harassment
Waterford ― The chief of Cohanzie Fire Company has been dismissed from his position following a suspension due to a sexual harassment complaint made by a member of the department.
Chris Bonanno was notified in a letter on March 10 of his dismissal as volunteer chief of Cohanzie Fire Company by Director of Fire Services Michael Howley.
“I have thoroughly considered your work history and volunteerism with this Town, which is lengthy, in making this decision,” Howley wrote, “but you, Chief, were expected to set the standard and you let this Department and our community down.”
Bonanno is also employed by the town’s public works department, but his dismissal letter from the volunteer department did not mention his employment status.
Bonanno was placed on paid administrative leave on Feb. 15 from his position as volunteer chief of the Cohanzie Fire Company and his job with the town’s public works department in response to a complaint made against him by an emergency medical technician with the town’s ambulance service and a volunteer member of the department.
Howley wrote that Bonanno admitted to the alleged act in an interview during his investigation that violated the town’s written “Discriminatory Harassment and Violence Prevention policy” and the fire department’s “Professional Relations” and “Code of Conduct” policies.
Bonanno, as stated in the dismissal letter, also admitted that he was aware his conduct violated those policies.
Howley wrote that the town has zero tolerance for Bonanno’s conduct. He added that Bonanno’s actions are an embarrassment to both Bonanno and the town.
Bonanno declined to comment Wednesday.
Cohanzie Fire Department referred initial requests for comment to town Fire Marshal Peter Schlink, who did not return calls this week.
First Selectman Rob Brule and Director of Public Works Gary Schneider offered no comments on the incident nor Bonanno’s current employment status.
Bonanno’s name has been removed from the fire services page on the town’s website. There is no longer a chief for Cohanzie listed, only a main number.
Howley said Wednesday that the Waterford Fire Department oversees all of the volunteer departments and has leadership positions to handle the fire services in town. He declined to comment directly on Bonanno’s status, but said Cohanzie will most likely promote Deputy Chief John Mariano to the chief’s position.
In a letter dated Feb. 15, Director of Human Resources Christine Walters notified Bonanno of his paid administrative leave and said she would conduct an investigation, as the complaint against Bonanno was “in direct violation of our policies against workplace harassment.”
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Day received copies of all complaints brought against Bonanno, all discipline records and all union grievances filed on his behalf. A second request was required to obtain a copy of Bonanno’s notice of dismissal.
The EMT, whose name has been redacted from all requested documents, said the incident occurred in the Cohanzie Fire Company’s kitchen on Feb. 11 at approximately 1 p.m.
The EMT wrote that Bonanno “aggressively smacked” the complainant’s butt while the person had bent over to grab lunch from the refrigerator. The EMT wrote that they immediately closed the refrigerator and left the common area and was “in disbelief and uncomfortable with the line he had just crossed.”
Bonanno followed the employee while laughing and said, “You know you love me don’t act like you don’t,” and forced the EMT into a bear hug. The EMT said Bonanno has asked the victim out to dinner, banquets and concerts in the past and spent a portion of the Feb. 11 shift making comments about how the person did not accept his invitations and how, “I don’t love him,” which the EMT said happens every time they are at the fire house together.
The EMT wrote that they didn’t address the incident in the moment, but it continued to affect them while at their full-time job that evening, so they then decided to speak up that evening to Director of Operations for Waterford Ambulance Mark Greczkowski.
“I already tried to limit my contact with Chris on a regular basis because of the constant commentary regarding dates, but yesterday I felt disrespected and violated in my work place by someone I thought I could trust in that setting,” the EMT wrote in the Feb. 12 incident report.
“I am also a member of that fire dept and it’s frustrating that this behavior came from my chief officer leaving me to feel like I am expected to tolerate it,” the victim added.
A co-worker also filed an incident report as a witness on Feb. 14, though their name had also been redacted. The co-worker said they were doing schoolwork in the day room when they heard an audible slap, followed by, “Why would you do that?” from the EMT. They also said they heard Bonanno say “you know you love me.” The witness said they did not see anything and could only hear the incident and said they were made fully aware of the incident the following day.
Bonanno previously served a one-day unpaid suspension in 2021 for two incidents as a public works employee. He rear-ended a privately-owned vehicle with a garbage truck in December 2020, causing $17,500 in damage to the car. In January 2021, he backed into a parked car while picking up Christmas trees in a town vehicle.
He was also required to take a driver training course as a result.
A union grievance was filed on Bonanno’s behalf, stating that “no progressive discipline was given,” and believed the initial punishment was too harsh. Bonanno said the incident should have led to verbal and written warning with the included driver training.
Bonanno received a written warning on Feb. 2 of this year for driving a dump truck with the bed raised and hitting the garage door supports. Only minor damage was reported.
Bonanno received three previous verbal warnings in 2013, 2017 and 2021 for failing to follow a direct order, for being late to work and for improper customer service, according to town personnel documents.